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Archive for the ‘snack’ 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

Ringing in 2015 with Sujuk Rolls

Thank you to everyone who sent emails, encouraging me to keep blogging. It took a long time. OK, a really long time, but I’m back. A lot has happened since my last post. Let me fill you in — I entered into an amazing relationship (right around the time I stopped blogging… go figure). I bought a house. I experienced the misery of a flooded basement (without a wet vacuum to help). I became a pro at fixing drywall. I traveled a bunch (Peru, Japan, and England). Now that the DIY projects have slowed down (fingers crossed!), I want to get back to blogging.

I’m going to keep today’s post short and simple. This is a quick hello and a delicious winter recipe — sujuk rolls. Sujok is a special Armenian sausage that I blogged about back in Syria. My host mom used to prepare sujuk in bulk and preserve it by wrapping the sausage in breathable cloth bags and air drying them on her balcony. Fortunately, this recipe doesn’t call for dried sujuk, which makes it a lot simpler.

One of the things that makes sujuk so special is the combination of all the fragrant spices. Home cooks in Aleppo eat sujuk for breakfast with their eggs. Sujuk also makes for a great topping on pizza (a twist on the ordinary sausage) and a legendary late night sandwich/snack. Sujuk rolls are popular appetizers at restaurants in Aleppo and are perfect for parties. Enjoy!

mise en place
mise en place
Colorful Sujuk Spices
sujuk spices
Fragrant Sujuk Sausage
sujuk meat
Authentic pita bread
thin pita bread
The thinner the pita, the better
open bread
Good pita-to-sujuk ratio
sujuk on bread
Roll tightly
rolling sujuk
Slice with a sharp serrated knife
cutting sujuk rolls
Sujuk rolls about to go into the oven
sujuk rolls going in the oven
Sujuk Rolls (سجك رولز)
sujuk rolls

Sujuk Rolls

10-12 appetizer servings

Components

  • 1kg fresh sujuk sausage
  • Thin pita bread
  • 1-2 tsp ghee, for pan frying

Putting them all together

  1. Prepare the sujuk as described in the recipe, but do not dry.
  2. Separate the pocket pita bread into two halves.
  3. Spread a thin layer of sujuk on the pita bread.
  4. Tightly roll the pita and sujuk into a log.
  5. Use a sharp knife to carefully cut the pita log into individual rolls.
  6. Melt ghee on a skillet. Pan fry each side over medium heat until crispy.

Notes: It’s important to use thin pita bread so that you have a good sujuk-to-pita ratio. For a healthy alternative, you can bake in a 400ºF oven for 12-15 minutes or until crispy.

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Not traditional, but fresh salsa on the side is great
bite of sujuk rolls

I hope everyone is either already celebrating in 2015 or getting ready to ring in the new year with those they love. I’ll be back soon with more recipes and stories <3

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 fine semolina
  • 100 g fine semolina
  • 350 g pitted dates
  • 175 g unsalted butter + 1 tsp
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp + 3 tsp orange blossom water
  • 1 tbsp mahlab, ground
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • powdered sugar, for garnish

Putting them all together

  1. Combine the semolina, ground mahlab, and sugar. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and pour over the semolina mixture while hot. Rub the grains of semolina against your hands so that each grain is well coated with butter. Repeat this for 5-7 minutes. Cover and let sit over night.
  2. To make the filling, process the pitted dates with the remaining tbsp of melted butter and 1 tsp of orange blossom water in your food processor until it becomes a smooth paste.
  3. Mix the remaining orange blossom water with the semolina mixture and knead until it becomes a dough.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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

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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Ode to the Humble Chickpea

Creamy yet healthy; inconspicuous yet bold; seldom do we appreciate all the wonders this modest legume has to offer. As a tribute to this golden gem, the inaugural entry in this blog will be dedicated to it and the star role it plays in the celebrated Middle Eastern dish called hummus.

Ask any Middle Easterner and they will insist that hummus originated from their homeland – probably in the heart of some small village, where it was a product of their ancestors’ tears, sweat and toil. To this day, however, no one knows exactly where this highly acclaimed spread originated. With a past that’s ancient history, this heavenly dip lives within the millions of circulating recipes that have adapted through time, culture and local resources.

Determined to get as close to an authentic recipe as possible, I went directly to my grandmother. “A few handfuls of chickpeas, some lemon juice, a couple garlic cloves and a tiny bit of tahini,” she said through the proud smile printed on her face. Typical Arab grandmother that she is, it didn’t take more than an enthusiastic expression on my face before she offered to make a batch with me the following day. She had me soak dried chickpeas overnight and woke me up at the crack of dawn to what seemed to be hummus boot camp. I was constantly pulsing the food processor, smashing garlic and squeezing lemons while she gloriously worked her magic to recreate the traditional hummus I grew up eating.

After spending the day with my grandmother and experimenting with a few ideas myself, I came up with a hummus trilogy, if you will, that attunes to the palates of purists, classics and hummus eccentrics.

classics are never out of style

Traditional Hummmus

Components

  • 2 15.5 oz. cans of chickpeas, rinsed
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 tbsp. lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 tbsp. tahini
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

Boil the rinsed chickpeas for 20 minutes in lightly salted water to remove their canned taste and soften them up for processing. Drain the chickpeas and add into a large food processor along with the garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Pulse until you get that creamy consistency and check for seasoning. Finally, transfer into a bowl and mix in the tahini by hand; cover and chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Spread the hummus in a shallow bowl and make a well in the center for the olive oil. For garnish, sprinkle cumin, Hungarian paprika or chopped flat leaf parsley and drizzle your fruitiest extra virgin olive oil into the well. Serve along side some warm pita bread and enjoy!!

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For a classic interpretation of this spread, try my Roasted Red Pepper Hummus. It’s deep flavors and red colors will add sophistaction and vibrance to every bite.

fiery red hummus

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus

Components

  • 2 15.5 oz. can of chickpeas, rinsed
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3 tbsp. lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 tbsp. tahini
  • 3 roasted red bell peppers
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus is a just as easy to put together as the Traditional Hummus. Start out with the same ingredients, but go a bit shy with the lemon juice and olive oil because of the natural moisture in the bell peppers. Pat dry your roasted red peppers and process along with the chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Finally, transfer into a bowl and mix in the tahini by hand; cover and chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Spread the hummus in a shallow bowl and garnish with pieces of roasted red peppers and a drizzle of your favorite extra virgin olive oil. You can serve this with warm pita bread or even as a spread inside a sandwich for a healthy and exotic appeal.

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For the hummus aficionados out there, my spinach artichoke hummus is a modern translation of a timeless classic. This recipe came to life after my stubborn self decided to feature a hummus trilogy and was in need of a third recipe. So I drove down to Wegmans with my friend Jason and started brainstorming right down the produce isle, blurting outrageous possibilities like asparagus hummus and even banana hummus. Fortunately, those ideas were immediately vetoed and after many ridiculous suggestions, we stood in front of the wide array of greens. At this point everything fell into place and I looked over at Jason and suggested: Spinach. Artichoke. Hummus.

can’t go wrong with spinach & artichoke

Spinach Artichoke Hummus

Components

  • 2 15.5 oz. can of chickpeas, rinsed
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3 tbsp. lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 tbsp. tahini
  • 6 oz. frozen artichokes
  • 5 oz. frozen spinach
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

Again, this hummus is just as easy to make. First, defrost the spinach and squeeze out as much of the water as possible. Next, steam (or boil in 1/4 cup of water) the artichokes for 4-5 minutes and then sauté them in olive oil for a couple more. By sautéing the artichoke you cook out most of the water and are left with its natural Mediterranean flavor. Process the drained spinach and sautéed artichokes along with the chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Finally, transfer into a bowl and mix in the tahini by hand; cover and chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Spread the hummus in a shallow bowl and garnish with sautéed artichokes and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serve this hummus with your favorite pita chips and enjoy!

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