Baking their way to success

She chooses to walk for 45 minutes rather than spend 4 dirhams on a taxi.

She lives in a triangular sliver of a room.  No beds, just blankets.  A TV to keep the girls company while she is at work.  A bamboo roof that leaks in winter.

She knows the prices of food; she knows that a bowl of white flour costs a dirham and a quarter, precisely.  She knows because she needs to.

It is the details of poverty that make it real to me.  The contrast between what she eats, and what I can choose to eat.  The gulf between our earning capacities.  It is the details that I want to know, so I pry, I am nosy, I persistently inquire.  Really, you made how much?  50 dirhams a day?  And you worked 12 hours a day?  50 dirhams is a little under 6 dollars, it’s 4.5 euros.  For this she stood for 12 hours in the cafe, over a hot griddle, patting out the greasy dough for fried breads, one after the other, one hundred per day.

When I do hear the details, I have to let each one sink in, with all the emotions that come with it.  I am awed, I have so much respect for this woman, she is tough as nails, she has endurance.   I honor her for this.  Then I am sad, pained at this, at hearing how little her labor earns, and at the part I play in this imbalanced picture.  But most of all I am humbled by her wonderful smile, her gratitude for life’s smallest blessings, her constant mention of God, in praise and thanks, her celebrating of her children.  I think she knows that life transcends what we merely see, touch, eat and surround ourselves with.  Even as she lives with so little, she floats above it with grace and a smiling face.

I let the details drip, drip, drip into my consciousness.  I let each of them change me, just a little, propel me towards something.  What is the solution.  Do I give 1 dirham, do I give 10?  Do I solicit more on her behalf?  All this I can do, and have done.  I cannot bear to think that her girls could go to bed hungry, or not get the proper nutrition, or have the cold seep up from the floor through the blankets at night.  I know that in some countries poor people get fat because the cheap food is the fattiest.  But here they can’t even afford enough of the cheap food to make them fat.  Potatoes, white flour, sugar and oil are still precious commodities, often purchased a dirham at a time, enough for a meal.

Finally things have coalesced into a new picture, a new phase.  Fatiha and Naima, 2 of the ladies who I love dearly and have blogged about here, have started up a small baking enterprise.   They are baking to supply the small cafe at our workplace, the Center for Language & Culture.

It’s been an exciting and creative process for them, and very rewarding for me to watch unfold.  Both women have spent extensive time baking mesemman (Moroccan fried flat-bread, a staple in most cafes).  However, neither of them had baked, or even tasted, much else.  So we set about learning how to bake a few things.  They had already learned fruit tarts last year in cooking classes.  I showed them how to make chocolate chip cookies, and finally after tweaking the recipe over the course of a couple of weeks, they now have a great, easy go-to method for delicious, beautiful cookies.  In Morocco we don’t have brown sugar, which makes the cookies moist and chewy, so we’ve had to approximate the taste and texture.  I’m getting into the details here, the bakers out there can stick with me, the rest of you just scroll down if you wish.  Our dear friend and wonderful cook Khadija gave the ladies her recipe for awesome chocolate cake, and we figured out that it works really well as a cupcake.  The chocolate cupcake is one of the best-sellers, the ladies make a batch of 30, or a double batch of 60, every day.  Then a dear friend of mine, who is French, showed us an easy recipe for crepes.  Those too are a daily must (20 a day).  We stumbled on a recipe for easy chocolate pudding to fill the crepes with (ok, I’ll admit, it has cornstarch, the dreaded “thickener” that we are meant to avoid in search of “real” ingredients.  Let me tell you, the stuff tastes great, and we do not have such discerning palates around here).

Next we wanted something savory to balance out the sweet stuff, so we tried small quiches.  Those too were a big hit, but we have a problem with the crust.  We are baking them in the same pans we use for the fruit tarts, which are the kind with the pop-up bottom.  When we pour the egg/milk mixture into the crusts and bake them, the egg mixture seeps out through the crust onto the oven pan.  I think it might be our crust.  Any suggestions?

The ladies have also learned how to make a pretty tasty pizza from scratch.  Before this project, it’s safe to say that neither of them had tasted the majority of these foods.  Now they have this amazing new skill, and the confidence that goes with it.  The first week or so I was in the kitchen with them a lot.  But now that they have their core recipes down, they run their own show.  They are doing an excellent job of planning, working together, communicating, decision-making, and most of all baking from morning til night.  The baked goods are then available to the students and teachers at the center, mostly during their break times.

What’s new for me here is working without a blueprint.  Seeing potential in a situation that is not all spelled out.  I have to say I was very nervous to even start the whole thing.  What if I just got their hopes up, and then it didn’t work?  What if we lost money and got demoralized by it?  What if we couldn’t master the recipes?  What if we couldn’t actually make enough money for them to live off of?  And honestly, some of the people I shared my idea with had the same doubts.  I lost some sleep just being nervous, or I’d drive somewhere and forget where I was driving, cause my mind was busy sifting through all the details.

I’m glad I didn’t listen to the doubts.  It’s only been a couple of weeks, but already the project looks very promising.  First of all, the food is great.  In fact I want a strawberry tart right now.  Secondly, sales are going well, there is rarely anything that is not sold.  Some of the items are tricky because they need to sell the same day (crepes, tarts, quiches).  Even so things rarely go to waste.  We are starting to have regular customers.  Even though I told the ladies to view this first month as just a training period and not worry about the money just yet, it already looks like the project is financially viable, alhamdulillah.   And thirdly the ladies are totally enjoying being their own boss, for the first time ever.  One of them mentioned to me something like “Now the color has come back to our cheeks”, in reference to the fact that they feel FREE in their work.  It’s nice too because they are together, they keep each other good company, they can bring in their children if necessary.  When one of them brings her baby in, they take turns carrying him on their backs (the original Attachment Parenting, fo’ real).   And it’s all getting easier and more relaxed.  We already have plans for expansion, but I’ll leave that for another post.

These customers look happy:


30 thoughts on “Baking their way to success

  1. It’s sort of difficult for me to even put into words, how incredible you are. Not only your actions, service to the world and the way you are so thoughtful, tender and personal about it all, but the language and words themselves, so beautifully written, a cherry on top of an amazing story and an amazing you. So. Grateful.

    • I dunno, have not felt very poetic these days, but I just wanted to get this post out before it got to be “old news” and I lost this excitement. I appreciate YOUR appreciation though. I’m, as always, thankful to have you in my life.

  2. Molly says:

    Salam alaykom Nora……so great to hear the details……..may Allah give them better and give you ajr for getting the project started, ameen. I left some recipes with the ladies Saturday. One for the seven layer bars and one for the lemon bars. Maybe they would work well too. MashAllah, such a wonderful story. Great job! Love, Molly

    • Wa alaykom salam hon, and thank you for being our best customer! We tried the lemon bars and let me tell you, they didn’t last long! We have a new winner, alhamdulillah! Gotta try the 7-layer bars next.

  3. mouka says:

    I am humbled by your kindness. I really am.
    I am a fat, overeducated, pig that plays the system and makes a very good living.
    I often overlook this kind of person, thinking it is their own fault they live in such poor conditions.
    I left my humanity in the locker room. I closed my heart to such wonderful human beings. And there are so many of them.
    This lady cannot fail because her kids rely on her. She knows she can’t fail them. That’s the real source of her courage and endurance.
    Having said that. You have made a huge difference in these ladies lives. You have no idea, I will repeat again, you have no idea how big a difference your kindness and love make in the lives of these ladies.
    Thanks for reminding me that life is about sharing. About caring. About helping each other.
    You have just earned a fan and you have just humbled me beyond what you could have ever imagined.
    Words sometimes fail to express our deepest gratitude!!!!

    • Thank you Mouka for YOUR kind words, and for allowing these simple words to move you. I too am very blessed with more food and education than I can possibly use 🙂 I’ve sat around and accepted the situation I see on a daily basis for a LONG time now…but I’m finally putting my pampered brain to work thinking up some creative solutions. Thanks for supporting this project with your encouragement and positive energy.

  4. Catherine says:

    And… these ladies also give much to Nora… so it goes, round and round, giving and receiving. Thank you for seeing these women’s dignity and humanity, Nora. A god’s eye view…

  5. Maa shaa Allah this brought tears to my eyes .May Allah reward you for your faith in them and this project and setting it up .May Allah bless it so it becomes bigger than you could ever imagine .

  6. habrifaqir says:

    Assalamu alaikum
    Unfortunately, or not, this is an event which plays out daily, by many women and men, in Morocco. Insha’Allah, she and others will find a more prosperous livelihood.

  7. Krista says:

    I love following your blog. I lived in Morocco last year and even attended some classes at CLC. I know women like Fatiha and Naima, and even though I have always known that women are strong, and are the glue that hold families and societies together, I never saw it as vividly as I saw it in Morocco. It was there that the image of womens’ strength crystallized in my consciousness – as you said in your post, I absorbed the hardships and hopes that I saw, drop by drop, and my admiration for such women grew. I am SO happy to hear that the color has returned to those cheeks – women who give so much, finally getting a break, so that they might not have to worry day in and day out about how to take care of their families, and so that they can finally feel that they are more in control of their lives. Thank you, Nora, for taking the time to create opportunities where women can learn new skills, and feel proud of what they have accomplished . . .

      • MLR says:

        Hi! I replied below without reading the other posts (I’m mom to a toddler – have to cut corners to save time wherever possible. lol). Anyway, I just read the post about pre-baking the crust, and that’s what I mention below. I always pre-bake the crust a little when making quiche. Works great!

      • This is my basic pie crust that i use for everything. You can add herbs or sugar to make it sweet or savory,a little whole wheat to make it more healthful.

        3 cups flour
        1 cup vegetable oil
        1 tsp salt
        stir with fork
        one egg cracked into 1 cup measure
        2 tsp vinegar
        and fill scantly to the top with water
        I stir over the flour oil mixture because it sloshes
        mix it all together with a dinner fork
        but don’t over mix-the crust will be tough instead of flaky
        roll out between two sheets of waxed paper
        makes 3 crusts-I freeze the leftovers if I only need one crust by rolling them up in waxed paper and putting them in a plastic freezer bag.
        For quiche inspiration I’ve always used Mollie Katzens Enchanted Broccoli Forest- Amazon
        Haven’t ever had to prebake for quiches as putting the cheese rather thickly on the bottom seemed to solve the soggy crust problem. I think I saw that trick on a cooking show once
        Hope this Helps. Love your blog!

      • I’m relatively new to your blog (I started reading it after spending a few weeks in Morocco and then scouring the internet for a good, authentic bastila recipe and have been hooked ever since!) and I typically don’t comment.

        However, I am a total quiche nerd and I’ve found a couple of things that work especially well if you’re making smallish quiches for individual portions. For cupcake-sized quiches, warqa might actually work pretty well. I often use wonton wrappers or filo dough, but I’d imagine a couple of layers of warqa would work just fine. It makes for a flaky, buttery crust that also has a pretty cool presentation, especially if you don’t trim the excess.

        Thank you so much for your blog and for sharing your story and the stories of those around you. I really appreciate the opportunity to keep learning more about such a wonderful place and the people who make it special. 🙂

      • Hi Kelly, thanks for the tip! That could be a nice way to Moroccanize the quiche. thanks for reading here, you’re welcome to comment anytime!

  8. Hi Ariel, yes indeed life in Morocco is very sparse and austere compared to much of the US, it’s a good therapy for all of us to live here for some amount of time to really know this. May your time here be of benefit to you and to others through you.

  9. MLR says:

    Your story is inspiring. I may take on something similar at the ALC where we live in Fes.

    Are you baking the crust a little before adding the filling? Or maybe you’re putting too much filling in the pie shells and it’s overflowing while baking?

    BTW, I just wanted to mention another baked good that’s always a hit with my Moroccan in-laws and westerners alike: carrot cake. Again adjustments would have to be made for the brown sugar, but everything else is readily available. The icing is super easy as well with Kiri, powdered sugar, a little Alsa vanilla sugar, and a little milk.

    All the best to you. Thanks for sharing your story.

  10. Hafsa says:

    Masha’Allah Nora, May God reward you for all you’re doing for these women.
    Speaking of expanding the project…have you considered any exports yet?! You got me drooling over these yummy pictures! I’ll pay for shipping just give it a thought! 🙂

  11. Elizabeth says:

    Nora, where is the little shop set up? At the CLC? where precisely in Marrakech is that?
    Also, love the blog! You are a talented writer and an inspiration!

  12. Salam alaykoum, dear Nora
    what does it mean to many people in our islamic societies to lead a „religious“ life? Nothing but pointing fingers at women like Chayma, Nezha and all the others, who may or may not have probably made wrong decisions at a certain stage. Always with a harsh „haram!“ or „hchouma!“ on their lips.

    But Islam is so much more than just quoting passages from the Qur´an and the Sunna. It´s about giving meaning to them and this is just what you do! You offer these ladies (and their children) a real chance to live in dignity, you honor them! If there only were more Noras in this world! May Allah, the Allmighty, reward you with the highest ranks in Jannah!

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