It’s time for a trip back to the Middle East to refill the cookie jar with what, according to Wikipedia and others, is the “national cookie of Iraq”: Kleicha (or Kleisha; as usual with Arabic, transliterations vary). Recipes also vary, particularly as to shape and choice of spices, but the most common appear to be a spiral of dough interleaved with a cardamom-infused date paste.
Kleicha turn out to be trickier to make than I expected: most of the recipes I’ve seen produce an incredibly crumbly dough. On my first attempt, the dough was almost impossible to roll and the kleicha came out at an unpleasantly sandy texture. Fortunately, I persevered, because my second attempt was a real success: the flavour combination of date and cardamom being a winner. It only worked, however, by using hugely more water than in my base recipe, from 196flavors.com.
I couldn’t find ready-made date paste, so I made my own. Another pitfall from my first attempt was getting the texture wrong so I couldn’t spread the paste: second time round, it came out perfectly.
The quantities here were supposedly for 40 kleicha – I made 32.
The date paste
½ tsp ground cardamom (or 20 or so cardamom pods)
400g soft dates (choose Medjool or similar in preference to the harder Deglet Nour)
Milk as needed (a few tablespoons)
If the dates aren’t already stoned, take out the stones and discard
If you are starting from cardamom pods, pound them in a pestle and mortar to get the seeds out and get rid of the husks.
Put the dates and cardamom into a food processor and blitz for a minute or two.
Add a little milk and blitz some more: keep doing this until you get a puree the consistency of toothpaste.
15g caster sugar
10g dried yeast
170ml lukewarm water (around 40℃)
700g plain flour
15g nigella seeds
Melt the butter.
Mix sugar, water and yeast and leave until frothy.
In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine flour, salt and nigella seeds and mix evenly.
Add the butter and mix for a few seconds.
Then add the yeast/water mix and mix until you have a smooth dough. You may want to add more water than I’ve shown – the quantity shown here was barely OK.
Leave dough to rest for around an hour.
Putting it all together
1 egg and a bit of milk for a wash
Preheat oven to 180℃ fan.
Cut two sheets of baking paper, around 40cm long.
Divide your dough into four parts.
Form a ball of dough into a rectangle, place it between your two sheets of baking paper and roll it out as thinly as you can manage.
Take a quarter of your date paste and spread it evenly over your rectangle of dough.
Using the baking paper to help you, roll it up along the long end (Swiss roll style) as tightly as you can
Cut your cylinder into 8 pieces (or 10 if you want smaller cookies) and place on a baking sheet
Repeat for the remaining three parts of dough. You’ll end up with two baking sheets’ worth, which you can bake together or one after the other.
Beat the egg with a little milk to make a wash; spread this over your cookies. (I’m labelling this stage as optional because I forgot to do it, resulting in kleicha which weren’t as pretty as they might have been but tasted fine).
Bake until golden and thoroughly cooked – if you break off a bit of cookie and taste it, there should be no hint of raw flour. This took around 20-25 minutes in my oven – yours may differ.
The Japanese may not have centuries worth of baking tradition: their traditional cuisine is more likely to involve steaming or cooking in a pan. But they’ve taken to the Western idea of baked desserts with a vengeance and added flavours that are characteristically Japanese. Green matcha tea cookies are a favourite for many, but as I’m not particularly fond of matcha, so I’ve gone for a different flavouring: black sesame seeds. These cookies (黒胡麻クッキー or Kuro goma kukkī) are very popular in Japan, they’re easy to make, not too sweet and have a distinct taste that I remember from trips to Japan but not from anywhere else. Thanks to Nami and her blog justonecookbook.com for the recipe.
I’ve followed Nami’s recipe reasonably accurately for my first effort (she gives an option of keeping the sesame seeds whole or grinding them – I went for keeping them whole). Next time, I might go for grinding them and using a few more to get a bigger hit of sesame flavour. I might also take the sugar down a bit, although these aren’t extremely sweet by any means. If you’re looking at the photos, it’s clear that I should probably have sliced the cookies a lot thinner to get a crisper result.
40g black sesame seeds
160g plain flour
40g ground almonds
80g caster sugar
120g unsalted butter
Toast the sesame seeds in a pan until fragrant, leave to cool slightly.
In the bowl of your food processor, weight out the flour, ground almonds, sugar and salt. Stir until evenly mixed (or, if you dare, pulse the food processor briefly).
Take the butter out of the fridge and cut it into cubes. Add to the food processor and run until you have an even crumbly mix.
Add the egg and sesame seeds and pulse for a few seconds until everything is even.
Now take the mixture out of your food processor into a bowl and bring together with your hands until you have a smooth dough.
Form your dough into a long sausage. (Nami’s recipe says to cut the dough into two and do two sausages – I forgot). Wrap them in cling film and refrigerate for around an hour. Ideally, the sausage(s) should be round, but it’s fairly hard to avoid having a flat edge.
Meanwhile, prepare two baking trays with baking paper (or silicone mats) and preheat oven to 175℃.
Take the sausage of dough out of the fridge and cut it into circular slices around 5mm in width. Lay these out on your baking trays, allowing room for a bit of expansion.
Bake for around 15 minutes until a light golden colour.
Leave to cool on a rack for as long as you can manage without scoffing them.
The biscuit tin (Americans: read “cookie jar”) was empty. So it was time to head back to the Middle East to refill it, in the shape of ma’amoul, filled cookies made from a shortbread dough rich in semolina. The filling is usually made of dates and/or nuts (usually pistachios, almonds or walnuts): for this first attempt, I used a date and walnut mix.
I’ve gone for a very simple, easy version of ma’amoul, using baking powder rather than yeast and eschewing any overnight resting. Even allowing for an hour’s resting, this takes not much over 90 minutes start to finish. The result was a crumbly, tasty biscuit that wasn’t excessively sweet and that I would definitely make again.
I used good quality soft medjool dates, which are easy to purée to paste with good consistency; various Middle East recipes consider that making your own date paste is tedious, preferring commercially made product.
Once ma’amoul have been filled and formed into their balls, they are often pressed into a patterned wooden mould, because (a) it makes them look pretty and (b) if you’re making more than one different filling, you can use a different pattern for each one. Strangely enough, I don’t own a ma’amoul mould, and if I bought the approved piece of specialist equipment for every item I fancy baking, my house would be filled several times over with baking junk, so I improvised the desired dome shape using a gravy ladle and a coffee tamper. It’s not like I expect everyone to have a gravy ladle, but you get the idea. If you’re doing more than one filling but you don’t have multiple moulds, you can try doing your own decorating by punching indents with a fork or skewer.
This recipe made 16 generously sized ma’amoul. Photo warning: these are more cracked and crumbly than I’d like. I should have added a bit more water to the dough.
110 g butter
40g icing sugar
240g semolina flour
160g plain flour
4g baking powder
30g orange blossom or rose water
Pour everything into the bowl of your stand mixer and mix the whole lot for one or two minutes until thoroughly smoothly combined. The dough should be wet enough to be able to pick up stray bits of flour from the side of the bowl, but no more than that. If it’s sticky, add a bit more flour. If it’s really crumbly, add a bit more milk.
Form the dough into a ball, and leave to stand at room temperature for around an hour.
Filling and baking
The quantities given are what I made as shown in the photos. The next time I make ma’amoul, I’m planning to use 200g dates and no walnuts – I’m not convinced they complement each other and I’d prefer a bit more filling. I would do a walnut filling as an alternative, chopping some 100g of walnuts very finely, adding a couple of teaspoons of syrup and making them into a paste.
125g medjool or other soft dates
Icing sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 180℃ fan
Chop the walnuts coarsely and toast them in a dry pan for a minute or two until fragrant.
If your dates aren’t pitted, take the stones out now.
Blitz the dates to a soft puree. Add a tiny amount of water if you need to, or more if your dates were quite hard. You could add sugar syrup rather than water if you want a sweeter filling.
Have a 40x30cm baking sheet ready.
Divide your dough into 16 parts, form each part into a ball
Divide your filling into 16 parts, form each part into a ball
Roll out a ball of dough flat and wide enough that you’ll be able to wrap it round your ball of filling
Place a ball of filling in the middle of your dough, then stretch it over to cover.
Press the whole ball into your mould (or, in my case, gravy ladle)
Take the cookie out of the mould and place on your baking sheet
When you’ve done all 16 ma’amoul, put the baking sheet into the oven and bake them for 15 minutes. They should be a pale brown colour: don’t bake them as far as the more usual “golden brown”.
On removal from the oven, dust with icing sugar to taste.
After taking on a bake with a serious degree of difficulty with make-your-own-strudel-pastry last week, it was time for something at the opposite end of the scale: a simple, unpretentious cookie that takes minimal effort and skill to prepare but delivers lovely flavour and texture. In short, Azerbaijan’s butter cookies called Shaker churek (to my shame, I have no idea how to pronounce the name).
This recipe comes from a splendid Dutch blog called the cookie companion. It’s the simplest version I found: there are other recipes that use yeast.
100g icing sugar
vanilla essence to taste
In a bowl, weigh out the icing sugar
Melt the butter, not letting it get too hot, and add it to the icing sugar: mix until smooth
Add the flour and mix thoroughly – you will get a dough that’s far too dry, which is fine at this stage
Separate the egg; keep half the yolk aside and add the other half yolk and all the white to your mix.
Add the vanilla essence, and mix thoroughly until you have a smooth, slightly damp dough
Cover and leave in the refrigerator for around an hour
Preheat oven to 180℃
Line a baking tray with a silicone sheet or baking paper
Divide the dough into eight equal parts (they should be just over 60g each). For each part into a ball, flatten slightly and place it on your baking sheet. Warning here: the cookies spread, so make sure you leave plenty of space around them.
With the end of a finger or some other implement (like the end of a rolling pin, if you have that kind of rolling pin), make a small depression in the middle of each cookie. Fill the depression with the reserved egg yolk.
Bake for around 15 minutes
Like most cookies, shaker churek are really, really good straight out of the oven: but leave them to cool for a few minutes so that they don’t actually burn your mouth!