The upside of putting off learning how to cook until your mid-fifties is that you can easily pick up the basics and almost immediately begin to produce really good food - without ever having to learn the rules. Case in point; inspired by a gift of fabulous home-made kaak bi haleeb (milk cookies), I blithely set out to create a cookie similar to the classic Lebanese treat.
Certainly, had I understood that I would be toying with history (a recipe for kaak is recorded in the Wulsa, the much-revered 13th century Arab culinary guide), I would have been intimidated.
Had I understood that I would be baking bread – not cookies – I would never even have attempted it. To my ear “cookie batter” just sounds so much more do-able than “bread dough,” but this recipe is so easy that the hardest part is waiting out the six hours of resting time.
Once you sink your teeth in one you’ll know what I mean; each cookie is actually a tiny sweet roll, with the subtle resistance of its crisp crust giving way to a chewy creaminess reminiscent of a sweet bagel.
I did a lot of research before coming up with this recipe. My (very) limited experience with bread-making has always involved a bread machine, and my (even more) limited exposure to Middle Eastern fare has usually involved a take-out menu. So, armed with nothing more than my library card, internet access, and the enthusiastic support of somerville kitchen, I began my quest for an easy recipe that would produce delicious and digestible, if not-at-all-authentic, kaak.
After much reading and many memorable taste tests, I came up with this Almond Cookie version, which features 100% whole wheat flour augmented with flax meal and extra virgin olive oil to boost the fibre and Omega-3 content, while retaining some of the traditional ingredients that have come to characterize Middle Eastern baking: mahlab seeds, mastic tears, rose water and orange blossom water. Don’t be intimidated if these ingredients seem exotic or mysterious -- they are easy-to-use everyday items in many Mediterranean kitchens and are readily available at any Middle Eastern market.
Below you'll find:
(a) basic recipe ingredients
(b) dough preparation instructions
(b) notes on the not-so-common ingredients.
Tune in tomorrow for the cooking instructions of three delicious versions: Plain Cookies, Almond Crunch Cookies and Hi-Test Cherry-Almond Crunch Cookies. Yes, make them all. This recipe yields nine dozen cookies (36 plain, 36 Almond Crunch, 36 Hi-Test Cherry-Almond Crunch). These cookies freeze beautifully, but why would you? Kept on the counter in a tightly sealed container they will stay fresh and scrumptious for several days ... or until they’re gone.
Basic Recipe Ingredients
1.5 cups slivered almonds
2 tsp whole mahlab seeds*
0.5 tsp mastic tears**
0.5 tsp mastic tears**
2 cups sugar, divided
1 Kg 100% whole wheat flour (about 7 cups)
2 Tbsp flax meal (optional)
1.5 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1.5 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 Tbsp baking powder
1.5 tsp of each lemon zest and orange zest
1 Tbsp instant yeast
1 cup butter, melted and cooled
2 Tbsp extra virgin oil (optional)
1 Tbsp of each of rose*** and orange blossom water****
2 cups milk
1/2 cup dried tart cherries
1/4 cup orange flavoured liqueur
Dough Preparation Instructions
Gently toast 1 ½ C slivered almonds in a dry pan over med-low heat, stirring often, until golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove from pan, let cool and coarsely chop. Set aside ½ C chopped almonds. In a coffee or spice grinder, process remaining 1 C chopped almonds into a fine meal, and place meal in a very large mixing bowl.
With the same grinder, process the whole mahlab seeds, mastic tears , and ¼ C of the sugar into a fine powder and add to almond meal.
Add flour, flax meal (if using), baking powder, lemon and orange zest, nutmeg, and yeast, and combine well.
In a small bowl, mix together the cooled melted butter, remaining 1 ¾ C sugar, extra virgin olive oil (if using), rose water and orange blossom water, combine well. Stir the melted butter mixture into the flour mixture.
Stir in milk in three additions, combining well, and gently knead the mixture a few times until it forms a soft, smooth ball of dough.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm, draft-free spot (two good options: atop the fridge or under the hood lamp on the stove top) for six hours.
While the dough is resting, pour liqueur over dried cherries, and let soak. If you prefer to avoid alcohol, the cherries may be soaked in the same amount of either orange juice or water.
Notes on the not-so-common Ingredients
*Mahlab (aka mahleb, ,mahlep, mahlepi, St. Lucie’s cherry): the husked kernel of a black cherry native to the Mediterranean. Fragrant, sweet, nutty; tastes of almonds and cherries with a slightly bitter undertone. Widely used in bread and pastry-making in the Middle East, Turkey and Greece. Best to buy whole and grind immediately prior to use. Priced similarly to other whole spices such as nutmeg, allspice or cinnamon.
**Mastic tears (aka aza, gum mastic, mastika, tears of Chios): fragrant, brittle droplets of resin from the Mastic tree, traditionally harvested on the Greek Isle of Chios. Recommended as a digestive aid by Hippocrates, mastic tears are an essential ingredient of toothpaste and chewing gum (chew = masticate). In the kitchen, mastic enhances the chewy texture of baked goods and the creaminess of ice cream and puddings (it’s so rich and yummy tasting I now make my rice pudding with mastic rather than eggs). You must ask the shopkeeper for mastic, as it is rather pricey and kept behind the counter in most shops. Expect to pay around $1.00 for each tiny cellophane envelope. Trust me, it’s worth every penny.
***Rose water (aka maward, golab, gulaba jala, eau de rose): as the name suggests, the distilled water extracted from roses, particularly Damascus roses. A Halal substitute for alcoholic ingredients (such as vanilla extract) in many recipes, rose water lends its signature aroma and delicate flavour to lokum (Turkish Delight), gulab jamun, sweet lassi, rice pudding, etc. Very affordable at around two dollars a bottle, a little rose water goes a long way.
***Orange blossom water (aka ma’el zhar, anthonero, orange flower water): distilled from bitter orange blossoms, common in Middle Eastern and Moroccan dishes both sweet and savoury, and a traditional ingredient in French madeleines. As with rose water, inexpensive and powerful.
Thank you Guest Correspondent Shatoura. Tune back in tomorrow for the three cookies' prepration and baking instructions.