Recipe Source: al-Baghdadi, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn al-Karim al-Katib. A Baghdad Cookery Book (Kitab al-Tabikh, A. J. Arberry, trans. Published in Medieval Arab Cookery, by Maxime Rodinson, A. J. Arberry & Charles Perry. Prospect Books, Devon, 2006 p. 87
A few weeks ago, after some good-natured ribbing that I just had to interpret as a challenge, I made a Sunday open house dinner that consisted entirely of medieval recipes. In order to make it even more of a challenge (and to keep me from referring to my favorite cookbook), I decided that all the recipes would be Western European in origin with the exception of the dessert. (The fact is that I was just really craving something tasty involving nuts and rosewater and I knew I would find it if I looked East enough.) I found this recipe in my copy of A Baghdad Cookery Book and decided that I just had to have it.
I have a little more trouble following the instructions for this cookbook, since they aren't written nearly as clearly as Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens. Where the original recipe said "Take white flour and knead lightly, then leave to rise," I interpreted that to mean that this was a leavened pastry. I therefore took the same dough recipe as I was using for the whole wheat bread I was making that day and used white flour instead. Also, I didn't have enough sesame oil on hand to fry all the doughnuts, so I had to substitute a little bit of plain vegetable oil to round out the oil.
This recipe was very painful. Oil splatters, you see. It also retains its heat well, especially when combined with melted and caramelized sugar. I removed a pan from the heat but left a (plastic-handled) spatula to cool with it. When I grabbed the handle of the spatula it had melted.... into my finger.... which hurt and hurt. Don't do that. The worst part is that there were witnesses! Nothing got into the food itself - I was starting over with a clean pan anyway. Proper first aid was followed and there was no lasting harm to me, and that spatula had long exceeded its reasonably expected lifespan anyway.
Fortunately the dish was one hundred percent worth it. Even reheated it was worth it. Wow. I just cannot say enough good things about these little treats. I will warn you, though, that these are Not A Health Food. While our medieval ancestors, especially the ancestors in the Islamic world, certainly understood the connection between diet and health they were not overly concerned with things like cholesterol or stroke risk or anything like that. So this is absolutely a treat, to be reserved for a special occasion or very special gathering or maybe once a year. Just know that it will be worth it when you do.
Aqras Mukarrara (makes enough for about 12 people if they're brave; approx. cost per serving not available)
1 3/4 cup lukewarm water
3 cups white all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups white bread flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons raw sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
4 cups raw sugar, divided
1/3 pound almonds
1/4 cup rosewater
1 1/2 cups water
Light sesame oil for frying (Note: do NOT use toasted sesame oil here, only the raw kind you can get at Middle Eastern or Indian markets. The toasted kind you can find in the supermarket is entirely the wrong flavor.)
- Frying pan
- Food processor
- Slotted spatula
- Stand mixer with dough hook attachment
- Combine the 2 teaspoons raw sugar with the water and the yeast in a bowl. Set aside until the yeast becomes markedly foamy.
- Combine the flours, salt and olive oil in the bowl of your stand mixer.
- Add the yeast mixture. Knead on the lowest setting until the ingredients are combined, then increase speed slightly (from 1 to 3 of 11 on mine) and knead until a soft dough is formed. It should form a ball around the dough hook.
- Cover the dough and set aside to rise for about an hour or until very puffy. The length of time this will take depends on the heat of your kitchen.
- Meanwhile, make the rest of the components. Start with the syrup: combine 1 1/2 cups water with 1 1/2 cups sugar in the saucepan.
- Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until the sugar is completely dissolved.
- Bring to a boil. Boil at least 1 minute.
- Remove from heat. Wait about thirty seconds and add the rosewater.
- To make the filling, combine 2 cups raw sugar and 1/3 pound almonds in your food processor. Process to a fine powder.
- Add enough of the syrup to make it into a firm paste - you shouldn't need to add more than 1/2 cup but if you do that's okay.
- Clean out your food processor and grind the remaining raw sugar into a fine powder.
- When the dough is ready, pull off a small chunk of it, about as much as will fit between your thumb and forefinger if you touch the tips together.
- Roll the piece of dough into a ball.
- Break out a little bit of the almond paste from the food processor. Roll it into a ball and flatten it with your hands.
- Pat the cake into a flat disc and set aside. Repeat with the remaining dough.
- Heat the oil in your frying pan. You want enough to fry the cakes without burning but not so much that you're deep-frying.
- Add a few of the dough discs. The number you add will depend on the size of your frying pan, but do NOT overcrowd your pan. Not only does that lead to poor results it tends to lead to house fires. So don't do it.
- Fry the pieces on both sides for about a minute.
- Dip each pastry into the syrup, then into the ground sugar, then return it to the pan.
- Repeat this procedure twice more, setting the discs aside after the third sugaring. Finish with the remaining discs.
- Serve immediately.