There Are Many Ways to Make This Cookie. But No Matter the Recipe, it Screams “Holiday” in the Middle East
Whether you’re celebrating Eid al-Fitr or Easter in the Middle East, the iconic, celebratory cookie is Ka’ak el Eid, also known as Kahk. It’s a round cookie that comes in many different sizes and textures (from crispy like a biscotti, to soft like a sweet bread). Here’s how I make my mom’s recipe.
Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims all around the world; it’s a time meant for worship and fasting. Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk everyday for 30 days. The end of the month of Ramadan is known as Eid al-Fitr, which translates to “Holiday of Breaking Fast.” This is the biggest holiday of the year for Muslims everywhere and it’s commemorated with large gatherings to enjoy elaborate feasts that always include these iconic holiday cookies, known as Ka’ak el Eid.
Similarly, Easter is a time when many Christians take part in a fast as well — many give up something during Lent. For example, it’s very common for those celebrating the Easter season to give up sweets until Easter Sunday, when they can celebrate with friends and family over a special holiday meal that usually includes these cookies.
This year, Easter and Eid al-Fitr fall within a couple weeks of each other and it was the perfect opportunity for me to learn and test my mom's 40-year-old recipe and share it with my family and friends. Like many Middle Eastern recipes, there are unlimited variations, and I don’t just mean in the amount of butter or spices. The sizes, textures, fillings and toppings can vary greatly.
When my family and I lived in Sierra Leone, Africa, there weren’t any bakeries in our small town. My mother, aunts and family friends would make so many kinds of these cookies during the holidays. I was too young to fast for Ramadan at the time. But I loved the tradition at the end of Ramadan when we’d visit friends and family to receive gifts and eat plenty of cookies as we made our way from house to house. Let me tell you — there were so many shapes, sizes and textures, that as a kid I thought they were all different holiday cookies.
Why Can You Find Ka’ak el Eid in So Many Variations?
There are many regional interpretations of the cookie, plus the breadth of the cookie recipe just lends itself to many adaptations. Whether I was visiting family during the holidays in my childhood, or picking up cookies from a Lebanese bakery, I still find many different types of ka’ak, from crispy biscotti-like cookies to date-stuffed cookies to crumbly cookies dusted in powdered sugar.
You might find ka’ak made with instant yeast that creates soft pillowy textures, ka’ak stuffed with date paste that are sweet and chewy, ka’ak engraved with artistic prints that taste more savory than sweet, ka’ak formed into round balls sprinkled with powdered sugar — and my mom’s simplest version. My mom’s ka’ak recipe is a crispy ring-shaped cookie that doesn’t require instant yeast, stuffing with dates or placing cookies in design molds or the use of any powdered sugar.
This version has a crisp texture on the outside that flakes when bit into, but then instantly softens in your mouth with a buttery sweet flavor. It’s the perfect treat with a cup of tea or coffee, with its signature aroma. And what I love about it is that aside from the spice mix (which is easy to find at Middle Eastern stores and online nowadays), the recipe is truly made with staple baking ingredients.
The Iconic Ka’ak Spices
The one similarity between all the cookies? The spice mix! First, there’s whole anise seeds that are folded into the cookie batter and also sprinkled on top to enhance the flavor of the cookies. Then there’s a blend of ground anise (yes, more anise!), fennel, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and mahlab. While the blend itself is really important to creating that signature ka’ak taste, regardless of size or type of cookie, the key spices are anise and mahlab.
Anise seems to be more common and is easier to find. But mahlab was new to me as I was learning more about the traditional ingredients. Mahlab is a ground spice that is made from the seed kernel of a type of cherry. The kernel is extracted from the cherry and ground to create a fine white colored powder. You can buy mahlab alone or it’s often included in the ka’ak spice mix. It has a nutty flavor that’s similar to almonds, but it’s really difficult to replicate its delicate sweet flavor. While it adds a distinct aromatic taste to the cookies, a little goes a long way.
I love how a simple spice mix can transform the flavor of cookies. The smell of these Ka’ak el Eid cookies is so nostalgic with the Ramadan holiday season for me, and with the Easter holiday for many of my Middle Eastern friends.
As an Middle Eastern immigrant to the United States who also lived in Africa, I cherish all the holidays that have been a part of my upbringing. I love sharing pieces of my childhood with my own children through the food and sweets we prepare during special occasions and holidays. And nothing says holidays in the Middle East more than the sweet aroma of baked cookies with anise and mahlab.