It’s December and we all know what that means: cookies. In Syria, the exchange of sweets between friends, family and neighbors is tradition, especially during the holidays. That’s not so different from exchanging cookies for Christmas or having a crowd at your dinner table for Thanksgiving. With all this holiday cookie talk I started craving one of my favorites: barazek, a crunchy, ginger-snap-thin cookie pressed into pistachio and doused in sesame seeds.
For my family, we’d always get boxes of sweets – including these cookies – directly from Damascus. Friends or relatives who recently came from the ancient city would deliver tightly saran-wrapped boxes from our favorite bakeries. That’s why, when I found this recipe from a woman named Tania describing her cookies as the closest thing she could get to Semiramis – one of my grandmother’s favorite bakeries in Damascus – I absolutely had to try it.
And they were really close. Each bite of these cookies reminded me of my mom plucking the barazek out of a tin full of other tasty treats. “They’re so addictive,” she’d say through crunching.
I made two batches in two days and they disappeared. Poof. Well, I know exactly who the culprit is.
Notes: I made some adjustments to Tania’s recipe, including a change in measurements and yield.
*Honey: If you have good quality honey, I recommend using honey for the syrup. But if you don’t, a simple syrup works fine. Replace ¼ cup honey with ¼ cup (or about 50g) sugar.
*Butter: Traditionally, vegetable or cow ghee is the fat of choice for Syrian sweets. Ghee is simply butter, but without the milk solids and water, so it creates a richer flavor. If you have access to ghee, I highly recommend substituting that for butter. It takes the cookies to a whole new level – just replace 175 grams butter with 175 grams ghee. If not, butter will be just fine.
*Sugar: I prefer these cookies to be less sweet, especially since there’s a syrup coating on top. The original recipe calls for 150g (or ¾ cup) sugar. The recipe works fine with 50g (or ¼ cup) more sugar, if you so desire.
*Mahlab: This is a spice made of dried cherry pits. It’s popular throughout the Mediterranean. If you don’t like it or don’t have access to it, you can simply leave it out. Mahlab is an iconic flavor in many baked goods from the region.
*Baking time may vary. My oven is tiny. Like, easy-bake oven tiny. So for a normal-sized oven, the baking time may be a little longer. Start checking at 18 minutes and keep a close eye. Since they’re thin, they’re more likely to burn.
Time: 60-90 minutes. Yield: Makes 55 cookies.
60 ml (¼ cup) honey*
60 ml (¼ cup) water
175g (¾ cup) butter*
100g (½ cup) white granulated sugar*
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon ground mahlab*
312g (2 ½ cups) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
80ml (⅓ cup) low-fat milk
110g (¾ cup) sesame seeds, toasted
80g (½ cup) raw pistachios, chopped or slivered
Syrup: In a small sauce pan, bring water and honey (or sugar) to a boil, and simmer until the honey dissolves, about 3 minutes. Set aside and let cool.
Cookie dough: In a medium mixing bowl, use a hand or stand mixer to cream the butter and sugar together.
Add ground mahlab and baking powder and mix.
Add the flour and the yeast, and mix until you have a uniform mealy texture throughout.
Slowly add the milk while mixing.
Use your hands to gather dough into a ball at the bottom of the bowl. Cover loosely with a towel or plastic wrap and let it sit aside for at least 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, toast the sesame seeds in a dry pan until lightly golden. Keep a close eye, because they burn easily! Chop pistachios.
Assembly: Preheat your oven to 160C (or 325F). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Once the dough has rested, roll it into teaspoon-sized balls. (I literally used a teaspoon to measure these out.)
In a small flat plate, pour just enough syrup to cover the surface. Sprinkle just enough sesame seeds to cover the surface. Keep the remaining syrup and sesame seeds, you’ll need them throughout the process.
In another small, flat plate, spread the pistachios thinly. You only want a few pieces of pistachios to make it into your cookies. Keep the extra pistachios, you’ll need to replenish them.
Take a dough ball and press it into the palm of your hands, flat. You want your cookie to be pretty thin, but thick enough to be handled easily.
Take the flattened sphere and press it into the pistachios. Then flip it over, and press it into the plate of syrup and sesame seeds. You want a really nice coating of sesame seeds. If you have blank spots or want to get more seeds on there, sprinkle some on top. Place onto baking sheet.
Keep repeating the process of flattening and pressing for all the cookies, adding more syrup and sesame seeds to the plate as they get used up, and doing the same for the pistachios.
Bake for 20 minutes*, rotating the pan halfway through, until the edges are golden and crispy. You’ll probably need to bake these in 2-3 batches.
They’ll keep in an airtight container for a couple of weeks, but they probably won’t last that long.