My Mom’s Traditional Date Stuffed Arab Cookie, with orange blossom and a cookie dough of farina and Arab spices, shaped in a wooden Ma’moul mold.
This cookie, known as Kaak bel Ajweh, is the cookie recipe most loved from my childhood.
Traditional Arab Desserts
While many of us know and love the well known Baklawa, nuts stuffed inside of phyllo pastry and drizzled with honey; cookies in the Arab world are equally scrumptious, yet perhaps less known.
In the Arab world of cooking, honey is often the sweetener used in desserts, along with lots of nuts, dried fruits and spices.
Traditional Arab Cookies
In a Middle Eastern home, cookies and pastries are regularly made and stored in the fridge for unexpected visitors.
My mom used to tell me of the tradition she learned from her father, “When friends, family or a new comer stops in for a visit, never ask what you can offer them, simply lavish the table with pastries and coffee”.
This tradition was a way of making any guest feel welcome in the home, but also a way to show that the man or woman of the home, were of refined upbringing and proper etiquette.
Arab Cookies In America
Cookies from the Middle East, are unlike most other cookies from around the world, especially here in America.
Basically the use of nuts, seeds, dried fruits and honey, are often the base of the ingredients that sets them apart.
Although nut flours, farina or semolina, are often what make up the dough, all purpose flour can be used as well.
Also, as an added measure of exotic flavor, which usual come from the floral essence of orange blossom water or rosewater, an extract of your choice can be substituted.
Arab cookies are often stuffed with – dare I say – healthy ingredients, pressed into beautiful shapes, using a traditional wooden mold, or are simply molded in the palm of your hand.
My Mom’s Cookies
While the bases of most cookies around the world are flour, butter and sugar, my mom’s cookies seemed so much more elaborate and healthy.
Great care and time went into the making of the dough for her cookies, back when I was a kid.
We didn’t have a blender, or food processor to grind, or chop nuts or dried fruits, and so it was done by hand.
Consequently, the crushing nuts, into the consistency of flour, took time and patience, especially if the nuts were still in their shell.
Today, we have the help of a food processor, which grinds nuts into a beautiful flour in minutes, as it also purees dried fruits into a paste equally as fast.
Date Stuffed Cookies
There is no cookie quite as elegant to look at or satisfying to eat as a cookie that crunches on the outside, yet has a soft, rich flavors on the inside.
Once the dates have been pitted and roughly chopped, I soak them in a little liquor and the essence of either orange blossom or rosewater.
This step both balances the intense sweetness of the dates and makes them easy to puree into a paste, without the addition of butter or oil.
Since dates are so sweet, much sweeter than processed sugar, very little sugar needs to be added to the cookie dough, making Arab cookies healthier than most other types of cookies.
What Flavors Are Used In Arab Cookies
Specific spices or essence, are what set one ethnic flavor apart from another. In Middle Eastern sweets, the flavors of delicate, and often floral, extracts are most common.
A popular spice, in Arab cookies, is Mahleb, an aromatic spice made from the seeds of a type of cherry.
Before the cherry stones can be used, they are opened to extract the seed kernel, the seed kernel is then ground into a powder.
The flavor of Mahleb is of a gentle, warm nutty, yet slightly fruity essence, and is often added to sweet breads or the dough of pastries.
Arab Cookie Flavor Substitutions
While orange blossom water, or rosewater are flavors added to the preparation of Middle Eastern desserts, vanilla or almond extract makes for a good substitution.
Interestingly enough, blossom water is produced through a water distillation of the floral blossom, creating the essence of the flower, highly prized in Middle Eastern cooking.
Comparatively, though, if a similar flavor to the traditional Arab flavors are what you are after, a variety of liquors can be used, such as Ouzo or Arak, which most liquor stores sell.
These flavors can also be used in American baking, to add an exotic twist to our American ingredients; like the Cranberry Orange Blossom Pie I make every Autumn, when cranberries are in season.
The Arab Tradition Of Meze
As I explained the tradition of how one greets an unexpected visitor in the home, with the sudden spread of pastries and coffee, the same tradition applies when a savory spread is desired.
Likened to Tapas, Meze is my most favorite way to dine, because lots and lots of small plates, of favorite dishes, are served as a spread, to eat as and what you like.
For this reason, I created a lovely collection into a cookbook I called The World On My Plate.
A dessert table, in a situation such as this, is grand; a variety of sweets, coffee, tea and liquors. It was often said, by my mom, “If the dessert table is grand, then you know much attention will have been taken for the savory dishes being served”.
To this day, in my home, I will prepare a meze spread for occasions that call for long lingering hours of conversation and fellowship.
How To Make Date Stuffed Arab Cookies
Once the dough is mixed, which has a little yeast in it having been dissolved in the milk, it is set aside to rest for about an hour.
While not everyone adds yeast to this cookie, I find it adds a little substance and stability to the dough, keeping the filling in place.
Next, while the dough is resting, the filling is made by soaking the dates in orange blossom and a little rum.
Then the dough is divided into equal size balls, as is the date paste into much smaller balls. Finally, the ball of dough is pressed into a flat round, setting the smaller date ball into the center and forming the dough completely around the ball.
This step can then be pressed into the wooden mold for a decorative finish, are shaped into a crescent moon shape, which is also traditional.
Traditional Arab Cooking Finds New Friends On Social Media
I would like to close this story by sharing a beautiful social media story with you.
Ma’moul is another type of Arabic cookie filled with nuts, as apposed to dates. It is probably the most known cookie of the Arab world.
A beautifully carved wooden mold is used to press the cookie dough into the mold to create design on the cookie before it is baked.
The mold my mom once had, long ago disappeared as my sisters and I became more interested in American desserts, popular back in the 50’s and 60’s.
Now, as a mom and grandma, I wanted to pass on recipes to my family from their grandma and great grandma’s traditions. I needed to find that wooden mold!
Arab Moms Share Traditional Cooking
One day, while on Instagram, I made a new social media friend, I live in Maryland and she lives in South Dakota.
She was born in Damascus, while I was born in America, trying to cling to my mother’s heritage.
I asked her where I might find this ma’moul mold, she asked for my address and in less than a week, she had sent me two molds right from her kitchen.
This, is something family does, and what new friends, of the same roots, will do for each other.
Thank you Sanaa Abourezk, my new friend and ethnic sister. Oh!! Do you all want to know another common link that brought us together to become friends?
Sanaa whopped Bobby Flay on Beat Bobby Flay, while I, as well, walked away with the prize on Guys Grocery Games. One day Sanaa and I will cook something amazing together for you!
- Farina (Cream of Wheat)
- Confection sugar
- Pitted dates
- Orange blossom
- Mixing bowls
- Food processor
- Measuring cup
- Measuring spoons
- Chopping board
- Chopping knife
- Parchment paper
- Ma’moul mold (optional)
- Cookie sheet
Traditional Date Stuffed Arab CookieCourse: DessertCuisine: MediterraneanDifficulty: Technical
A traditional Arab orange blossom and date stuffed cookie dough, of farina and spices.
Farina or Cream of Wheat – 2 cups
Flour – 1 cup, extra for shaping dough
Butter – 1 cup (2 sticks), softened
Confection sugar – 1/2 cup
Milk – 1/2 cup
Mahleb – 1/2 tsp (cardamom as a substitute)
Yeast – 1/2 teaspoon
Salt – 1/2 tsp
Date Paste (below)
Pitted Dates – 1lb
Orange blossom – 1/2 tsp
Rum or other liquor – 1/3 cup
- In a large mixing bowl, place the milk and yeast and allow to sit for 5 minutes.
- Into the milk, whisk the sugar, mahlab, salt, farina and flour. Work the soft butter into the mixture until a dough is formed. Shape the dough into a long log, wrap in parchment paper, cover and allow to sit out for an hour.
- In the bowl of the food processor, place the rough chopped, pitted dates, orange blossom and rum. Allow to stand for 10 minutes. Puree into a paste. Form the paste into a long log, wrap in parchment paper and place in the fridge until ready to shape.
- Slice the dough into 24 pieces. Shape into balls. Slice 24 pieces of the date paste into balls 1/3 the size of the dough balls. Flatten the dough ball, place the date ball in the center and form the dough completely around it. Do the same for the remaining balls.
- Preheat oven 325. Place parchment paper onto a cookie sheet.
- If you have the wooden mold, press each prepared dough ball into the mold, tap it against the counter to pop it out and place them on the cookie sheet. If you have no mold, simply place the cookie balls on the baking sheet.
- Bake until the cookies are light gold and the dough feels dry. Cool and serve.
- The cookies will keep in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks or can be frozen for about a month.