Friday, October 12, 2007
Egyptian Spiced Date Cookies for Eid al-Fitr - a Recipe
Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim “Festival of the Breaking of the Fast” that comes at the end of Ramadan, begins tonight. In Egypt, the Eid al-Fitr celebrations traditionally last for 3 days, and Muslims throughout the country exchange gifts and don new clothing. And, as you might expect after a month of fasting, they feast.
No Egyptian Eid al-Fitr feast is complete without kahk, the headily spiced yeast cookies that are often rolled in sesame seeds or stuffed with dates or nuts before being baked and blanketed with copious amounts of powdered sugar.
It seems there are as many traditional preparations of kahk as there are villages on the Nile, and authenticity is hotly debated – much as with cassoulet in Languedoc-Rousillon Some areas hold that pleated, ring-shaped cookies, coated in sesame seeds, are the “real” kahk, while other regions insist the patterned imprint made by a specific metal stamp is the mark of legitimacy. Stuffings range from honeyed sesame seeds to ground nuts, but the sliver of anise-redolent date paste I’ve used here is my favorite version.
Rihat el Kahk is a spice mixture or essence used as part of the cookies’ seasoning in Egypt. It contains aniseed, fennel seed, mahlab, and bay leaf. Mahlab is made from ground sour cherry stones, and it lends a bitter almond fragrance to the dish. I love these cookies because they’re rich without being painfully sweet. They have a crumbly texture, and they’re intensely aromatic with cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, fennel, anise, almond, and bay. I’ve adapted my recipe to make up for my sad lack of Rihat el Kahk, so not to worry if you don’t have access to North African ingredients. Happy Eid al-Fitr!
Makes approximately 40 cookies
1 cup whole milk
3 bay leaves, fresh if possible
16 oz. unsalted butter
4 ½ cups all purpose flour
3 tsp ground aniseed
3 tsp ground fennel seed
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp ground cloves
2 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp active dry yeast
1 tsp granulated sugar
1 tsp almond extract
2 cups (about 10 oz.) pitted dates
powdered sugar for dusting
Twist or crush the bay leaves to bruise them and heat with the milk in a small saucepan until very warm – do not allow to bubble or boil. Remove from the heat, cover, and let steep for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the butter in a medium pot and heat over medium-high heat until it foams and bubbles. Continue to cook until the solids have separated to the bottom of the pan and the butter is lightly golden in color.
As the butter is cooking, whisk together the flour, 1 ½ tsps of the aniseed, 1 ½ tsps of the fennel seed, the cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, cloves, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Once the butter is clarified and golden, pour the liquid into the flour and spice mixture and mix thoroughly – I use a stand mixer with a paddle attachment.
Remove the bay leaves from the milk, and, once the mixture has cooled enough that it’s just warm to the touch, dissolve in the yeast and the sugar. Allow to bloom for 10 minutes and then add to the flour and butter mixture along with the almond extract. Knead or process until the mixture comes together, and then cover with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place for 1 hour.
While the dough is resting, place the dates and the remaining aniseed and fennel seed into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the mixture comes together in a thick paste.
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Form a ball of dough and flatten it to a disk about 3 inches across. Form a 1-inch disk of date paste and place in the center of the dough. Fold up all 4 sides and pinch together to seal (see photo above). Allow the formed cookies to rest for 15 - 20 minutes, and then bake for 25 minutes or until golden and cooked through. While they're still hot, transfer the cookies to a rack and shake over confectioner’s sugar through a sieve until they're completely covered. Cool completely before storing in an airtight container.