The very best traditional Lebanese Easter food is the Easter cookies. They are called kaik. This is a two syllable word with a very subtle distinction between the syllables (kah-ick). The pronunciation is so similar to a slang word for a part of the male anatomy, that we rarely use it around the non-Lebanese.
I had never made kaik before. My sister, Holly made it once with the Lebanese-born cousins. They wouldn’t let her do anything but cook because they were afraid she would mess it up. Their cookies are perfection.
My sister Holly, her sister in law Linda, my friend Susie and I all got together at Holly’s house with my mother’s recipe, Linda’s experience, 10 pounds of flour, huge packages of mashed dates and walnuts, and a “What the hell” spirit. We were joined by another sister,Carol, and another Lebanese friend, Dolores, who is also an expert.
Living in Michigan is a real advantage when you are making Lebanese food. There are more Arabs in Michigan than any other state, so the ingredients for Lebanese food are usually available. These cookies call for finely ground mahleb (cherry pits) and anise. No problem. Just go to the bulk food store on Pennsylvania Avenue.
This recipe makes around 50 fairly large cookies.
5 pounds flour
6 sticks of butter (rendered)
1 yeast packet
3 cups of sugar
2 tablespoons mahleb (ground sour cherry pits)|
2 tablespoons ground anise
4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup of warm water
1 pound walnuts
5-13oz. packages of mushed up dates
Melted milk and sugar for glazing
Before we begin, there are a few things I should explain … like mahleb. Yes, it is actually ground sour cherry pits. Now, I’m not certain how available this valuable ingredient is, but do not make the cookies without it. Living in Michigan, it is easy to find all of the ingredients you need for middle eastern food.
One more thing about the dates. They sometimes have pits or parts of pits in them, so you need to go through them with your fingers and check for pits. This year I found one whole pit and one piece of pit … not a lot, but not pleasant to bite into either. It is a really messy job.
Crushing the walnuts can be tricky. You want them in small pieces that you can actually feel when you eat the cookies. My sister’s little food processor worked great and if you don’t have one, a rolling pin works well too.
Making The Dough
Combine the flour, salt, mahleb, and anise and mix well. Heat the milk and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Add milk and sugar to flour mixture and mix well.
Render the butter. Here we get into discrepancies in recipes. Our recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of rendered butter. Linda uses 3 cups in hers. I can’t say that we noticed a difference in taste, so use your own judgement.
Add warm butter to dough and mix well. Pour a half cup of warm water over yeast.
Add the yeast to the dough and mix well. Cover the dough and let it rise for 3 hours. Some of us made our dough the night before (so we wouldn’t
have to get up early to do it). It did seem as if that made the dough a little tougher to work with, but the resulting cookies were fine.
Making the Cookies
Take a portion of dough and roll it into a log. Then cut pieces off the log and form into flattened balls. Roll a flattened ball into a round shape about 5 inches across. If you want smaller cookies, fold them into a semi-circle.
Put the date/nut mixture on the piece of dough spreading it nearly to the edges. Roll out a second piece of dough and place on top of the date mixture. Roll some more to make the cookies as thin as possible. We found that if you don’t roll them after putting the top dough on, they puff up too much and end up looking like hamburgers instead of kaik.
Pinch the edges of the cookie like you pinch pie dough. You need to pinch the edges tightly; otherwise the two layers will separate when the cookies are baked. Decorate the cookies. We have used a variety of implements … a potato masher, the bottom of a cut glass bowl, a mallet, some stained glass flowers. basically anything we could find to make a pattern.
Poke holes in the dough. If you don’t poke holes, the dough will puff up too much when baking. A quill is the traditional tool for this task, but a fork will do if there are no feathers handy.
Baking the Cookies
Place the cookies on ungreased cookie sheets and bake at 425 until the bottoms are lightly browned. Then broil the tops until golden brown. Brush with a warm mixture of sugar and milk when you take them out of the oven. That makes the tops shiny.