Sometimes, my Thursdays look like a cookie sheet full of freshly baked cookies. Given my various commitments, this doesn’t always make much sense, but let’s just call it my way of powering through the madness.
Weekday baking is also something that I try to reserve for special occasions, like when friends come from out of town for conferences. What kind of household would this be, after all, if I didn’t have cookies to offer with some afternoon tea? It just wouldn’t be seemly.
And hospitality aside, after Ottolenghi’s and Tamimi’s Jerusalem arrived on Tuesday of last week (yes, another one; call this my gift to myself for grading, grading and more grading–as well as endless office hours), I was itching to make something out of it. This impulse could not be ignored.
As tempted as I was by the various vegetable recipes and roasted chicken with clementines, there was no way I was going to be preparing a miniature feast with all the fixings at 9 in the morning. This was supposed to be my slow day. I soon found myself reading and rereading the description of the Tahini cookies, which, according to Ottolenghi and Tamimi, were at the height of their popularity in Jerusalem a few years ago. Even better, the friend who was coming over had confessed in the past to a fondness for tahini. Two birds, one stone: exactly how all tasks in life should be.
Soon enough, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table, rolling cookie dough into balls and breathing in the heavenly aroma of the ground sesame paste (a linguistic fun fact: tahini comes from the Arabic verb, tahan, which means “to grind”). Considering that tahini is essentially the peanut butter equivalent of the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean diet, I was in my element.
The one catch I didn’t anticipate was the time it took to roll the crumbly dough into balls. Even after kneading it lightly into a smooth mound, the dough remained delicate and was prone to crumble into pieces in my palms. Adjusting myself to the texture of this dough required a little finesse, not to mention patience. It certainly took longer than expected for me to find my cookie dough ball rolling rhythm. But once I did, the cookie sheets filled up quickly and the scent of tahini filled the apartment. The puppy and I were equally tempted. She kept circling the table, never far from the action (in the photo below, you can see her lurking). She even managed to go to town with a small chunk of dough that fell on the floor. Let me assure you that this act was barely noticeable compared to how many cookies her mama consumed.
Now, a puppy free photo for the cat loving crowd, and a chance for the cookies to shine on their own.
In general, I was really pleased with these cookies. They were handsome little things– solid, yet crumbly, and with a nutty, slightly spiced flavor. I kid you not when I say that I infinitely prefer them to peanut butter cookies, which, despite my peanut butter love, I often find too dry (and unintentionally so). These simply hit the right balance of savory and sweet; while they were around (they’re now long gone), I would eat one before breakfast, one before bedtime and a few as an afternoon snack with tea (iced and hot). I never even felt like I was eating dessert. I’m now contemplating baking them again–and soon–but this time playing with the flavors. Inspired by my summertime hummus experiment, I’m thinking that a few tablespoons of lemon zest might lighten these cookies a little, breaking up their deep flavors. Sumac, instead of cinnamon, might just seal the deal. I even briefly fantasized about stuffing them with a candied red pepper, but this is clearly a dream for another Thursday in another life (obviously, one that is dissertation free).
Regardless of what shape these cookies take, life is just better when a container of cookies is involved.
Yields about 3 dozen (depending on the size of your cookies)
Slightly adapted from Ottolenghi’s and Tamimi’s Jerusalem
The original recipe calls for both caster sugar and light tahini paste, but in my cupboards, I had only regular old granulated and dark tahini (honestly, until making these cookies and reading this book, I naively hadn’t realized there were different types of tahini). These small changes–or big changes, depending on your perspective–led to a tasty cookie.
Another important note is that, considering that these cookies are supposed to be baked at 400 F for 15-17 minutes, you don’t want to make them too small. But if you do aim for smaller cookies, be sure to start checking them at around 12-13 minutes so that they don’t brown. A golden hue is your aim. In fact, if you look at the photos above, you can see that there are seemingly two versions of the final product: smaller, browner cookies and lighter, larger cookies. Both were good, but the flavor of the lighter ones appealed to me more; the nutty notes of the tahini were more apparent.
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup (150 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
a heaping 1/2 cup of tahini paste (whatever color you have on hand)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 teaspoons heavy cream (25 ml)
2 cups, plus 1 1/2 tablespoon, all-purpose flour (270 grams)
cinnamon, for sprinkling
-Preheat the oven to 400 F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
-Place the sugar and butter in a standing mixer and, using the beater attachment, beat for 1-2 minutes, or until they are just combined.
-With the mixer still on its lowest speed, add the tahini, vanilla and cream.
-Then, add the flour and beat for a few minutes. The dough should be grainy, just beginning to come together.
-Working with the dough in the bowl of the mixer, begin shaping it into a ball with your hands. Once it largely sticks together, transfer it to a work surface and knead until a smooth mound.
-Pinch off small bits of the dough and roll into balls between your palms. Don’t be alarmed if the dough crumbles; excessive force will lead to cracks in your cookies. Just reshape and re-roll with a lighter touch.
-Once the cookies have been shaped, place them on the cookie sheets, leaving about 1 1/2 – 2 inches between them. Depending on the size of your cookies, you should be able to fit about 15-18 cookies per sheet.
-Flatten the tops of the cookies with a fork, pressing down very lightly.
-Dust the cookies with cinnamon before putting them in the oven.
-Bake cookies for 15-17 minutes, until slightly golden.
-Once out of the oven, place the cookies on a wire rack to cool. I do, however, suggest sneaking one while they’re still hot.