On the Chocolate Trail

Kaak: Recipe for Crunchy Yeast Biscuits

Eat kaak all year round or save them for special celebrations, as do many communities of the Middle East and Sephardim (Jews descended from Spain). Kaak (kahk, ka’ak) are ubiquitous, multi-faith and multi-cultural doughy treats eaten throughout the Middle East where they take on regional flavors. In Arabic kaak means cake or baked good.The Egyptian poet, Fouad Haddad, rhapsodizes about their popularity, “Oh kahk, master of generosity … we will never stop making you.” 

In East Jerusalem kaak may be topped with zaatar spice mix. Iraqis flavor with fenugreek. Egyptians with coriander and they sometimes enhance them with raisins, almonds, and/or apples. Yemeni and Jordanian versions are briochy. In Morocco, the roundness of the kaak recalls the shape of the sun; there they might be flavored with some combination of cardamom, fennel, anise, cinnamon, and almonds. They are often named with a hometown place of origin. In Lebanon, kaak bi semsin are shaped like pockets or purses. Another version kaak bee haleeb with milk is preferred during Easter. Egypt also has loz bi kahk with almonds for weddings and engagements. Somalia’s spicey kaak are cut into squares or rectangles with a briochy texture as well.

Simit Seller from Constantinople published in London, 1906 painted by Warwick Gobles. Project Gutenberg ebook


Sometimes they are shaped with lovely wooden maamul or mounash molds. In some locations or if the baker is in a hurry, they might take the shape of bread sticks since the making of the rounds takes more time. When they are filled with dates or nuts, they are known as maamoul.

Christians enjoy kaak at Easter and Christmas; Muslims at Eid al Fitr, the celebration at that concludes the Ramadan fast. For Christians, they came to represent the shape of Jesus’s crown of thorns. At the end of Ramadan, women gather to fashion the circular shapes with duties divided up for kneading, cutting, and shaping. Muslims use a yellow coloring to honor the deceased by giving kaak to the poor, to children, and to relatives on the weekly Thursday of the dead.

Enjoy this recipe for kaak, a crackery bread for all seasons and for all peoples.

Prep time: 1 hour

Rising time: 2 hours and 20 minutes
Baking time: 40 minutes
Yield: about 50 rings

adapted from Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks

INGREDIENTS
1 package or 2 ¼ teaspoons dry yeast
1 ⅓ cups warm water (105-115º F) this includes the ¼ cup used with the yeast mix
1 teaspoon sugar or honey
½ cup vegetable oil or shortening
1 ½ teaspoon table salt or 1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground anise
pinch of mahlab spice (optional)
4 cups, approximately unbleached all purpose flour
1 large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water for wash in a flat bowl
½ – 1 cup sesame seeds in a flat bowl for the topping

INSTRUCTIONS
1. Dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup of the water. Stir in the sugar (or honey) and let stand until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes. In a large bowl, combine the yeast mixture, remaining water, oil, salt, anise, mahlab, and 2 cups flour. Gradually add enough of the remaining flour to make a mixture that holds together.
2. On a lightly floured surface or plastic mat, knead the dough until smooth and elastic, 10-15 minutes. Place in an oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover loosely with plastic bag and let rise in a warm, draft free space until doubled in size, approximately 2 hours.
3. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or lightly grease the pans. Deflate the dough and divide it into 1-inch balls. While working on some of them, leave the others under the plastic bag. On a flat surface roll the balls into ½ inch-thick-ropes about 5 inches long. Bring the ends together to form a ring and pinch to seal. Dip the top of the ring into the egg wash and then into the sesame seeds. Place onto the baking sheets with sesame side facing up, allowing space between each ring. Cover with plastic bag and allow to rise for 20 minutes. In the meantime preheat the oven to 375º F.
4. Bake for about 20 minutes and remove from oven.
5. Lower the heat to 225º F. Then return the kaak to the oven, rotating the pans, and bake until crisp, but not extremely hard, about 20 minutes.
6. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely. Store in airtight containers or in the freezer, well wrapped.

Rabbi’s Remarks:
1. I would try adding 1-1 ¼ teaspoon ground fennel and or cumin and or increase the amounts of the spices above for even more flavor. Marks suggests instead of ground anise, use 3 tablespoons anise seeds or 2 tablespoons anise seeds and 1 tablespoon ground seeds. I avoid the seeds because my grandchildren don’t like them.
2. Mahlab is a western Asian spice made from the ground soft kernels of a wile cherry. Sift before using it as it tends to get lumpy. The name is based on a Lebanese town mentioned twice in the Bible.
3. Marks gives the option of using 3 ½ cups of flour plus ½ cup of semolina, regular or fine. He also suggests that to sweeten these into biscochos, add ½ cup sugar to the dough.

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