EM – Ka’ak is a traditional Arabic pastry that is usually a cookie. However there is a version that is more like a sweet bread that is traditionally made for Easter. This is the version that’s been baked in my family for generations. My mom would watch her grandmother make it (she wasn’t allowed to touch it until it was done). It’s always a special time of year and a special day when it’s made. It takes most of the day and the whole house smells delightful.
Also in my family, we usually make a quadruple batch.
First, the heat in the house is turned up to at least 70°F (this is the one day a year the heat is turned up above 64° in my house). The dough, using specifically King Arthur flour (no other brand is allowed) whole milk, sugar, and a bunch of spices including anise and mahlab (crushed cherry seeds) is made early in the morning. Then it’s covered in every extra blanket, quilt, and wool coat in the house, because if the dough catches cold, it’s ruined.
After the first rise, it’s rolled into balls, and set on baking sheets for the second rise. After that, the balls are padded onto a special homemade ka’ak press made of chicken wire, then set to rise again. They’re baked and cooled, and then they’re glazed in a milk, sugar, and rose water mixture, dried, and enjoyed. We distribute it to everyone in our family and community.
Interviewer – You said the sweet bread version is usually just for Easter. Does your family make it just for easter? Or is there some other cause for celebration with ka’ak? Is “special time of year and a special day” a particular day each year, or an arbitrary day and it is just the recipe that makes the time special?
EM – The ka’ak we make is traditionally the Easter version but we usually make it at Christmas because mom had more time. We don’t make it on a specific day but because we really only make it once a year that day becomes special.
Interviewer – Why a quadruple batch?
EM – We make a quadruple batch because we give it to a lot of people. We even ship some out to family in California (From Massachusetts).
Interviewer – Since even the kind of flour is so strict, and your mother was not allowed to touch the dough as a child, does that mean there is no change allowed to the recipe?
EM – The only change to the recipe is that my great grandmother always used ghee but we use regular unsalted butter.
Interviewer – Have you learned the recipe, or done it on your own?
EM – I’ve learned the recipe, though I don’t know it by heart yet, and have made it with my mom and then with my aunt in California, when I visited and brought the spices with me from home.I got pulled aside at the airport because of them. They didn’t believe me when I said they were spices.
Interviewer – Who counts as community, when it comes to distributing the ka’ak?
EM – We give ka’ak to neighbors, some people at our church, and like I said, family, including those in California.
Interviewer – Do you feel that the recipe is part of your Arab heritage?
EM – Yes this recipe and experience is absolutely part of my heritage. All of my family’s recipes are either in our heads, or in the case of ka’ak and other desserts, the recipe is written down but no directions are given, so the only way to learn to make them is to observe and learn from our elders, making special bonds and memories.
This dessert is made only once a year and I did not collect this story during that time. The story was not performed with the actual food but rather in a context of discussing favorite foods.
Ka’ak is an example of food connecting a person to their family and their heritage. The informant has never travelled to Lebanon, and knows only a few words in Arabic, but is proud of their heritage and feels connected when they learn the recipes that are passed down through family, learned by memory, and made with and for their family. The informant is also excited to share the dessert—and part of their heritage—with people outside of their family.
It is also an interesting case when the food itself becomes cause for celebration, because it is very labor-intensive and time-consuming, so the dessert becomes very, very special.