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Archive for the ‘cookies’ Category


Cookies with a rich history

Like all immigrants, when my grandparents moved from Syria to Venezuela in the late 1950s, they brought a piece of Aleppo with them. To this day, I associate the scent of fresh mint with my grandmother, Marine, Allah yerhama (may God rest her soul). As kids, we used to play around her vegetable and herb garden in Venezuela. My grandmother grew a disproportionate amount of mint. I would occasionally pluck a couple leaves, rub them between my fingers, and press them up to my nose. The scent of fresh mint always reminds me of her.

Aleppo circa 1954 (grandmother is on the right)
Aleppo circa 1954 (grandmother is on the right)

Through food, music, herb gardens, and traditions, immigrants forge familiar identities in a new home. Pomegranate molasses was difficult to find in Venezuela, so my grandmothers often used tamarind paste to recreate that sweet and tangy flavor profile. Lebanese immigrants in Mexico paved the way for tacos al pastor, a twist on the classic shawarma sandwiches known throughout the Middle East. Substitutions make it possible to keep traditions alive. Each substitution or spin on a recipe forges a new identity.

The Middle East is full of these variances. If you don’t believe me, ask a Palestinian and a Syrian how they prepare stuffed grape leaves. Each recipe carries with it the history of its ancestors. Ask a Greek cook about dolmas and you’ll jump to a different, but familiar chapter in the history of stuffing vegetables. The recipes on my blog represent a snapshot in time. That brings me to kleejah (كليجة), the recipe for today’s post.

The origin of kleejah appears to be somewhere in Iraq. My maternal grandmother, Muna, makes amazing kleejah. She lives in Venezuela. Kleejah, at least the one from my childhood, is somewhere between a cookie and a bread. It wasn’t until I lived in Aleppo that I experienced kleejah that wasn’t my grandmother’s. Some bakeries in Aleppo prepare kleejah as a cookie, while other make a chewier variation, similar to brioche. The dough is seasoned with a variety of fragrant spices such as cinnamon, cloves, fennel, anise seed, nutmeg, mahlab, and nigella seeds. The kleeja from Iraq is different. The Iraqi version is flavored with cardamom and stuffed with a date paste, similar to ma’amoul. Somewhere between Mosul and Aleppo, a transformation occurred. In Aleppo today you’ll even find the spice-filled Aleppan version stuffed with dates, forging yet another identity.

Today, I’m going to feature the kleejah I grew up eating. This recipe is from a dear friend and expert Aleppan cook, Siham Baladi. Before I jump into the recipe though, I have to tell you a funny story about Siham. Siham and I have never met in person. She grew up in Aleppo and moved to the US in her early 20s. She stumbled upon my blog while I was pursuing my Fulbright in Syria. She sent me a sweet email about the beautiful memories she was able to relive through my blog. She also connected me with her family in Aleppo in case I needed anything. I was moved by Siham’s email, so I decided to share it with my grandmother’s sister, Christine (Aunt Kiki). Aunt Kiki was helping me get settled in Aleppo and was intrigued by the premise of my research: food. I thought Siham’s email would provide wonderful context to the Fulbright’s mission of cross cultural exchange. As I was reading and translating Siham’s email out loud, Aunt Kiki stopped me at the part where Siham connected me with her family in Aleppo. Curious, Aunt Kiki asked if that note was from Siham… I was floored! Siham hadn’t lived in Aleppo for over thirty years. As it turns out, when Aunt Kiki was a newlywed back in 1959, Siham was a little girl who lived in the building Aunt Kiki had moved into with her husband.

Siham Baladi
Siham Baladi

The Aleppan variation calls for a lot of spices. If your grocery store has a bulk spice section, I recommend picking them up from there. The spices are usually fresher and it ends up being less expensive than purchasing individual jars of spices.

mise en place
mise en place

To bloom the yeast for the kleejah, you’ll want to start by warming milk between 110-115 degrees Fahrenheit (43-46 degrees Celsius). Instant yeast allows you to skip the blooming stage, but this is always a good way to make sure your yeast is alive and well. It takes a few extra minutes, but it saves you a lot of trouble if your yeast doesn’t activate for any reason.

warm milk
warm milk

Dissolve the yeast in the milk and a tsp of the sugar (save the rest for the dough). Cover the bowl and allow the yeast to proof in a warm place for 5-10 minutes.

bloomed yeast
bloomed yeast

In the meantime warm up the spices (except for the nigella seeds) in a skillet. This helps bring out their essential oils.

spices: cloves, cinnamon, fennel, anise, mahlab
spices: cloves, cinnamon, fennel, anise, mahlab

Grind the spices (except for the nigella seeds) in your spice grinder until it becomes a powder. The nigella seeds will get added to the dough whole.

grinding spices
grinding spices

Combine the dry ingredients together (flour, the spice mix, nigella seeds, and a pinch of salt). Mix until they are well combined. The reason you mix the dry ingredients first is so that they are evenly distributed in the dough. Once the dough comes together, it becomes difficult to mix the spices evenly without over working the dough.

mixing the dry ingredients
mixing the dry ingredients

Once the dry ingredients are mixed tougher, you can add the wet ingredients: yeast-milk mixture, butter, olive oil, and yogurt.

adding the wet ingredients
adding the wet ingredients

Stir the mix a few times with a wooden spoon until it comes together and then knead with your hands until a soft dough is formed. Coat the dough with a layer of olive oil, cover with a kitchen towel, and allow the dough to rise for 4-5 hours in a warm, dark place.

kleejah dough
kleejah dough

Deflate the dough and divide it into tennis-ball size pieces (roughly 60 grams each).

dividing the dough
dividing the dough

Form the dough into an 8 shape. You could also form them into buns. Cover the dough with a damp towel and allow to proof a second time for 45-60 minutes.

second round of proofing
second round of proofing

Brush the dough with an egg wash (1 egg + 1 Tbsp milk). This will give the kleejah a shiny, golden brown coat once it bakes. Bake the kleejah in a 350 degree oven for 18-20 minutes or until golden brown. Baking times will vary depending on the shame and size you made your kleejah.

egg wash
egg wash
Kleejah (كليجة)
Kleejah (كليجة)

Kleejah

yields approx 16-18 pieces

Components

  • 500g flour (~3 3/4 cup)
  • 113 g butter (1 stick)
  • 1 cup milk, plus 1 Tbsp for egg wash
  • 1 Tbsp mahlab
  • 1 Tbsp nigella seeds
  • 1 Tbsp fennel seeds
  • 1 Tbsp anise seeds
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 tsp whole cloves
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 2 Tbsp plain yogurt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbsp yeast
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • Putting them all together

  1. Heat up milk to 110-115 degrees Fahrenheit (43-46 degrees Celsius). Dissolve the yeast in the milk and a tsp of the sugar (save the rest for the dough). Cover the bowl and allow the yeast to proof in a warm, dark place for 5-10 minutes.
  2. Warm up the spices (except for the nigella seeds) in a skillet over medium low heat, making sure not to burn the spices. Remove the spices from heat once they become fragrant.
  3. Grind the spices (except for the nigella seeds) in a spice grinder until they’re a fine powder.
  4. Combine the dry ingredients together (flour, the spice mix, nigella seeds, and a pinch of salt). Mix until they are well combined.
  5. Add the wet ingredients: yeast-milk mixture, butter, olive oil, and yogurt.
  6. Stir the mix a few times with a wooden spoon until it comes together and then knead with your hands until a soft dough is formed. Coat the dough with a layer of olive oil, cover with a kitchen towel, and allow the dough to rise for 4-5 hours in a warm, dark place.
  7. Deflate the dough and divide it into tennis-ball size pieces (roughly 60 grams each)
  8. Form the dough into an 8 shape. You could also form them into buns. Cover the dough with a damp towel and allow to proof a second time for 45-60 minutes.
  9. Brush the dough with an egg wash (1 egg + 1 Tbsp milk). This will give the kleejah a shiny, golden brown coat once it bakes. Bake the kleeja in a 350 degree oven for 18-20 minutes or until golden brown. Baking times will vary depending on the shame and size you made your kleeja.
  10. Transfer kleejah to a wire rack until they have cooled. Enjoy!

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Kleejah served with tea
Kleejah served with tea

World Peace, a step in the right direction

It is difficult to write about my experiences in Syria knowing that the country is on the brink of civil war and chaos. It breaks my heart. I also realize that not writing anything won’t necessarily make things better, either. And giving up on my blog — the thing that used to bring me so much happiness — is the last thing I want to do.

mise en placemise_en_place

I want to keep today’s post short with the promise that I’ll be back again soon. I won’t disappear like I did before, you have my word. Thank you to all those who nudged me (physically and electronically) and encouraged me to continue writing. It may have taken me a while, but I’m here.

creaming processmixing

Today’s recipe is not one that I learned on my Fulbright in Syria, although I still have plenty of those to share with you, too. This is a recipe that I’ve come across many times on some of my favorite food blogs: World Peace Cookies. It even made it to Saveur’s list, Recipes that Rocked the Internet. Given all that is going on, I thought this was the perfect time to try such an alluring cookie.

sift for clumpssifting

Pastry Chef Pierre Hermé originally developed these cookies for a restaurant in Paris, and Dorie Greenspan introduced them to the world in her book, Paris Sweets . The original name for the cookies was Sables Korova, or Korova Cookies, named after the restaurant off Champs Élysées that Pierre Hermé created the recipe for. It was not until Dorie’s neighbor tasted these these ultra decadent, chocolate-intense cookies that the name changed to what we know today. Dorie’s neighbor was convinced that a daily dose of these is all that is needed to ensure planetary peace and happiness; thus the new name was born.

chocolate: the ‘peace’ in ‘world peace’adding_chocolate

I used Dorie’s recipe, except I took the liberty to add a pinch of orange zest to the dough; the combination of orange and chocolate makes my heart swoon. You could always leave that addition out if you’d like. The point is, these cookies are amazing any way you prepare them. They are crumbly and chocolatey and even if they don’t bring world peace immediately, I’m fully convinced, as was Dorie’s neighbor, that they are a step in the right direction.

refrigerate dough (in logs)logs
cookie doughcookie_dough
freshly bakedsheet_tray
World Peace Cookiesworld_peace_cookies1
cold milk: enabler of world peace world_peace_cookies2

World Peace Cookies

yields approx 36 cookies

Components

  • 1 1/4 cups (175 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup (30 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 stick plus 3 tablespoons (11 tablespoons or 150 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup (120 grams) (packed) light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup (50 grams) sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 5 ounces (150 grams) bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips
  • zest of half an orange*(not in original recipe)

Putting them all together

  1. Mix together the butter and sugars in a stand mixer on medium speed until the mixture becomes pale and creamy. You can also use a hand mixer. Add the salt, vanilla extract, and orange zest and mix for a couple more minutes.
  2. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, and baking soda and add to the butter and sugar mixture. Pulse a few times at a low speed to incorporate the flour and prevent it from spilling. Add the chocolate chunks and mix on low speed for 30 seconds, or until the flour is fully incorporated. Do not overwork the dough; the dough should still look and feel crumbly. Divide the dough in two and form into logs approximately 1.5 inches in diameter. Roll each log in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours (you can refrigerate the dough for up to 3 days or freeze the dough for 2 months).
  3. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F (160 degrees C). Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  4. With a sharp thin knife, slice the logs into disks that are 1/2 inch thick. Don’t worry if the disks crack as you cut them, just squeeze the bits back together. Arrange the sliced disks on your baking sheets, making sure to leave about an inch between each cookie.
  5. Bake the cookies for 12 minutes. Note that they will still be soft and won’t look done, but that’s how they should be. Cool the cookies on a cookie rack and serve warm or at room temperature. Make sure to store leftover cookies (if there are any) in an airtight container.

Notes: Recipe adapted from Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan.

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if not world peace, then happiness, for sureempty_glass

Ma’moul Cookies

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here. My grandfather passed away last month and that took a lot of my blogging energy away from me. I knew I wanted to dedicate a post to him as he was as much a foodie as I am, but my words escaped me. In my failed attempts to write, I would stare blankly at my computer screen as memories of him streamed through my thoughts.

When I slept over my grandparent’s house as a kid, I would often hear my grandfather poke around in the kitchen, usually around dawn, well aware that my grandmother could sleep through anything. I, of course, would get up from bed to find him alone in the kitchen, happily stirring a hefty pot of homemade jam (his specialty) or preparing some sort of sweet treat without my grandmother there to convince him against it. When he noticed me watching he would let out big a smile, and allow me to stay and help so long as I didn’t wake up anyone else.

mise en place

Since I haven’t yet perfected my grandfather’s rose petal jam (مربة الورد), his claim to fame, I decided to make one of my favorite cookies I grew up eating called ma’moul (معمول). If you’re Arabic, these cookies need no introduction as they’re popular all around the Middle East, where they’re stuffed with either walnuts, pistachios, or pureed dates.

a stream of butter

The cookie itself tastes a lot like butter cookies, but these also have more of a crumbly, shortbread texture because of their semolina base.

the secret is in the mahlab: محلب

The secret ingredient that makes these cookies so special is called mahlab, which is an aromatic spice obtained by extracting the seed kernels from inside the cherry stone of the St. Lucie Cherry. It’s very popular in countries like Greece, Turkey and all around the Middle East.

note: Since I won’t be able to host this month’s A Taste of the Mediterranean, I want to give away some mahlab to three randomly chosen commenters on this post (by May 1st). If you’d like to share, I’d love to know how family plays a roll in your cooking since it is something I have given a lot of thought to this month. Thank you for your support and understanding.

finely ground mahlab

The mahlab gives these cookies a subtle nutty flavor that you won’t pick up on immediately, but you’ll certainly notice if it’s missing. Mahlab is also very popular in Turkey and Greece for flavoring egg-rich breads similar to challah in Jewish cuisine.

ma’moul in four steps

As with most Middle Eastern dishes, these cookies take some patience. If you don’t have Middle Eastern cookie molds laying around, you could use any circular molds, or you could even free-hand them like Kate from Aaplemint did. Anyway you form them, they’ll look beautiful and taste amazing.

miniature ma’moul (معمول)

Funnily enough, I wish I had a pair of pantyhose when I ventured to make these cookies. While visiting the Middle East last winter I learned that some women have a pair of clean pantyhose set aside that they use especially for removing these cookies from their mold. That way you don’t spray the mold with anti-stick spray or bruise your hand in the process, like I did.

ma’moul

yields approx 50-60 small cookies

Components

  • 300 g farina (cream of wheat)* 
  • 100 g fine semolina
  • 125 g pitted dates
  • 1 stick + 1 tbsp butter, melted
  • 1/2-3/4 cup of milk, hot
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp + 2 tsp orange blossom water
  • 1 tbsp mahlab, ground
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • powdered sugar, for garnish

Putting them all together

  1. Mix 1 stick of the melted butter in with the farina and semolina and knead until well mixed. Cover and let sit over night.
  2. To make the filling process the pitted dates with the remaining tbsp of melted butter, 2 tsp of orange blossom water, and half of the ground mahlab in your food processor until it becomes a smooth paste.
  3. Once the butter has soaked into the semolina add the remaining of the ingredients, except the hot milk.
  4. Pour half cup of the hot milk and mix well to form a dough. The dough should be smooth and moist; if it feels a bit dry continue adding more milk.
  5. Form each cookie with a mold or freehand as shown in the photo above (by hiding a ball of the date filling inside the dough).
  6. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake in a 325 degree F oven for 25-30 minutes or until the bottom is golden brown.
  7. Cool the cookies on a cookie sheet and sprinkle with powdered sugar for garnish.

notes: Cream of Wheat (aka Farina) should be available at all major supermarkets. For these cookies I use the red box that says 2 1/2 minutes.

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dedicated to my grandfather

What’s life without the occasional dunk?

This entry is dedicated to Anna (Grazie Cosmos), my host mom from Florence and Queen of Tuscan Cuisine: Grazie di tutto l’aiuto che mi hai dato in cucina e di tutte le meravigliose ricette che hai condiviso con me.

Biscotti, literally translated, means twice-cooked in Italian. This crunchy confection of sheer goodness formed a significant part of my diet while I was in Florence this past winter. Undoubtedly, it is a cookie worth blogging about.

Upon my arrival, my host mom had prepared what seemed like an endless batch of her signature almond biscotti, piled them high in a bowl and set them on the kitchen counter for me to snack on. Soon after, the bowl had become a rite of passage for me as I was incapable of making it in or out of the kitchen without munching on one and grabbing a couple for later. Each time reassuring myself with the blissful nutritional fact that these addicting cookies contain no butter and are packed full of health benefits. At any rate, the seemingly endless supply quickly dwindled to a mere dozen. That very morning (no joke), my host mom noticed the depleted supply and immediately insisted on whipping me up another batch. Of course, I couldn’t refuse, so I rolled up my sleeves and offered to help.

Making biscotti with Grazie Cosmos

Anna’s expertise was obvious and quite impressive as she confidently poured the ingredients out onto the counter without hesitation or measuring utensils. She reassured me that after hundreds of batches I’ll begin to get the hang of it; in the mean time I’ve resorted to my awesome kitchen scale for incredible precision each time.

the well method

The well method pops up everywhere in cooking and quite frankly, I’m a huge fan. Anything that gifts me with one less dish to wash is a blessing. Plus, it rewards you with the distinct sense of authenticity that you’ll appreciate in each bite of your homemade biscotti. Definitely well worth the messy hands!

logs of dough

Once your dough comes together into a smooth ball, you’re set. Shape the dough into two long logs and bake until they are firm enough to slice (approx. 12-14 minutes). Slicing them right out of the oven is easiest, and a serrated knife makes your task a synch. Bake them a second time for 7-9 minutes and prepare yourself for some obsessive biscotti consumption!

biscotti con café

One of the great qualities these biscotti share is their remarkable versatility. Pairing them with a hot cup of joe is considered perfection for many of us, but these cookies go well with almost anything. Tuscans traditionally enjoy these biscotti with a glass of vin santo, an Italian dessert wine, to accentuate their sweet flavor.

biscotti con latte

For me, a handful of biscotti and a tall icy glass of milk is my favorite way to start my day (continue my day, and end my day, too). The kid in me wouldn’t have it any other way besides dunking – so dunk I did. It was not a trivial skill to acquire as any seasoned dunker can easily attest to. Prolong your dunk and the structural integrity of the cookie is compromised, but withdraw prematurely and the mission fails. Let me part with some words of encouragement for the aspiring dunker: clear your calendar, double the recipe and let your inner-child dunk.

biscotti alle mandorle

Biscotti alle Mandorle (Biscotti with Almonds)

(yields approx. 24 cookies)

Components

  • 275 g flour, approx 2 cups
  • 225 g granulated sugar, approx 1 cup + 2 tbsp
  • zest of 2-3 lemons
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp anise, ground (optional)
  • 200 g raw almonds, approx 1 1/3 cups
  • 3 eggs

Putting them all together

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. On a clean work surface create a well by mixing together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and lemon zest.
  3. Add the eggs to the center of the well, and slowly mix them into the dry ingredients. Once the mix begins to resemble a dough, add the almonds and shape into a smooth ball.
  4. Shape into two long logs and bake for 12-14 minutes or until firm enough to slice. While hot, slice the logs horizontally (best with a serrated knife) to form mini-biscotti.
  5. Bake again for 7-9 minutes or until golden brown around the edges.

Note: This is a very sticky dough. Make sure to have some extra flour on hand to form the dough into logs.

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Divinity in a Cookie

There is something sensational about biting into a freshly baked cookie that cannot be replicated with any other confection. The sweet taste and buttery texture in each bite transports you back to a simpler time; a time when learning how to tie your shoe was a priority on your agenda.

Whether they are decadently prepared with chunky chocolate morsels or studded with crunchy walnuts, people often indulge in their choice cookie when looking for that extra pick-me-up.
Called Ghraybe in the Middle East, these fragrant pistachio cookies are a classy addition to any cookie repertoire. Characterized by their powdery soft disposition and exotic essence, these cookies are always a treat in my family.

ghraybe (غريبة)

Ghraybe (Semolina Pistachio Cookies)

Components

  • 200 g. clarified butter
  • 200 g. confectioners sugar
  • 200 g. flour
  • 100 g. super fine semolina
  • 25 g. toasted pistachios, ground
  • ½ tsp. rosewater (optional)
  • ½ tsp. orange blossom water (optional)
  • 36-40 unsalted pistachios, shelled

Putting them all together

  1. Clarify butter by melting regular unsalted butter over low heat and skimming off the diary solids that float to the top. Measure out 200 g. (approximately 1 cup) and set aside to cool.
  2. Mix cooled clarified butter and confectioners sugar (approximately 1½ cups) for about 3 minutes or until light and fluffy.
  3. Mix in orange blossom water and rosewater. Add the super fine semolina (approximately 1/2 cup), flour (approximately 1 1/3 cup), ground pistachios (approximately ¼ cup) and mix until it comes together as a dough.
  4. Form little rings by rolling a piece of dough between your hands (or on the table) and looping it so that the ends overlap. Place a pistachio where the ends meet and set on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
  5. Refrigerate for 15-20 minutes, then bake in a 300 degree oven for 15 minutes or until just set. Place the cookies on a cooling rack and enjoy!!

Note: You can find Orange Blossom Water and Rosewater in any Middle Eastern supermarket or in most specialty food stores. You can also find them online in Dayna’s Market.

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