This week I would like to introduce you to Syrian fika (Swedish cultural concept: to have coffee with biscuits). I have talked about my favourite Middle Eastern sesame-pistachio biscuits, Barazek, before. Last year in Jordan I went on a four-week hunt to find them. The reason it was difficult is because I spent most my time in a small village with two bakeries which did not sell the variant I love most, and which I know mainly from Syria. Of course when something seems further away then ever… you only want it more. So I have been on the lookout for a recipe. And what do you know, last week, I found one.
Before I write out my recipe you should know I copied it nearly entirely from Brownie Box, a Lebanese blogger who clearly has years more practical experience with the biscuits than I do. I knew this was the recipe, because she wrote exactly how I feel about it: “… making them from scratch (especially now that Syria feels like a world away) <…> I felt like I conquered the world when the barazek turned out just as good as the ones we used to get from Damascus.” My mum always brought a big box whenever she had been to Syria and to me they taste like childhood memories. They have to be small and thin, and the toasted sesame should linger on your tastebuds long after all the biscuits are finished. The slight problem I was having with the barazek I tracked down in Jordan last year, is that they were a big bigger and chewier. The same went for this recipe: I felt like the sugar and butter made it a little too chewy. This can partially be attributed to me: I should have squished them flatter. However, it did cause me to decide to experiment with different ingredients. I used a nutty rapeseed oil instead of butter and honey instead of sugar, which resulted in crispier biscuits, with with enhanced nutty-honey flavours. Plus now it is healhier and dairy free too! Great! Also, the rest of the internet recommends variations with eggs and vinegar and lots of different ingredient combinations; I tried none of those. Brownie Box recommends the secret ingredient mahlab (ground cherry powder) which I can get behind. However, it kinds of requires access to a Middle Eastern market. Here in my little German village I opted for half a teaspoon of cardamom mixed in with the sesame seeds instead. So, without further ado, my nearly entirely copied but slightly adapted recipe:
- 75 gr unsalted butter (room temp.) or 75 ml oil (e.g. rapeseed; not olive oil!)
- 75 gr granulated sugar or another 75 ml honey
- 1 gr baking powder
- 150 gr all-purpose flour (but 200 gr if you used the honey/oil combo)
- 2.5 gr active dry yeast
- 20 ml milk (leave this ingredient out if using honey/oil combo!)
Cream together the butter and sugar (or just put oil and honey in a bowl), add the flour, baking powder and yeast, and combine until it looks like a dough. If it is very dry add some of the milk; but don’t enthusiastically add all 20 ml at once because it could be a bit much. I then covered it in a bowl and let it hang out in the fridge for a while (but Brownie Box recommends room temperature; I am going to guess because yeast likes that much better). I got on with the syrup (see below), covering a ton of baking trays in baking paper (I made one dairy version and one non-dairy version, which resulted in ca. 100 biscuits!), and pre-heating the oven to 170 degrees (I like 180, Brownie Box likes 160, this is a good average?). You then want to take a teaspoon and use that as a rough measurement for the amount of dough to scoop up. Squish it between your hands (as thin as possible, but not so thin that all the sesame and pistachios stick right through…).
The Syrup and Nuts
- 30 ml honey
- 30 ml water
- 100 gr white sesame seeds (toasted till light-brown!)
- 50 gr chopped pistachios
- ¼ tsp cardamom (or mahlab if you have it!)
Add the water and honey together in a small pan and heat until it is all dissolved; then let it cool for a little while. The way I did it, was I got a plate, covered the surface in the syrup, covered the syrup in sesame seeds. Got a second place, with the remainder of the sesame seeds and my sprinkle of cardamom. And a third plate, with the (very finely chopped) pistachios. So then I took a biscuit and a) pressed it into the sesame syrup b) pressed it into the remaining sesames and c) pressed the other side into the pistachios.
Place them all sesame-side up on the baking tray and bake for ca. 25 minutes or until the edges start to turn nice and golden-crisp. Do not try to eat them straight away because they need a little time to cool down and become hard, otherwise the experience is just not the same.
Of course there is a perfect drink that matches these biscuits: Turkish coffee (Türk kahvesi / qahwa turkiyeh). Coffee beans are very finely ground, together with cardamom, and then simmered in a pot (most typically in a brass cezve / rakwa). Often also with a very generous quantity of sugar. I would use four tablespoons of coffee and then five coffee cups of water (see below for cups). You want to stir this together and then let it sit until it almost comes to a boil (c. 3-4 minutes, but watch like a hawk for bubbles starting to come up around the edges!). Then you pick it up, stir it, put it back down, and wait for it to almost boil again (it will be a little faster this time). Sometimes I even repeat the process three times. Let it sit for a few minutes once it’s done, so the ground coffee has a chance to sink to the bottom of the can.
My lovely coffee cups come from the Iraq al-Amir Women’s Co-operative. I did not take any photos there because I was too busy picking out coffee cups, but I found a blog-post here where someone did succeed at taking beautiful pictures of the place. I do not like being shoveled into carpet-selling and perfume-making shops, but I can happily report that this is not one of those situations. The Co-operative was founded by Queen Noor in the 1990s, who focused on raising the living standard of rural women, reducing poverty and preserving the nation’s heritage. This Co-operative specialises in empowering local women through learning and managing their own weaving, paper work and pottery. The business is still alive today, now funded by the women themselves. It was also very quiet however; not exactly a buzzing bazaar. Because of economic problems… or because the project was successful, women were empowered, and they now work elsewhere? I know what the optimist in me likes to think.
Of course circumstances have changed in the past 20 years. While there are still too many women (and men) living in poverty, things have improved somewhat, and increasingly girls consider school over weaving (not to say that it is not very cool to learn how to weave btw). For example, in 1995 the literacy rate in Jordan was 86% while by 2012 it was 96% (and youth literacy is nearly 100%!).That said, it is not like they created a Men’s Co-operative for weaving and pottery. The participation of women in the labour force in is only 22%, versus 87% for men. There is excessive gender-stereotyping that needs to be improved upon further. Unemployment, under-employment, differences in wages and occupational segregation are the four main factors in the economy that impact women’s level of labour. In that sense the Co-operative is helpful because it creates jobs, but unhelpful when it comes to long-term improvement in the labour market.
These coffee cups have some story, don’t they.