Abeir Soukieh is an Arab-Australian poet and writer from Canberra who is currently completing her Masters in Anthropology at the Australian National University.
A couple of weeks ago some friends of ours had a baby (shout out to Rose) and, as is my celebratory instinct, I started thinking about food and what I might make for this young family to celebrate the arrival of their sweet bundle.
It really didn’t take much thought, though. To me, when it comes to celebrating, there’s really only one obvious choice of baked good: it’s these buttery date biscuits that, once baked, are immediately doused in caster sugar. While this is most certainly a recipe I’ve used more times than I can count, I, still, for some reason, have yet to commit it to memory. So, when the time came for preparing these sugar-stippled glories, I messaged Mum and asked her for the recipe and she sent me a picture from her cookbook, which is where this recipe has lived since the beginning of measured time.
Mmm, Mum’s cookbook; that frayed secret to all deliciousness. Honestly, the number of times I’ve consulted this book can be rivaled only by my consultation of the Harry Potter books at peak Potter consumption. And, while hugely difficult to choose from my mother’s enormous and luscious cooking repertoire, these date biscuits are absolutely my favourites.
So, they were the natural baking choice when it came time to celebrating and welcoming the birth of this gorgeous new head of hair.
Now, aside from having to cream the butter and cornflour by fork-and-hand because my sister’s food processor’s a jerk, the cooking process went by pretty smoothly.
The biscuits were totally a hit; recipes were asked for and all was well.
But, I also received a lot of questions like:
a) ‘Is it something that’s traditionally made in Lebanon when babies are born?’
Well, um, no. Actually, when a baby is born usually a dessert called ‘meghli’ (مغلي) is made, which is a kind of spiced rice pudding topped with nuts and optional coconut.
b) ‘Is it an age-old recipe, passed down, down, down?’
Not sure, really.
I think it came from an Aunty who got it from a friend one time who got it from a… cookbook? … maybe?
At this point I became a little worried that our friends would be offended that we didn’t do the ‘traditional thing’ or even a recognisably ‘traditional thing’.
To be perfectly honest, it never actually occurred to me to make the ‘traditional thing’ — I’ve a tendency to go by taste.
And the thing is, these sort of non-descript date biscuits are a great deal more important to me than meghli.
Aside from their exceedingly toothsome qualities, they’re some of the first ‘difficult’ things Mum taught me how to make. Difficult being something that isn’t pasta, rice or pie.
And, if ever Mum were away, I’ve always known the recipe for these almond-studded gems was written down in her cookbook… which is likely why I’ve never committed it to memory; it’s like perusing the contents of Mum’s cookbook has become a part of my cooking process;
my own tradition, so to speak.
When the cookbook is with me, it’s as though Mum is with me, guiding my moves, always willing to help and, with this monumentally reassuring and encyclopedic guarantee of accuracy. This cookbook, to me, is sanctuary; my mother’s special envoy.
And so these biscuits are hugely nostalgic to me.
Not at all because they have some kind of ‘historically’ historical significance.
But because of this:
This is the recipe page Mum sent me from her cookbook.
And, honestly, words cannot describe the gush of emotion that surged through me upon receiving this picture.
This cookbook, with its threadbare pages, along with the brassy clang of her bracelets and Flower by Kenzo, are like a part of Mum. The cookbook’s filled with recipes in mixtures of Arabic and English – some old, some not so old, some written upside-down because she copied them quickly from a magazine in a waiting room somewhere, and one or two of them written in extremely clumsy handwriting by one or two of her kids.
And whenever Mum made this biscuit, for me, it made the occasion more special.
And so, they are of the most importance to me because they remind me the most of my mother;
التي يديها بيسووا ثقلهم ذهب (the one whose hands are worth their weight in gold).
Below is the recipe, though quartered, because the original is apparently supposed to feed a small island nation. I usually get about 10 trays out of the original recipe but you are certainly not required to abide by my mother’s extremely generous ‘just-in-case-there-isn’t-enough’ rule.
- 500g self-raising flour
- 3/4 cup cornflour (wheaten or maize, totally up to you)
- 315g unsalted butter (room-temperature)
- 3 eggs
- pinch o’ salt
- vanilla (1 tsp vanilla essence or 1 tsp vanilla sugar, whichever you prefer – tried it with a vanilla pod once, it was excellent)
- 1kg date paste (room temperature) (Mum used to pit the dates by hand and process them before she discovered the paste – probably a huge part of the reason why she only made them on special occasions)
- 1/4 cup whole almonds (to be ground in food processor)
The whole process takes about 1 and a half to 2 hours, but that time frame is absolutely distraction-dependent.
Pre-heat oven to 180℃/350℉.
For the dough
Cream butter and cornflour in food processor or with electric beater (you can do this by hand, too, with a fork, but it sucks and is painful).
Add vanilla and salt.
Gradually stir in flour with a wooden spoon until you have knead-able dough.
For the filling
For the filling, grind the almonds in the food processor. Break the date paste into large pieces and place in a deep bowl. Knead the date paste and almonds until you see more date than almond.
Assembling the biscuit
Take a chunk of dough, roll it into a more spherical shape and place it on a freezer bag on the benchtop. Place a second freezer bag atop the dough ball and roll out until about 2cm in thickness. It should be rectangular in shape.
Take a portion of the filling and roll it between your palms into a thick rope (if too sticky, add milk to hands). Place filling along the rolled dough and roll the dough over the filling with the freezer bag as aid.
Continue to roll the filled dough over a smooth, clean surface until the dough on the outside is thin but not so thin as to see filling peek through.
Slice the date-filled biscuit tube into small, diamond-shaped pieces.
Place each piece about 2cm apart on a tray.
Cook for approximately 10 minutes, or until very lightly golden.
Remove tray from oven and immediately coat each piece with caster sugar before placing in a heatproof bowl. When cooled completely, store in an air-tight container.
Delicious when hot.
Delicious when warm.
Delicious when cool.
Delicious when cold.
© Abeir Soukieh, 2017