Today and tomorrow are the birthdays of two special men in my life. Today is my dad's birthday, and tomorrow is my uncle John's Birthday. In honor of their special days, I am making yet another Lebanese recipe that reminds me of time spent together as a family during the holidays growing up.
I visited Beirut for the first (and so far only) time when I was 13 years old. I was in the eighth grade, and it was spring break. I went with my two uncles, my aunt, and my baby cousin. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life meeting most of my dad's side of the family for the first time. I have a big family, and they were all genuinely happy to have us there. They were even happier to offer up any and every type of food I could ever imagine, exceedingly more than my stomach could handle. The family seemed to spend so much time together, and much of it seemed centered around food (which was of course fine by me). I seem to remember doing a whole lot for just having visited for about 10 days. I saw the house where my dad was born, we had a big snowball fight in this woodsy area among the famous cedars of Lebanon, we visited ruins, I shopped in a jewelry market, we drove along the coast where I got to see what was described to me as "suicide rock", and I even got to visit a bakery where I was allowed to try my hand at baking manaeesh which became a favorite of mine. We also visited a huge bakery called Sea Sweet, which was full of French pastries. It honestly surprises me that I remember the name of that bakery, but I guess it really left an impression.
Something else that left a strong impression was seeing many of the women in my family sitting around a large table in a small apartment making hundreds of Easter cookies. I know when you think of Easter cookies, you think of colorful sprinkles, jelly beans, or even those weird, almost chalky, sugar cookies with super sweet, thick and firm icing that you buy at the grocery store in the bakery section. These cookies are not like that. They are shaped like small, thin doughnuts and are stuffed with a date mixture. The cookie part is crumbly and not to sweet because the dates are. I really cannot think of anything to which they are similar. They are not pretty, and I even admit that you really need to have a taste for them. The cookies are incredibly traditional, and I have a soft spot in my memory and in my stomach for them. They are so distinct that even as I started making them, the smell of the dough made me nostalgic. I literally brought Zach over to my baking table and had him to smell it. I felt like that smell could almost let him experience a part of my past in a way that cannot be accomplished through hearing stories and seeing pictures. Even now, as I write this, the cookies are baking. The smell is so strong in my small apartment, and it reminds me of times sharing these cookies with the people I love every Christmas when my aunt would make them. So that is what I am going to do, share them with the people I love.... specifically my dad and uncle for their birthdays. Two tins of these cookies will be shipped out on Tuesday morning, one to Tampa and the other to Denver. Happy Birthday! Since this is my first time making these cookies, I think I will call them:
First Date Cookies
(This recipe comes from a great Lebanese cooking blog called, Taste of Beirut)
1 lb. of semolina
1 lb. of farina or cream of wheat
4 sticks of unsalted butter (softened or melted down to form a creamy texture)
3/4 cup of granulated sugar
1/2 cup of milk
1/4 cup of rose water
1/4 cup of orange blossom water
1 teaspoon of mahlab, (optional, but I used it)
1 lb date paste (also called baking dates)
I found all of these ingredients easily at an Armenian grocery store, but I am fairly confident you will find everything listed here besides the mahlab at any major grocery store.
Mix semolina, farina (or cream of wheat), mahlab and sugar to blend.
Mix in the butter until consistent throughout.
Add the milk, rose water and orange blossom water and mix well.
Let sit for a few hours in the refrigerator
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Lay out some wax paper to work on.
Take a large handful of the dough and role it into a long log or snake shape.
Use your finger to flatten the dough log, creating a spot down the middle for the date paste
roll some date paste out to a thin log shape and place it down the middle of your dough.
Close the dough around the date
At this point, you should have a long, fairly thick log of dough with the dates running through the middle.
Tear off a section of the dough filled with dates (about a 2 inch section).
Roll out the section with your fingers to smooth out the dough and secure it around the dates. This will extend the length of the 2-inch section to about 4 inches.
Seal the two ends together to make the 4 inch section into a circle.
Repeat this process with all of your dough and date paste. You should be able to make about 50 cookies.
Bake at 325 degrees F on a large baking sheet until the tops of the cookies begin to turn into a light golden color (this will take about 40 minutes).
Enjoy these cookies for breakfast with coffee or as a dessert with milk of course.
These cookies will keep very well for a about two weeks if stored properly in a tin or Tupperware container. You can also freeze them for a month or two.