By: Riyam Kafri AbuLaban
The first time my mother made Kaak o Maamoul for Eid, I was around 12 maybe 13 years old. She did her research, and by research I mean she called friends, and visited with neighbours to understand how maamoul is made. The internet was the stuff of the future, and no one’s life was powered by Google at the time.
New recipes were shared frantically among friends, or discovered on an idle weekend morning while watching television, preferably the Syrian channel, because Syrians are the best at food.
Let me explain, back then you had access to about 5 channels. The Jordanian television (channels 1 and 2). The Israeli television; channel 1 in Arabic which you only watched for the 7:30 news and the Friday evening Arabi film, and Channel 2, which we never watched since we did not speak Hebrew. The Syrian television, channel 1, which we could watch only if the weather was clear. In the winter, someone had to go on the roof to adjust the antennaa to get a signal.
1 kg of Samolina
400 g margarine (two 200 g sticks)
2 ounces vegetable oil (or canoal oil)
1 kg of date paste (the good, owey goowy kind)
2 Tbsp Sugar
1 tsp Active Yeast
Rose Water (1 L)
Orange Blossom ( 1 L)
Mastic Gum ( 1 tsp)
Anise (2 Tbsp)
1 Tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 Tbsp olive oil
For the nut fillings you can use pistachios with honey, or walnuts with cinnamon. I always start with the dates because everyone loves the dates!
Preheat the oven to 185 C
So my mother researched kaak and maamoul making, bought the raw materials (ingredients listed above) and embarked on this new experiment. She stood in her small kitchen and started what we call Bass El Smeed (kneading the samolina). The Samolina is worked with the softened margarine by hand (these days I use a mixer, and it works beautifully), and is left to soak up the fat for at least one full day.
In a bowl, add the softened margarine (400 g) to the samolina ( 1000 g/ 1 kg) and mix until the samolina is crumbly and is well coated with the margarine. Add 2 0z of vegetable oil and mix a bit more. Let stand until the following day. The longer it stands the softer your samolina is and the more incorporated the fat is with it.
Then there were decisions to make, important ones. What should we use, the famous Ma’amoul mold, or the decorating tongues? In Tulkarem, my mother’s hometown, everyone used the mold. Those are hand made from wood, and you can still buy them from Nablus. There are also the made in china plastic molds (picutred below, but they are too slippery to use). The molds we use today are probably direct descendants of the molds used in Ancient Egypt, the origin of Ka’ak and Ma’amoul.
The Ancient Egyptians were ther first to make these cookies for a variety of occaions, and it is thought that they made around 100 variations in shapes and stuffing. Drawings on Pyramid walls detail the making and offering processes. Although this cookie continued to make its celebrated appearances throughout the history of Egypt, research indicates that it gained popularity during the Fatimy Dynasty rule, when a center “Dar Al Futra” was created especially to make what these cookies and everything else usually exchanged during Eid holidays.
One day later (or maybe two), ground your anise with your mastic gum (2 Tbsp of Anise and 1 Tsp of mastic gum) Add 1 Tbsp of the ground mix to your samolina with 2 Tbsp sugar, and 1 tsp active yeast.
Another important decision to make, a decision that will essentially become your siganture, is what will you work your samolina with? Orange blossom and rose water? Milk? Will you add a little bit of flour? Will you add mastic, what spices and herbs can you add? Or will you buy the ready spice mix? Every answer is a key ingredient to the kaak maker you become and the level of expertise you will be viewed to hold. For example a cookie made of only smeed (samolina) and decorated with tongues not the mold is often a sign of culinary mastery….
As you could have guessed, my mother, chose the all samolina, rose water and orange blosom recipe and from then on, spent years experimenting every Eid until she was finally happy with the outcome, and so where we. I have since then experimented with her recipe, and what I share with you is one version I found to gurantee a crumbly cookie that holds beautifully. We both use the tongue to decorate the cookies not the mold.
In a measuring cup, measure 200 mL of rose water and 100 mL of Orange blossom water. Add the water mix gradually to you dough and work with your hands until you have a maleable, slighly moist dough that does not stick to your hands. The art and magic is in this step. Too much water will make the dough difficult to work, and dry dough will crumble way before you put it in the oven.
Since its inception, Kaak making, was a team effort. The women in the family or in the Hara (the block) would get together to help each other. So for her first time making maamoul, my mother joined our neighbors at Um Amjad’s house. Together I believe ( I could be wrong) they made 12 kg of samolina which can easily translate to 24 kg of ready to eat cookies. I remeber my mother was gone for a couple of days, we were left to fend for ourselves. This meant we played with our bicycyles endlessly in the street and ate ridiculous amounts of ice-cream. She did come home to give us lunch, but left in a hurry to return to Um Amjad’s house.
We were not allowed near the kitchen for fear that our long hair will make it into the dough, or worse, that we would get burnt by the round electric ovens used to bake the cookies in. Both are equally tragic incidents that must be avoided at all costs.
Cut your dough into small balls. The balls should be smaller than the size of a golf ball, I think a generous pinch is the perfect size because you want enough dough to protect your tender date paste
In Um Amjad’s kitchen the sub taks at hand were divided amone the women. The one who mixed the rose and orange blossom water with the dough, the one who cut the dough into circles, the ones who rolled date paste into strings, the one who stuffed the dough , and the one who decorated the kaak.
In Ramallah, people opt for decorating tongues not molds. They are small tongues with a zizagged edge used to doecorate the cookie with patterns. It is thought that this pattern is meant to give the cookie the look of a crown similar to the one Jesus Christ wore during his Crucification. I am not sure of this fact though, and I will confirm it once I can. In Ramallah, almost everyone uses tongues, so no matter what the origin of the docoration is, the tradition clearly melted across religious lines and is now nothing but a sign that Easter and Eid are here! And the cookies are symbolic of the sweet reward after long days of fasting for both Christians during lent, and Muslims during Ramadan.
Mix your date paste with 1 Tbsp cinnamon, 1 tsp cloves, 1/4 tsp nutmeg and 2 Tbsp olive oil. Work the paste with your hands unitl evenly mixed. Cut into small balls. You can also roll out into short strings. Or you can keep in a lump and take a small amount for each cookie.
In many years to come, my mother would encourage us to help. We were charged with two tasks; rolling the date paste into strings, and if we proved to be trustworthy, we were asked to decorate the cookies which meant we could proudly boast about it when guests came to our home for Eid.
Take one ball, flatten it with your fingers into a circle; take a small amount of date paste and place in a ring on the insdie of the circle. Fold the dough over the dates and shape into a disk. Take the unsharpenned end of a pencil and make a whole in the center. Put down and repeat.
Making Kaak o’ Maamoul is a power play in one’s own kitchen. It is a mark that you are a force to be reckonned with. And it speaks volumes on kitchen power relations within a family. Palestinian (and Arab kitchens) much like other tratidional kitchens in the world are filled with power relations. Some are cross generational others are not; new bride vs. older women, new mother trying to establish her own traditions, unamarried daugther vs. daughters-in-law; unmarried daughters vs mother.
Kitchens are complex hieracial power houses. You can of course choose to look at them as a place where women are held in bondage; cooking, cleaning, barefoot, and unkept. Or you can re-iamgine them as places of bounty, fertility and love.
You can choose to imagine an unkept woman sweating her way through a summer afternoon while she makes ka’ak, or you can look passt the sweat and watch a rather curvacious goddess with a messy bun piled on top of her head, wiping away smudges of flour as she tenderly stuffs the cookies, decorates them and then relentlessly sears them in an unforgiving oven.
Using tognuges gently pinch the cookie all the way around in vertica lines. Pinch the top of the cookie in diagonal lines. Make sure you do it gently and you don’t over pinch that your date filling (or nut filling) is showing) Place on parchment paper and allow to rest for at least an hour.
She is perhaps a successful business woman, a well educated professor, a teacher, and a writer. Or she is staying at home to care for her children until they grow up. Women are complex and multilayered, and they are able to transition in and out of their kitchens into the work force with what seems like a lot of grace. They pursue everything they do with attention to detail, never compromising any, always expecting perfection.
Bake in a preheated oven at 185 C. Watch over your cookies carefully, and turn the pan twice. It will take about 10 minutes to bake, pull out just as the tops start to get a sligh golden brown color and let cool.
Kitchens are the womb of sustenance, the center in which our early identities are formed. They are symbols of perseverance acrosst the ages. If we did not learn to cook, we would not have survived as a species. And while the discourse on kitchens is often been associated with women opression, it might be worth entertaining the idea that kitchens are strongholds, not prisons, that a kitchen is the epicenter of our cultural identiy.
The most important conversations I had with my mother as a child were in the kitchen. The decision to study abroad, the news that I met someone I want to marry, the endless discussions of career choices, countless tears of joy, and just as many tears of pain. When my mother had a stent placed in one of her coronary arteries, the kitchen became my source of power, as I prepared the Eid meal for all of us and she watched over. I want us to dare to reimainge the kitchen as place where we are most human, because cooking is an essence of our humanity. What if we reclaim the kitchen narrative away from tradition and mysogynistic discourse.
Whether it is a co-op kitchen in Burj El Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon where women cook traditional Palestinian dishes of their destoryed villages and sell them, or a large modern state of the art kitchen in a new home in Ramallah, where a PhD in Chemsitry dares to admit her love of food, cooking and food politics, we are all connected. Our early identity is formed through our food experiences as we watch our mothers, aunts and grandmothers cook and serve food. As they discuss what vegetable is in season, and where to get the best labaneh. Our connection to our land begins with a boiling pot of mlokhiyyeh or bamieh.
Once cooled, dust with powdered sugar or don’t, whichever you like…drown each bite with a sip of coffee (Arabic coffee, Espresso, or filter coffee, your choice really) or even better a cup of tea with mints…
Kaak and Maamoul is a silent conversation I have with myself. When I make it, I do it alone; a far contrast from Um Amjad and my mohter’s noisy kitchens when all the neighbours came around to help out. Cooking for me has always been a solitary act, a place to lose one’s self away from day to day life. But making kaak is also a silent coming of age conversation I have with my mother; a daugther who left the nest to maker her own.
On the first day of Eid my parents visit me in the afternoon; my mother sits in our living room and reaches for one of the cookies. She bites into it, and across the room she approves of the taste, or offers a hint for next year. In that moment, we become equals, two career women who never shied away from their rolls as mothers and wives meticulously providing their families a life time of love and traditions…
She acknowledge the similarities we share whether at home or in our career choices; even if she openly objects to the many projects I get myself into and she most certainly does not fully understand why after ten years of a PhD in chemistry, I have abandoned the lab completely and moved into the kitchen instead!
Happy Eid Adha to all!
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