It’s nice to know that some things never change. When the late afternoon breeze breaks the sun’s monopoly, it has always been time for afternoon tea. The tea is never served alone but with something small to nibble on- biscuits, tea sandwiches or like in the Middle East, ka’aks.
Ka’aks are simple sesame rings but hidden within them are the aromatics of yesterday’s spice caravans and the food of Caliphs. Most people see them as the cheapest of cookies, sold by the kilo at the shuk and not the type to present to guests. The commercial variety often lacks the very ingredient that makes these so special- mahlab, or ground cherry pits. Other spices are also used, most notably black nigella seeds, cardamom fennel, cumin, coriander and mastic, distinguishing these cookies from the ordinary.
In Medieval times ka’aks referred to a round or ring shaped cookie and were usually made using sugar or honey.
“Grind starch and sift. Boil honey until it takes consistency and becomes brittle and feed it with starch. Then make it into ka’k and throw them one by one into sesame oil while it is boiling. If they rise, good, if not add starch. Then when you have fried them, throw them in lukewarm honey.”
Excerpt from The Book of Familiar Foods (Kitab Wasf al-At’ima al Mu’tada) finished in 1373 (Medieval Arab Cookery, M. Rodinson, A.J. Arberry and C. Perry)
I personally love the casual attitude to baking in Medieval Baghdad. Ka’aks evolved significantly throughout the years but in large part retained its round shape. There are a large variety of ka’aks found in the North Africa and the Middle East, from soft breads to brittle biscuits, some of which are illustrated in Joumana’s lovely blog, Taste of Beirut.
Based on a recipe from Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck. I used much less anise seed in my version and used olive oil and milk instead of vegetable oil like Joumana’s.
1/2 kg flour (about 4 cups flour)
2 teaspoons dry yeast
1 flat teaspoon aniseed
1 flat teaspoon ground mahlab (ground cherry pits)
1 flat teaspoon ground coriander seeds
1 flat teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1/2 olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, whisked
1/2 cup sesame seeds
Mix the flour, dry yeast and spices in a mixing bowl. Add the milk and olive oil. Add water slowly just until the dough comes together, you may not have to use all of it. Knead for 10 minutes or until the dough is soft, smooth and elastic. Cover the bowl and let stand at room temperature until the dough doubles in size. Preheat oven to 200°Celsius. Punch down the dough and divide into two. Roll out each piece of dough into a long snake and cut 1 inch pieces (about 15 grams each). Roll each piece out to about 10 cm and make a ring. Dip one side in egg and then into the sesame seeds. Lay out on parchment paper with the sesame facing up. Bake at 200 for about 20 minutes, reduce heat to 150 and bake for another 40 minutes. Check to see if the cookies have dried out but do not burn on top. If the cookies become too brown but are still soft, reduce heat. The cookies should be crispy.
These cookies are stored in an airtight tin.
Delights from the Garden of Eden, Nawal Nasrallah
Aromas of Aleppo, Poopa Dweck