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Wisdom You Knead: What I Learned Baking With My Mother

Baking with my mother taught me how to love what we create—and when to let go.

An illustration depicting a mother and daughter kneading dough at the kitchen counter
Serious Eats / Kristina Closs

When I am in middle school, my mom confirms that I am, in fact, a baked good.

“Children are like bread,” she explains to me one night at the kitchen table as we talk about the kind of person I am and the kind of person I will become. “You can choose which ingredients you will add to the mix when they are younger and there is still time to shape them after the dough has risen. But once you put them in the oven, it’s difficult to do much else.”

“You’re already in the oven,” she tells me. “It’s all you now.”

Growing up, my mother was the director in the kitchen, but she always invited me to contribute to her culinary production, especially during the monthly occurrence of what we called Baking Day. Pounding hazelnuts with a small brass hammer for chocolate chip hazelnut cookies; folding the yogurt and semolina flour together for namoura, a semolina cake soaked in orange blossom syrup with sliced almonds on top; braiding four elastic strands of dough into loaves of Swiss bread. These were some of my small but essential tasks when it came time every several weeks to replenish our pantry and freezer with nourishments and treats. 

By the time I wake up on one such Baking Day, my mom is already zipping around the kitchen in her floral cotton house dress, the one with pockets. Framed by a jet black pixie, her fair cheeks (which she often describes as “tahini” colored) are flush from activity. Her mug of Earl Grey with a splash of milk is almost empty, and the determined look on her face has my nine-year-old self sitting up straighter in expectation. She butters me the last slice of raisin bread and pours me a cup of milk with a splash of tea. As I eat my breakfast, we go over the plan. She consults her yellowing spiral recipe notebook, confirming steps under her breath as she flips between pages of her Arabic script and pasted-in photocopies from old magazines. 

Image of the author's mother's recipe book overlaid with illustrations of cookies
Serious Eats / Kristina Closs; Photograph by Natalie Jabbar

I watch as she kneads dough briskly with her pale, veiny knuckles. This dough will become triangle pastries stuffed with sautéed spinach, onions, and sumac, known as fatayer, and manakeesh, hand-sized pizzas painted with olive oil and za’atar that my mother gets from Palestine via a local grocer.

My most important job during all of this is to pay attention and absorb as she narrates each step of the process. Although my mother had a tendency to turn many experiences into a classroom, I had learned from girlhood that the kitchen was at the heart of Najat’s School of Life.   

“Natalie, always remember to roast the nuts before you put them in the batter.”

“This is how I learned to cook from my grandmother, Natalie.”

“Don’t forget: you’re in charge, not the spatula.”

The smell of cookies, bread, and roasting nuts begins traveling through the house. “Natalie, did you close the bedroom doors?” my mother will inevitably ask, reminding me of her conviction that kitchen smells belong in the kitchen.

Each time she slides something in or out of the oven, she notes the time on a piece of paper stuck to the fridge with a magnet. Nothing will be burned under her watch. 

An old family photo of the author and her mother in the kitchen with cookie graphics overlaid
Serious Eats / Kristina Closs. Photograph courtesy of Natalie Jabbar

Hours and dozens of trays later, we sit down to enjoy the labors of our day. Before she raises anything to her mouth, she will hold it gently for a moment, her eyeglasses slipping down her nose as she rotates it in front of her. When I laugh at her, she tells me she has the right to admire her creations. Sometimes I catch her looking at me the same way. 

When I moved off to college, I could only participate in a Baking Day about once a year. A decade later, my mom moved in with me, and we became roommates for a while before becoming the neighbors we are now. When we were apart,  my mother’s dough metaphor developed into something of a touchstone. “I’ve been in the oven for a while now,” I’d say to myself when I needed reassurance on why I can’t stop fussing over some small details like writing the perfect message in a birthday card or un-seeing a tiny, stubborn oil stain from a blouse. I reminded myself of it when I met my partner in our thirties and some of our habits felt intractable. Would he ever get excited about cleaning? Would I ever learn to be spontaneous? I bring the dough metaphor up with my mom when I’m picking up groceries for her and she tells me to check the expiration date and get her the newest product, the package in the back. Every. Single. Time. “You’re pretty much a crouton now,” I joked once. She didn’t disagree.

On other days, I wrestle with my mother’s notion, dismissing it as an unyielding view from a former early childhood teacher who of course believes that childhood is the foundational time in an individual’s life. Can’t I still evolve as the years pass? Have I really not fundamentally changed since I was a young girl standing at my mother’s elbow as she measured cup after cup of flour?

A photo of the author's mothers cookies with illustrations of the cookies overlaid
Serious Eats / Kristina Closs; Photograph courtesy of Natalie Jabbar

“Don’t worry,” I now remember her saying, “there’s always time to add a little egg wash in between rounds or some sesame seeds or jam once you’re out.”'

I am now nearly the same age my mother was when I was growing in her womb—a fully-baked 35-year-old. Only recently have I realized that what she was really sharing with her bread analogy was her personal parenting philosophy.

For my entire childhood, she poured her stories, her quirks, her pain, her strength, and her joy into me—her only child—folding each piece together with precision, vitality, and care. She gave me the freedom to rise and take shape in the world, knowing she had given me all the ingredients she had in her pantry, with all the love she brought to every Baking Day. Her metaphor was never about the making and baking of the dough; it was about trusting her work and then letting go.

Tonight, my mom and I sit at her kitchen table together, drinking tea and eating her homemade ma’moul—semolina shortbread cookies filled with dates or nuts and dusted with powdered sugar. I remember how each cookie fell from the intricate wooden Damascene mold that she would press the dough into before thwacking it against the granite counter, and I remember how I used to put my small hand out to catch each one.

Photo of the author's mother making cookies on the counter, overlaid with illustrations of cookies
Serious Eats / Kristina Closs; Photograph courtesy of Natalie Jabbar

These cookies are the only thing she made this morning, her knuckles now swollen with arthritis. I tell her about my week, the projects I’m working on, the meals I’m creating, the friends I’ve gathered. She holds the cookie mid-bite, as she always did, but this time looks past it to my face. In her quick glance I see both pride and a flicker of admiration. She is proud of the adult I’ve become with the ingredients she has given me, her most cherished dough.