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.
- For the dough:
- 1 teaspoons/1 packet yeast
- ¾ cup sugar
- ¾ cup clarified butter
- 1⅓ 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
- 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.