Brigitte Zabak’s career path reads like a beautifully varied patchwork quilt: After earning a master's in social work, she worked for several elected politicians, then did freelance writing coverage of music and festivals, and currently spreads joy with her home-baked Middle Eastern- and nostalgia-inspired sweets.
Born and raised in Houston, with parents who had immigrated from Ramallah, Palestine, Zabak was raised on Arab foods that were often prepared by her mom or elders in the family. Towards 2008, she began to realize that not many next-generation family members knew how to cook these same foods. Although places like Phoenicia and Sweet Factory purveyed similar Middle Eastern sweets, Zabak craved the flavors that she was brought up with.
Zabak began baking in college
“I couldn’t afford to get friends gifts, so I baked cookies — which ended up being more expensive, but I always had a love for it,” said Zabak.
Baking was always something she had wanted to do, but that deviated from her career goals, so it was relegated to a hobby. However, after several different career iterations, Zabak decided to give baking a try. She began a food blog called Zeyt and Za’atar, using it as a platform to begin working through recipes written in Arabic in a falling-apart notebook from her mom. With translation help from her aunt and another cookbook, she taught herself how to cook heritage family recipes and began sharing recipes and stories online, which quickly grew in popularity.
“With baking, you never see a sad person eating a cookie. I’m hoping some way I can make baking mean something. I see the way that my friends and strangers react to my passion for baking.”
Zabak churns out more than 20 types of products from her home (enabled by the Texas Cottage Food Law), spanning a range of Middle Eastern-inspired baked goods spiked with pistachio, orange blossom and spices as well as comfort sweets such as cereal cookies inspired by Saturday morning cartoon-watching and cereal-eating nostalgia. For those who spot items on the Yalla Sweets instagram that may not be on the regular menu, Zabak welcomes off-menu orders by special request.
The name for Yalla Sweets originated from the meaning of yalla in Arabic — “get a move on, let’s go,” according to Zabak — plus the perfect melding of “y’all” from her Houston roots.
“I was thinking of all sorts of different things — initially, I wanted to focus specifically on Middle Eastern desserts,” said Zabak. “I wanted to eat the stuff that I never got to eat. I wanted to represent my people and the Palestinian cookies.”
Zabak spent a year teaching herself techniques, taking classes and perfecting recipes like “S” cookies, or ghraybeh, a type of butter shortbread that her mom and aunt used to make for her.
“If done right, they simply melt in your mouth,” said Zabak. “Every person who makes them has a different twist to them, and they took a long time to master.”
One of her favorites is her remake of the circus animal cookie — made with mini cookie cutters, they’re an intense labor of love that requires making the dough from scratch, rolling and cutting each individual cookie, then dipping and sprinkling each cookie after baking. She makes these cookies in all different shapes appropriate for Christmas, Valentine’s Day, baby showers or other occasions.
Her coconut cornflake crunch cookie is another favorite.
“It’s unassuming,” she says. “People who usually hate coconut still like it because coconut isn’t a big part of it.”
She also makes a popular Nutella brownie, and people tell her that her coconut macaroon is the best cookie they’ve ever eaten. For those more unsure about Arabic desserts, Zabak recommends the namoura, which is a soft semolina cake soaked in a citrus simple syrup. While namoura is typically made in a jellyroll pan, Zabak does a bite-size version and she recommends these as a good foray into Arabic desserts.
Her favorite cookie that no one ever orders?
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“I love my pistachio cookie — it’s like a snowball with pistachios, cinnamon, orange zest and a secret ingredient.”
For a slightly healthier splurge, she also makes an almost-vegan cookie with a base that’s similar to halaweh (also known as halva), a sesame seed paste mixed with sugar.
“My menu is a great representation of my life. I’ve had a very diverse career between politics and music and writing and social work, but everything kind of connects and the cookies are the exact same way,” said Zabak. “It’s all subtlety of flavor and it all came from experimenting. I’m trying to be the best human being that I can by serving you something that tastes good and is made with love. Each one has a story and I urge people to give it a chance.”