A Muslim woman’s quest for ensuring halal ingredients while baking


One of Yousef's popular cakesTooties Treats: Saira Yousef

Saira Yousef identifies as a Pakistani but was born and raised in England. She moved from the United Kingdom to United States when she met her husband many years ago while doing an internship in Chicago. Her husband is Palestinian and together they have two children, Ameer and Ameera. Little did Yousef know that her life would take a turn by becoming a self-taught artist.

“Growing up I was never much of an artist person. I hated art class, I always thought it was a waste of time and never appreciated it. Of course, my thoughts are completely different. My elder sister has always been extremely artistic in her drawings and then make-up which is what she took up as a career, a fantastic makeup artist. For my stick men were as far as I would go with art and drawing capabilities,” Yousef recollects.

Her son’s nickname is Tootie and her business was born shortly after she had an encounter with her children in search for halal cakes. “My close friends and I were trying to think of names and Tootie’s Treats was perfect because I did start my business because of my children. I wanted to bake from scratch with the best quality of ingredients and learn.” Yousef says. She tells us how there was a lot of failures along the way but she learned from them and that is how Tootie’s Treats was born.

When asking Yousef how she made her cakes, Yousef tells us how she surprises herself with every cake she designs. “I am proud of how far I have come on this journey.

I use a lot of inspiration from textures around me, nature and other inspiring cake artists. Anything cool I see I think oh wow that would make a phenomenal cake. I guess you can say the art grew from inside me, from something I always thought I could never do or create to just trying and not giving up and many, many exhausting days. It’s all helped me grow.

“So I started baking my children’s cakes for their birthdays and starting wondering into the scary world of “fondant”. I hated the taste of fondant but I really liked the nice clean look it gave to the cakes. Yousef discovered a lot of fondant was not always permissible to eat since it contained ingredients that were not halal.

“Halal is important to me as a Muslim. halal meat is made halal by the way the animal was living, in an open area where they are free to roam, also in what they eat, healthy food, and lastly the way they are slaughtered, making sure they feel little to no pain with the sharpest tools by mentioning God’s name upon the slaughter. The blood of the animal is left to be drained and so this is the healthiest of ways to eat meat,” explained Yousef. She further adds how pork is forbidden for Muslims which is why she goes to great lengths to provide pork-free ingredients.

As Yousef saw issues with halal in mainstream cakes and the lack of options available, she decided to search up recipes to make her own. “I failed a few times but I found the perfect recipe that worked for me but that included white marshmallows. Those were hard to find because I only eat halal and most of my clients at the time were Muslim and a lot of Muslims practice eating halal only. So that was definitely one of my biggest struggles,” Yousef adds.

While halal marshmallows may be more costly than just regular marshmallows, Yousef is feels good about her product and proud that she can say “it’s ALL halal.” I like using quality ingredients. To find halal marshmallow, one needs to look at the gelatin source. She often gets non-gelatin marshmallows from Trader’s Joes. “Yes they’re more expensive than the average marshmallows but I have no choice! They do taste delicious though!”

However, marshmallows and fondant are not the only things that one needs worry about if you want to abide by Islamic principles. Avoiding alcohol within cakes is also very critical. “In certain baked goods that require rum, I use apple juice. In other recipes, instead of vodka, I use lemon extract,” Yousef explains alternatives.

One also needs to be aware of other ingredients that may deemed as harmless but in fact can be problematic for Muslims. For example, many cakes have glycerine which is used for a lot of icing. Many times, glycerine is mostly made of animal products. To avoid this, Yousef uses her own concoction. “I use Swiss meringue buttercream that has a less sweet taste and it’s creamier. This generally is made from egg whites, powdered sugar, salt, butter and vanilla extract. In the past, I used glycerine that serves as a moisturizer for my fondant. But I made sure it was a vegetable source.”

Yousef also tells us that for cakes, “you have to be careful because shortening can also have animal products and that not is always permissible.” Yousef instead Crisco vegetable shortening. She also mentions that it is important to ensure there is no lard in any baked goods.

What was interesting and something that not many think about in desserts include the cherry on the top. Many times, that also contains alcohol. For Yousef and other Muslims, that is a big no go. Instead, she will simply opt out completely and not use the cherries. “I tell my customers if there is a need, I will use frozen organic cherries from a place like Costco,” Yousef informs us.

Besides ingredients, what some may not consider is cross contamination of utensils along with pots and pans with non-halal items. This can be avoided if there is a separate kitchen used altogether. Since Yousef abides by Islamic standards, that is not a concern for her. However, she still has a separate area where she dedicates to just making her cakes and other delectable desserts.

While some may be okay with not using halal ingredients, for Yousef it is a matter of her principles and therefore she avoids it at all costs. “I am going to be liable on the Day of Judgement to God. I cannot live with taking shortcuts. So yes, I do go to great lengths but I have pride in doing so!” She exclaims.

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I write about culture, politics, parenting, religion, and health. My work has been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, Vanity Fair, Vox and Prism Reports among others.

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