The holidays can be a frenetic mix of stress and festivities, where mounting bills, social obligations and long lines intermix with family gatherings, spiritual activities and sparkling lights.
One way to bring quiet sanity to your day amid the melee is by baking goodies to give to the ones you love in the sanctuary of your kitchen. The methodical acts of measuring, stirring, sifting, baking and all of the scents that accompany them offer an escape from the daily grind.
If you can dig up a nostalgic recipe that has been in the family for years, all the better to bring it back to life and reminisce about your childhood. One cookie that conjures up sweet memories of my childhood is the Arab cookie Ka’ak bi Yansoon, or anise sesame cookie.
Ka’ak bi Yansoon is not your average chocolate chip or oatmeal cookie. Crumbly, nutty and tender to the bite, they pair perfectly with a warm, soothing beverage. You can feel the licorice flavor of anise melting in your mouth with a sip of hot tea. I relished eating these cookies at my grandparents’ house, listening to their stories.
My family believed that the ground anise seed in these cookies soothed the stomach, so they would give me these cookies when I had a stomachache. Being occasionally mischievous, I would fake a stomachache to get these cookies as a treat. However, there is actual scientific data that supports the beneficial properties of anise, as this herb has a plethora of medicinal applications. Apothecaries infuse anise seeds and oil into medicines to soothe upset stomach, intestinal gas, runny nose, insomnia, constipation and nausea.
While the traditional anise cookies my grandmother made used butter or ghee, I experimented and found that avocado oil yields a more tender texture. Cold-pressed avocado oil might cost more but is more of a whole-food-based oil that doesn’t have the chemical processing and inflammatory properties of other vegetable and seed oils. Sunflower, canola and corn oils tend to be heated under high temperatures, and are loaded with hexane and other chemicals. This recipe uses eggs, but if you are allergic to eggs you can use a flax “egg” consisting of 1 tablespoon ground flax seeds along with 2 1/2 tablespoons water. Whisk together before adding to the batter.
Aside from any health benefits, these cookies simply remind me of quality time with family. When I crave the old days of conversing with my grandparents’ generation, I make these cookies to force myself to slow down and remember those special times. Perhaps “conversation cookies” is a more apt name.
Blanche Shaheen is a journalist, host of the YouTube cooking show “Feast in the Middle East” and cookbook author. To purchase her cookbook, visit FeastInTheMiddleEast.com. Follow her on Instagram at @BlancheMedia.
Ka’ak bi Yansoon (Anise Sesame Cookies)
• 1 cup sugar
• 3 eggs
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 cup avocado oil (or any nonprocessed, cold-pressed vegetable oil)
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 2 tablespoons ground anise seeds
• 2 1/2 to 3 cups flour (add more flour as you go if dough is too sticky)
• 1/2 cup sesame seeds
• 1/4 cup heavy cream
Preheat oven to 400 F. In large bowl, beat three eggs using hand mixer. Add vegetable oil and sugar and beat until light and fluffy, approximately 3 minutes. Mix until soft, pliable dough forms. Dough should not be sticky, so add more flour in small increments if you need to so dough won’t stick. Shape dough with hands, using approximately 2 tablespoons of dough per cookie. Pull off ball of dough and roll into approximately 5-inch-by-3/4-inch log under the palm of your hand on work surface. If you feel air pockets on dough, knead it a bit and roll it again. Bring two ends of log together to form ring, placing one end over other and pressing down on top piece to secure it.
In another small bowl, place cream. Brush cookies with heavy cream. Then gently press each cookie into sesame seeds and lay on baking sheet. Repeat this with remaining dough, making approximately 20 cookies spaced about an inch apart on sheet. Adjust rack to center of oven and bake cookies until golden brown, approximately 12 minutes. Remove from oven and cool cookies completely on wire rack.
Store cookies in airtight container for up to two weeks.