Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Sweet and the Salty:

Cookies of the Medieval Arab World

with Modern Adaptations

Follow the advice of the medieval Arab gourmets: Keep your taste buds perked up while snacking on sweet cookies by alternating them with salty ones.   

Growing up in Baghdad, I remember that our favorite snack-time was in the afternoon, when Mom would summon us all to her tray of tea and goodies, typical of which would be an assortment of the flavorful aromatic sweet homemade cookies of kleicha (see my post), some stuffed with sugar and walnut and some with dates, and yet others stuffed with cheese and parsley. Along with these, would also be the purchased sugar-less sesame-encrusted dunking cookies of ka'ak, as well as baqsam (biscotti) and churek (see my post). A perfect harmony of flavors and textures of which we couldn't have enough and wished the afternoon would last for ever.   

The famous ka'ak bakery of Al-Seyyid in downtown Baghdad

A Bit of History:

Of the more than 300 varieties of breads the ancient Mesopotamians of Iraq knew, a good number of them were of the kind they called 'improved'. They were cookies, cakes and pastries variously enriched with clarified butter, dairy, beer, sweeteners, nuts, and dried fruits. The cookies were shaped into rings, pillars, turbans, crescents, hearts, heads, hands, ears, and even women's breasts. Such top quality breads were called 'kuku' in Akkadian, the ancient language of the Mesopotamians, from which the Arabic ka'k (كعك) must have derived. Mesopotamia was indeed the cradle of cookies.

And the tradition continued. The existing cookbooks of the medieval Arabo-Islamic world testify to the sophistication and popularity of cookie-making and consumption. The most prevalent were those stuffed with nuts or dates, back then called khushkananaj (خشكنانج), which resemble the ancient Mesopotamian 'qullupu' cookies, and the kleicha and ma'mul of modern times. There were also varieties of the ka'k dry cookies, sandwich cookies, glazed cookies, and there were the delicate almond cookies, sensuously called virgin's breasts. All differently infused with the aromas of rosewater and musk, seasoned with spices, and decked with nuts.

Here is the recipe for virgin's breasts:

Two versions of the cookie recipe nuhood al-adhraa' (virgin's breasts) from 14th-century كتاب وصف الاطعمة المعتادة (Book of Recipes of the Traditional Dishes), which is an augmented version of 13th-century al-Baghdadi's cookbook كتاب الطبيخ (Cookery Book) 

The same recipe in 14th-century Egyptian cookbook Kanz al-Fawa'id
"One part flour, one part clarified butter (samn), one part sugar, and one part almond. Crush them all together, knead them very well, and shape it like breasts. Water is not used. Arrange pieces in a yellow-copper tray (ṭabaq) and bake them in a brick oven (furn)." (English translation mine)

Only one recipe survived, which describes how to make salted cookies. The recipe explains that these cookies are to be offered with the sweet ones, in case the eater’s appetite dulls with having only sweet foods. Here it is:  

Recipe for aqraas mamlooha (salted cookies) from 14th-century Egyptian cookbook Kan al-Fawa'id
"Take as much as you need of flour. For each raṭl (1 pound/4 cups), use ¼ raṭl (4 ounces/½ cup) sesame oil, and enough salt to give a noticeably salty taste. Knead [the ingredients with yeast and water], and after dough rises shape it into discs as you do with khubz al-abār (cookies with spice-seeds), but make them a little bit thinner, and bake them. After they develop a golden hue (tawarrada), take them out. These cookies are offered in case the eater’s appetite dulls from having sweet foods. Therefore, they are to be served while having them." (English translation mine)  

Following are my adaptations of the two cookies, the sweet and the salty.  

Almond Kisses

(بسكت باللوز)

Makes 20 pieces

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup almond flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup oil (such as canola)

3 tablespoons rosewater
20 raisins

1. Put all the dry ingredients (the first six) in a food processor, and pulse once or twice to mix ingredients.
2. Add oil slowly through the tube, and pulse a few more times.
3. Add the rosewater, and pulse several times until the mix clumps together. Add a bit more if needed.
4. Take a walnut-size piece, press by hand into a ball and place it on a lightly oiled cookie sheet. Slightly moisten your hands with a bit of rosewater while handling the mix. Repeat with the rest of pieces. Press a raisin in the middle of each piece, and bake on the middle shelf of a preheated oven (375 F.) for 13 to 15 minutes (do not let them over bake). During the last two minutes of baking, let the cookies bake on the top shelf of the oven. 

Cheesy Cookies

(بسكت بالجبن)

Makes 26 pieces

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons dried dill weed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground aniseeds
1/4 teaspoon ground nigella seeds 
1/4 teaspoon ground dried ginger 

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1/2 cup oil (such as canola)
1/2 cup yogurt
2 eggs, divided

26 macadamia or hazelnuts nuts

chili pepper, for sprinkling, optional

1. Stir dry ingredients (first seven) in a bowl.
2. Stir in the cheese by fork or hand.
3. Beat together oil, yogurt and one egg, and pour them on the flour mix. Stir with a fork or by fingers in a circular movement at first to allow the flout to absorb the moisture, and then knead them into a medium-consistency dough.
4. Lightly flour the working space. Take some of the dough, and flatten it with a rolling pin to 1/3-inch thickness. Cut it into shapes with cookie cutters. Arrange the pieces on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Stick a macadamia nut or a hazelnut in each cookie, and sprinkle surface with chili pepper (optional). Beat the second egg and brush the pieces with it.
5. Bake on the middle shelf of a preheated oven (375 F.) for about 15 minutes. During the last two minutes of baking, let the cookies bake on the top shelf of the oven.