Rare Ramadan delights
Traditional Ramadan sweets have become famous all over the Middle East. The homemade version requires a bit of work, but the result is a rare delight.
We can learn a lot about local cuisine from traditional Ramadan sweets. The use of ingredients that were common in our region for thousands of years − semolina (coarsely ground durum wheat), milk, dates, almonds and honey − may explain why the Bible says the spies were amazed at the products of the good land. The inhabitants of the country knew how to use the local ingredients to sweeten everyday life with the fruits of the earth, and anyone who eats sweets that originate in the field near one’s home will derive greater pleasure from them than from the taste of those bought abroad.
The delicate and addictive cookies prepared by Balkees Abu Rabie are common all over the Middle East and in Arab countries, and have achieved a place of honor in Jewish tradition as well. For example, North African Jews customarily prepare rhuraieba cookies, or riba, as they are called in Moroccan, for the meal after the Yom Kippur fast − which is similar to the meal following the Ramadan fast among the Muslims. Makrouta, delicate semolina and date cookies, have their own version in the cuisine of the Jews of Tunis and Tripoli, where they are called makroud, and are prepared for Purim. The recipes here were created in our home kitchen, inspired by Abu Rabie’s traditional recipes.
These are butter cookies with the fragrance of citrus that melt in your mouth. Balkees Abu Rabie, in accordance with the tradition in her native village, fills the balls of dough with chopped pistachio nuts. Some versions make do with a light pressing-down of the cookies, which are decorated with an almond or shelled peanut. For those in a hurry, that version can be used, but for anyone with time on their hands, we recommend doing it right. Makes 30-35 cookies.
For the dough:
200 gm. butter
1 cup - 120 gm. - powdered sugar
2 cups - 140 gm. - flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. neroli oil (citrus flower extract)
1/2 cup - 120 ml. - water
For the filling:
1 cup - 120 gms. - shelled pistachios, unroasted
Clarify the butter and cool in the refrigerator for about an hour. With a whisk, whip the butter and powdered sugar in a mixer bowl, until you get a foamy, light-colored mixture.
Add the flour, baking powder and neroli oil; knead with your hands until you get a uniform and elastic dough. If necessary, add a little water. Chop the pistachios finely, but not into a powder, with a knife, and set aside. Form small balls from the dough, flatten each one on your palm to create a little bowl, fill with a small amount of chopped pistachios and pinch the edges together.
Repeat until the dough runs out, to form about 30 cookies. Place them on a tin lined with baking paper. For festive cookies with a traditional shape, press the balls against the decorative ka’ab el-kaakh mold or use delicate kitchen tongs to decorate the cookies. Another option is to cut an X shape on top with a knife.
Place the balls on baking paper on a tin. Let them stand in a cool place or in the refrigerator for two hours or overnight. Bake at a medium-low temperature, 160 degrees Celsius, for about 25 minutes. They should remain white and not turn light brown. Remove the pan and let the cookies cool and shrink.
The delicate and crunchy consistency of the dough is achieved thanks to a combination of two types of flour: white wheat flour and semolina. The semolina is immersed overnight in clarified butter, and the next day you add neroli oil and dates as a filling. The preparation is easier than it looks, and the ground dates can be replaced with date paste, to shorten the process. Makes 30-35 cookies.
For the dough:
200 gm. butter
1 cup - 125 gms. - semolina
2 cups - 250 gms. - white flour
1 level tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. neroli oil
1/4 cup - 60 ml. - water
1/2 tsp. salt
For the filling:
30 madjoul dates or 300 gr.
store-bought, pureed dates
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. powdered cloves
Clarify the butter and mix with the semolina. Cover the bowl with cling wrap; let it stand outside the refrigerator overnight. The next day add the flour, baking powder, neroli, water and salt and knead by hand to get an elastic and uniform dough. Let it stand for about an hour.
To prepare the filling, remove the date pits and grind in a meat grinder with small holes. An ordinary food processor will tear the dates and is unsuitable for preparing the paste. Add the cinnamon and cloves; mix into an airy and delicate paste.
Divide the dough into three parts. Roll out each part on a lightly floured surface, into a thin and elongated piece that is 2-3 millimeters thick, but not too thin, so it won’t tear during preparation. Spread one-third of the filling on each, and gently roll up to create a long and narrow cylinder.
With a sharp knife cut the cylinders into 2-3 centimeter slices; place them on a tin lined with baking paper. You can use a fork to make decorative stripes on the cookies. Set the cookies aside in a cool place for an hour.
Bake in an oven at medium heat, 180 degrees Celsius, for about 15 minutes, until they turn a very light brown, and make sure not to burn them; browned cookies have an entirely different taste and texture.
Remove from the oven and let cool. Use a sifter or thin sieve to sprinkle a delicate layer of powdered sugar over the cooled cookies. Serve with a glass of sweet tea or cold almond juice.