There are many versions of Lebanese ka’ik (or ka’ak), some biscuit-like and others bread-like. I grew up with the latter, a Lebanese glazed sweet bread which is fragrant with spices and subtly sweet. Eat the breads any time of the day: toasted for breakfast, as acompanion to a cup of tea in the afternoon, or as a dessert with coffee and fruit. Find the molds at Maureen Abood Market.
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.
Ka’ik (KAH-ick) are known as Easter cookies and are traditionally made during the Easter season. There are many versions of ka’ik, some biscuit-like and others bread-like. This recipe is the latter, which is fragrant with spices and subtly sweet; the little loaves here are filled with a mixture of dates and walnuts. I like to make some with the filling, and some without. The ka’ik freezes well, or keep at room temperature covered tightly and eat within a couple of days. But there is nothing like ka'ik fresh from the oven. I'm proud to share beautiful ka'ik molds for sale at Maureen Abood Market here.
For the sweet bread:
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
- 3/4 cup (150 g) granulated sugar, divided
- 3/4 cup (180 g) clarified butter
- 1 1/3 cups (320 ml) whole milk
- 5 1/2 cups (715 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon mahleb, freshly ground
- 2 tablespoons anise seed, freshly ground
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon olive oil, to grease the bowl
For the date filling:
- 1 1/2 cups date paste (try DateMe Boutique!)
- 1 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
For the rose water milk glaze:
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) half-and-half
- 1/2 cup (100 g) granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon rose water
For the sweet bread:
Proof the yeast by dissolving it in 1/4 cup of warm water with a tablespoon of the sugar. After about 10 minutes, the yeast will activate, becoming creamy and foamy.
Warm the clarified butter and milk in a small saucepan over low heat or in the microwave just until the butter is melted.
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.
To create a warm setting for the balls to rise again, place a kitchen towel on the counter and cover with plastic wrap. Divide the dough into 18 pieces by cutting or squeezing off balls about 2 ½ inches wide (the size can be larger or smaller, to your liking). 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 new ka’ik mold, lightly brush it with oil.
Take a dough ball and make a deep indentation in the middle with your finger. Take about a tablespoon of date-nut paste and flatten it, then push the date paste into the indentation. Pull the dough up around the date paste and close the dough over it, pinching firmly and repeatedly until the seam is completely closed. As you work, push down on the date-filled ball to be sure there aren't any air pockets around the filling.
Using all of your strength, press the ball of dough into the mold firmly with the palm of your hand numerous times to get the imprint on the top of the dough. Carefully remove the flattened dough and place face-up on an ungreased sheet pan. Carefully remove and place face-up 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 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown.
Make the glaze while ka’ik bakes. 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.
Glaze the ka’ik while they are still warm. Dip each sweet bread face-down 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 them at room temperature, toasted, or warm them in a low oven.