Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lebanese Cake Spice: The Secret to Falling in Love with Anise

For many years I simply could not wrap my taste buds around the flavor of anise. As a child I thought it was the Limburger of spices, evil twin of black licorice (a jelly bean buzzkill on Easter). Anise tastes sweet on its own so it would stand to reason that a child should be partial to the flavor. Add the slightly numbing and cooling effects of anise and everything becomes clear; to a kid (and some adults) anise tastes like medicine.

Anise, star anise, black licorice, and fennel have a single flavor molecule in common; anethole. Unlike the gentle warmth of cinnamaldehyde (found in cinnamon) anethole asserts itself like the embrace of an overly perfumed grand dame whose scent haunts your nostrils long after she's hugged the oxygen out of you. When anethole meets taste buds it has a tendency to linger which is why fennel and anise are great breath fresheners; chewed on their own or imbibed in a liqueur (the digestif powers of anise-flavored Arak are renown in the Middle East).

No matter how much you may dislike anise the spice is terrific if it is part of a blend used in conjunction with citrus zest and vanilla. The distinctive perfume of an Italian bakery includes anise along with a mélange of vanilla, lemon, orange and almonds. How did the Italians get sweet on anise? Food history points a delicious finger at the Moors who had an undisputed influence on the cuisine of Sicily.

Ka'ak is a classic Middle Eastern cake spice used to flavor a variety of pastry (most notable Ka'ak il Eid or Ka'ak El Abbas). Hashems Nuts and Coffee Gallery in Dearborn, Michigan sells a proprietary Ka'ak spice blend that was formulated by the owners' 90-year-old grandmother. When asked about the history of the spice blends co-owner Wassam Hashem says, "All the spice blends that we sell in the shop come from my grandmother's recipes. She got them from her mom and her mom got them from her mother which makes our spice recipes easily over 100 years old. We never change our recipes and prefer to keep them as authentic and traditional as we can."

Though Wassam won't disclose all the ingredients in Hashems Ka'ak Spice Blend (it's a family secret) the website shares the main constituents: anise, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, mahlab, sesame seeds and black caraway seed. Glass Petal Smoke's recipe for Lebanese Cake Spice Cookies is a riff on the American icebox cookie with a twist. Expect your house to smell like a bakery when these cookies are in the oven. Don't expect the cookies to last long; they have a tendency to disappear.

Lebanese Cake Spice Cookies
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
Yield: 60 cookies

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour (sifted)
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 ½ teaspoons aluminum-free baking powder
4 ounces (one stick) unsalted butter (softened at room temperature)
1 tablespoon Mexican vanilla extract
¾ cup organic granulated sugar
1 organic egg (room temperature)
2 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Hashems Ka’ak Spice Blend
Grated zest of one large organic lemon

·      Cut a 20 inch piece of wax paper and set aside. This will be used to chill the cookie dough.
·      Sift flour, salt, baking powder and Ka’ak spice in a large bowl. Set aside
·      In a small bowl grate lemon peel using a zester.
·      Add egg to the zest and incorporate.
·      Blend vanilla extract into the egg and zest mixture.
·      In another small glass bowl microwave the butter for 15 seconds (or enough time to liquefy without heating it).
·      Add sugar to butter and incorporate.
·      Mix butter mixture with the egg mixture.
·      Add liquid ingredients to dry ingredients, stirring gently with a silicone spatula.
·      Mix the dough thoroughly with your hands. It will have a soft consistency.
·      Using a tablespoon, spoon out dough onto the middle third of a sheet of wax paper and form a 12 inch oblong roll. The dough should be one inch thick and 2 ½ inches wide.
·      Fold the bottom third of the wax paper over the dough, taking care to keep the shape of the dough to the specified measurements. Use your hands to smooth the paper over the dough.
·      Fold the top third of the wax paper over the dough and seal the dough at the ends.
·      Put the wax paper covered dough in the freezer for 1 ½ to 2 hours (or until it is firm). It should be chilled so you can slice through it (not rock hard).
·      Divide oven rack into thirds.
·      Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
·      Line two cookie trays with parchment paper.
·      Unwrap the dough on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife cut ¼ inch slices of dough and place cookies 1 inch apart on each cookie sheet.
·      Bake for 8-10 minutes, reversing trays from top to bottom and front and back to ensure even baking.
·      These cookies will be a light golden color when they are done. The edges will be a soft nutty brown.
·      Allow cookies to cool. Transfer to a wire cooling rack when they are no longer hot.
·      Store in an airtight container.

Hashems sells their spices online. Glass Petal Smoke highly recommends Hashems coffee. They will be happy to grind it with cardamom for you. Hashems also sells green coffee beans with which you can make Saudi-style coffee.

In Arabic the word ka'ak means cake, but can refer to other types of pastry. Cake spice blends vary by culture and tradition. Jordanian "Sweet Spice" contains a blend of fennel and anise to support warm spices like cinnamon (this blend is available at the Super Green Land Market in Dearborn, Michigan). Penzys Chinese Five Spice Powder, Apple Pie Spice, Pumpkin Pie Spice and Cake Spice are also terrific examples of cake spice blends.

To learn more about the cuisine of Lebanon read Saha: A Chef's Journey through Lebanon and Syria by Greg Malouf and Lucy Malouf.  It is one of the most beautiful and informative books of its kind.

Image Credits:
Hashems Nuts and Coffee Gallery, which opened in Lebanon in 1959, is still serving customers in the southern village of Bint Jbeil. The photo accompanying this story is of Wassam's father (holding the Oud) and his brother Ahmad (holding the tambourine). Ahmad and Wassam run the the family's store in Dearborn, Michigan. Copyright owned by Hashems. Used with permission.