• What happens when your sister calls for emergency cooking lessons during lockdown? (Supplied)Source: Supplied
His sister needed help cooking during lockdown. So Kepos & Co's Michael Rantissi taught her to make tahini cake via his mobile phone.
Lee Tran Lam

24 Jul 2020 - 10:31 AM  UPDATED 24 Jul 2020 - 10:31 AM

"Michael, I'm stuck at home with my two kids and my husband and I'm worried they're going to starve."

Chef Michael Rantissi remembers his sister Grace telling him this over the phone back in March. She was sending out a culinary distress signal from Tel Aviv, as the Israeli city went into lockdown.

His sister has many impressive qualities: she successfully runs an accounting firm with 300 employees and is "remarkably intelligent", says Rantissi, who runs Sydney's Kepos Street Kitchen and Kepos & Co.

But cooking is not one of her strengths. "She is someone who can actually burn water, this is how bad she is," he says.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they'd talked about doing cooking classes. Now, as she faced a culinary emergency in Israel – with limited pantry supplies and no one to turn to – Rantissi offered to coach her on how to turn her kitchen basics into family meals.

"We'll do a cooking class together every night, so this way we both cook the same dish at the same time," he told her. So during his dinner and her lunchtime, they connected via video-chatting apps and he guided her through entry-level cooking lessons.

“As an adult, you rarely connect with kids over the phone. You need a time for it to happen and COVID created the time."

In Tel Aviv, the lockdown was more restrictive than in Australia – Grace and her family couldn't leave the house, which meant she had to level out her dough with a roll of cling film, because she didn't have a rolling pin. And sometimes her pantry raids led to 'interesting' culinary choices.

"My sister Grace put tinned corn on the pizza with cheese and salami," he says. The chef classifies that decision as "creative" but "horrifying".

"We'll do a cooking class together every night."

It also meant Rantissi had to find a culinary use for whatever she could excavate from the fridge or pantry. So when all she had left was frozen chicken, pasta, preserved cream and a suspicious-looking tin of mushrooms, the chef had to guide her into making this combination somehow edible. Turning that into an actual dinner was "one of the most humiliating things I've had to do" in nearly 30 years of professional cooking, Rantissi jokes. 

Because his sister's skills were "non-existent" ("she's never ever baked in her entire life"), the chef started his cooking lessons with two simple cake recipes that her kids could also participate in. Word soon spread along the family grapevine in Tel Aviv and events escalated like a family sitcom. Soon, Rantissi's many siblings, nieces and nephews were demanding to be invited to these virtual cooking lessons.

"Why am I missing out on all of this?" asked his older brother Jerry.

So the chef found himself virtually instructing his four siblings (Christine, Grace, Jerry and Tony) and their children (all 10 of them!) how to stretch dough into pizza. His mother – who was already an excellent cook (and had taught Rantissi well) – even joined in, so she wasn't missing out. 

"On one stage, I had five different screens and I was ripping my hair out, trying to explain to people on different levels of cooking, what the hell they're actually doing."

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Rantissi chose to keep things simple, demonstrating how one basic dough could easily be stretched into pizza or baked into focaccia. It helped that these were kid-friendly recipes, too.

In Sydney, Rantissi huddled over the iPhone screen and beamed out lessons on how to make hummus, falafel, churros and meatballs from his kitchen bench.

He says seeing his sister smile – in utter disbelief – as she mastered hummus and falafel was a cooking-class highlight.

"She did not believe she was capable," he says.

The children especially enjoyed the cake-making lessons. There was the apple cake they baked, because it was simple and they happened to have the ingredients on hand.

Ditto the tahini cake, which just required hand-whisking and no fancy equipment – so was the perfect lockdown lesson for him to begin with. His family already had the key ingredients – tahini, eggs, flour, orange juice – at home, too.

"They loved it," he says.

Michael Rantissi especially enjoyed baking with his nieces.

For Grace's children, it was a momentous first. "Because they never ever got to bake a cake with my sister [before]," he says. It was also a way for them to bond with their uncle in Australia – and his wife, Kristy. His 8-year-old niece Lillian, even dressed up especially for Kristy, whenever their lessons took place.

Lillian also turned out to be the MVP baker – beating her 41-year-old mum's cake-creating efforts.

As the lockdowns lifted, both here and in Tel Aviv, the virtual cooking classes came to a stop. They might resume again in the future, Rantissi hopes.

The chef especially enjoyed baking with his nieces and nephews – and steering the conversation away from the usual "how was school?" territory.

"As an adult, you rarely connect with kids over the phone," he says. "You need a time for it [to happen] and COVID created the time."

With bonus tahini cake on the side.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

Tahini and sesame teacake

Serves 8 – 10

I like using a bundt or kugelhopf cake tin with this recipe – it gives the cake a nice 'nana' look.  But you can just as easily use a 24cm round cake tin. You can serve it with a dollop of natural yoghurt or enjoy it with a cup of mint and lemon tea.

  • 4 tbsp tahini for brushing, plus 200 g extra
  • 5 tbsp sesame seeds for coating plus 2 tablespoons extra
  • 3 eggs
  • 300 g caster sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthways and seeds scraped
  • 190 ml light extra virgin olive oil
  • 240 ml orange juice
  • 280 g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C.  Brush the sides of a kugelhopf or fluted ring (bundt) cake tin with 4 tablespoons of tahini and sprinkle with 5 tablespoons of sesame seeds. The oily tahini will help the cooked cake to slide out easily.
2. Put the eggs, sugar and vanilla seeds in a large bowl and mix using a wooden spoon.  Slowly add the oil, stirring. Add the orange juice and stir to combine. Add 200 g tahini and mix well. 
3. Sift the flour and baking powder over the wet ingredients and then mix until just combined. Do not over mix. Add the extra 2 tablespoons of sesame seeds and fold in. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 50 minutes, or until golden and firm.
4. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 10 minutes.  Turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely. 

Recipe from Falafel For Breakfast by Michael Rantissi and Kristy Frawley (Murdoch Books, $49.99)

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