Lebanese Glazed Sweet Bread, Ka’ik

At first everything seemed so small, which probably had to do with the narrowness of the streets and the way the homes were built almost up to the road. It was the second day of the trip to Lebanon that I had been thinking about about for the better part of my life, and already I felt a kinship with the very bedrock of the old country, a ubiquitous creamy stone that lies not too far beneath the topsoil. Along the highway leading to the village of El Mtein, one could see what appeared to be huge bites taken out of hillsides, revealing the stone underneath.

By 11 a.m., after a few stops to ask which way, we pulled up to one of the many stone houses—some rehabbed, others war-torn—lining the village streets. Waiting for us outside the front door were my cousins, along with the obvious matriarch of the family who is mother and grandmother to the clan all living together under her roof. She was holding a plate of her ka’ik (it was Easter season, and ka’ik is for Easter), offering it along with the kind of kisses that every Lebanese Sitti gives to her family and to all small children, Sitti kisses that are repeated over and over again against the cheek like a story too good to stop telling.

That none of us had met before seemed irrelevant as we recognized the family-feel in each other’s faces (it’s all in the eyes, honey) and hugged it out, reunion-style, there on the front porch. We started eating immediately the semi-sweet ka’ik, Rosalie’s being more biscuit-like than the bread versions we make. Watching my mother eat those cookies amid her people instructed me about the swoon response she has always had to the flavors of ka’ik, the mahleb and the anise: these are the flavors and fragrance of home, even a home and people she hadn’t met but always knew, in her own way.

Mom had said from the start that she would not make this trip to Lebanon with us, it was just too much for her, and then days before we left she heard me reading a message of welcome and anticipation that I’d received from her family. She looked around the table and announced, simply: I’m going.

Inside, the coffee and cigarettes came out (the smoking there is as common as the little cups of intense Arabic coffee) as we dove into the family tree. Rosalie’s husband, rest his soul, is my mother’s cousin; their fathers are brothers. Turns out the family name, my mother’s maiden name of Abowd, was actually Nacouzi in Lebanon. This discovery was made by my cousin Mary years ago; she was the first of my generation in the family to venture to Mtein, so we weren’t taken aback by this news. But tracing the name to its roots suggests something of Greece, and once that came up we turned out attention elsewhere fast.

We walked around to the back of the house, where a rebuild was in progress. The front of the house was newer, but here in the back stood the original structure that is somewhere in the ballpark of 150 years old, and perhaps older. At the heart of this side of the house is the room where my grandfather was born. In the midst of its rehab, what we saw was dusty and dark, but even that couldn’t detract from the remarkable arched stone walls and ceiling. Must have been a spartan birth, and chilly in here, my mom said, probably imagining giving birth to her five children in a space like that.

There were piles of the beautiful stone bedrock of Lebanon all around the construction site of the house, chunks that were heavy and laden with dust. One of the cousins must have sensed the magnetism the stone had for my mother, who was looking them over as though scanning for a lost treasure.

Chadi picked up a craggy stone and handed it to her; she accepted with the same deep breath with which she had accepted the ka’ik, the Sitti kisses.

From the trip to Lebanon we brought home gold, we brought holy little trinkets from Our Lady of Mount Lebanon and St. Charbel’s monastery to hold us close to what we saw and did and felt. Above all we brought a piece of Grandpa Abowd’s home. Touch the stone, and a powdery dust lingers on your fingers like its own version of a Sitti kiss, just long enough to whisper its story in your ear now and again.

Glazed Sweet Bread, Ka’ik
Ka’ik (KAH-ick) are known as Easter cookies and are always made during the Easter season. This recipe comes from Louise Shaheen, who is considered the best baker of ka’ik around. There are many versions of ka’ik, some biscuit-like and others bread-like. I grew up with the latter, which is fragrant with spices and subtly sweet. Eat the breads any time of the day; they make a perfect companion to a cup of tea in the afternoon. The ka’ik freezes well and is best kept covered tightly and eaten within a couple of days. A great online source for the molds is here. Makes 18 5-inch breads.

For the dough:
1 teaspoons/1 packet yeast
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup clarified butter
1 1/3 cups whole milk
5 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground mahleb (optional)
2 tablespoons ground anise
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon olive oil

For the glaze:
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup half and half
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon rosewater

Proof the yeast: In a small bowl, combine the yeast with 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Add ¼ cup warm water, stirring to combine, and let sit until puffy and creamy (about 10 minutes).

Warm the butter and milk in a small saucepan over low heat or in the microwave.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the hook attachment, or by hand in a large bowl, combine the yeast mixture with the remaining ¾ cup sugar, flour, mahleb, anise, nutmeg, sesame seeds and salt. Slowly add the butter and milk and mix on low speed or by hand until dough forms. Increase the speed on the mixer to knead the dough for five minutes, or by hand on the counter for 10 minutes.

Lightly oil a large bowl with the olive oil. Coat the dough in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap, then a clean kitchen towel. Set the dough in a warm spot to rise for 2 hours.

Divide the dough into 18 pieces by squeezing off balls about 2 ½ inches wide (the size can be larger or smaller, to your liking). Press each ball into the counter with the palm of the hand and rotate it round and around until any folds within it disappear, and the ball becomes homogenous. Read more about this here. To create a warm setting for the balls to rise again, place a kitchen towel on the counter and cover with plastic wrap. Place the balls on this about 2 inches apart, cover with more plastic wrap and another towel. Let the balls rise for ½ hour.

Heat the oven to 325 degrees, with a rack in the center of the oven. If using a ka’ik mold, press a ball of dough into the mold firmly with the palm of your hand. Carefully remove and place on an ungreased sheet pan. Repeat this process with the remaining dough, baking six at a time. If using your hands to shape the dough, flatten each ball with the palm of your hand. Pinch the edges five or six times around the circle and poke with the tines of a fork over the top. Place on an ungreased sheet pan. Bake one sheet pan at a time if using two pans.

Bake the ka’ik for 25-27 minutes, or until golden brown.

Make the glaze while the second pan of ka’ik bakes; glaze the ka’ik while they are still warm. Heat the butter, half and half, sugar and rose water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Simmer for one minute, then remove from heat. Pour the glaze into a dish wide enough to dip the ka’ik in. Dip each sweet bread into the glaze and place on a cooling rack to dry.

Keep the ka’ik well-covered or in an airtight container for up to three days. Eat as is or warm them in a low oven.

Print this recipe here.

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26 Responses to Lebanese Glazed Sweet Bread, Ka’ik

  1. Sofia Perez says:

    This piece gave me the chills, Maureen. Wonderful.

    • Lila Kaylor says:

      I had the opportunity to taste my cousin’s baking of your recipe for Ka’ik…..It was something that I cannot explain with regard to my heritage, and my mother and aunts and Sito baking this for all of us. I tried it once and couldn’t get it right. My cousin, however, Alexis Alhandy, just made it for her aunt’s 90th birthday party and it was absolutely wonderful. It gave me the chills and instantly made me feel my family through my whole body.

      I am new to your website and will continue to read it page by page. I am Arabic (full blooded) and love the food. This is one thing I have not been able to make. I did win an award for my Baklava and that is much easier to make.

      thank you for your wonderful recipies………..

      • Maureen Abood says:

        Lila, you made my day! That is just so special, and beautiful words–thank you for taking time to share, and please keep in touch, cousin!

  2. Amanda says:

    Oh delightful. Home, bread, kisses. Can hardly wait to try this.

  3. Theresa Jabaley says:

    Happy Easter Cousin Maureen (We must be cousins somehow)..you have made the season happy for me with this reminder of Mama’s ka’ik and Sitto kisses.

    • Joy Mansour Barranco says:

      Thank you for the most heartwarming story, yet. I hope that we can plan a trip to Lebanon soon. Our recipe for Ka’ik is different, more like a hard donut shaped cookie. It is one of my favorite things! I cannot wait to try your recipe, too.

  4. Gretchen Andeel says:

    Thank you Maureen! This American who married into the Lebanese tradition will be serving Ka’ik this Easter. Found the mahleb yesterday at a Lebanese market and have ordered the mold. It looks “do-able”… thanks for including the pictures! They answered many questions.

  5. Mary Anne says:

    Maureen,

    My aunt always made the donut shaped Ka’ik like the one in your photgraph. Is the recipe basically the same but you roll the balls into ropes and then make a circle?

    • Maureen Abood says:

      That should work fine, Mary Anne. Be sure your ropes are thin enough so that when they puff in the oven, there is still a hole in the center of the ring.

  6. Diane Nassir (My maternal grandmother was an Abowd from Ammun, Leb.) says:

    Maureen, your trip, pictures, words are for all of us who have not ventured across the sea to our homeland. My parents never went, nor have any of my maternal Atty aunts/uncle, nor have any of my maternal Atty cousins. All of the Nassir uncles and cousins have been with the exception of myself. You have made this possible for me–I am so grateful for your gentle sensibility and your talent to translate emotions into graceful words. Happy Easter Maureen, to you and yours!

  7. STH says:

    Thank you so much for this–I’ll try it as soon as I can find the time. The ka’ik that I’m used to from my ex-mother-in-law are more of the bready type, so I may skip the glaze. I’m trying to remember how she shaped them–sort of a twist shape, I think?

  8. Terri Brantley says:

    You know that Louise’s recipe would be wonderful!

  9. Cousin this is a wonderful story and the pictures are as well. Happy Easter to you and your Mom and the rest of the family.

  10. A wonderful version of the kaak b-haleeb (milk cookies) with the best spices! We used to get the ring shaped ones with anise version but i like this one too! Great post and happy Easter!

  11. Anne Saker says:

    Beautiful words and photos, cousin, just breath-taking. Thank you for the report.

  12. anice schervish chenault says:

    my non-Lebanese mom has taken over the baking of the ka’ick every easter. We use the bottom of a cut-glass ashtray as our press. She always sends me some if I can’t make it home for the holiday.

  13. Wendy Smith says:

    Hi, Maureen,

    I’m so happy to have found your website and recipe. I collect (and use) cookie and butter molds and bought a beautiful large wooden mold on ebay a couple years ago, not knowing what it was for. I guessed that it was Middle Eastern in origin because it reminded me of my mammoul molds. I just saw a similar mold on ebay with the note that it was for ka’ik, so I immediately did a search and found your wonderful recipe! I can’t wait to try it. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      That is so cool Wendy! Cool that you make a collection of cookie and butter molds, and that you wrote! Let me know how you enjoy the delicious ka’ik.

  14. Kathy Leppig says:

    Dear Maureen, I am thrilled by your story and the recipe for what we called “Easter bread”. Our grandmother Jemelia Shaheen was a wonderful cook but never really wrote down her recipes. Can’t wait to try it. Thank you. Kathy

  15. Nada khoury says:

    I have been searching for that exact kaak recipes for decades,I can,t thank you enough.plz send me any sweet,or home made recipes,I would love to try of them.
    Happy Easter to you and your family.

  16. Thelma Maynard says:

    I made your recipe. It was delicious. I took it to our family Easter Dinner. Everyone raved the Ka’ik was the best they have ever tasted. I also took a bakery purchased Ka’ik to the dinner just in case. No comparison in taste. The bakery bread was tasty, but dry. Mine was moist and truly wonderful. Thank you.
    Just a side note, if you print the directions from the “print here,”…….those directions leaves out the words …….combine the yeast mixture to the bowl. In other words, the printed directions leaves out when to add the yeast.
    Other than that….perfection!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      That is music to my ears (and eyes), Thelma! Thank you for sharing and for the detail about the PDF recipe. Much appreciated!

  17. Donna Myers says:

    Maureen; Congratulations on your recognition by The New York Times! When the Food Editor finds you, you have been found! What an honor. Donna

 

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