Traditional almond macaroons for Passover were never my thing: too sweet and not chewy enough. Then I met Eileen Dangoor Khalastchy, a Jew who traces her roots to ancient Babylonia, and tried her macaroon recipe from Iraq.
Khalastchy, 86, left Baghdad for London in 1974, but the spices of her Middle Eastern homeland (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and turmeric) still perfume her kitchen. This winter, I watched her make and mold the macaroons and listened to her stories of growing up beside the Tigris River in a household of 20. She told me how she helped pluck the chickens for the Sabbath t’beet, made tomato paste by letting tomato pulp dry on the roof, and ground almonds with a mortar and pestle for cookies and other treats.
“Today these macaroons that I bring all my friends as a hostess gift remind us of our life in Baghdad,” she said.
“I wish that we took photos. Maybe we can find them on the Internet.”
The cookies are called haji badam (badam for short) in Arabic. “Best almond cookies” is the loose translation.
Nawal Nasrallah, the Iraqi cookbook author and Arabic food scholar, said they are indigenous to Iraq.
When Khalastchy was little, she would watch her mother make the cookies and send them to be baked in the public oven.
“We had no oven in the house,” said Khalastchy, who wasn’t interested in making them herself.
Later, when she was living in London, Khalastchy’s mother was ill and no longer cooking. So Renée Dangoor, Khalastchy’s sister-in-law and cousin, tried the recipe. Many of Khalastchy’s recipes are recorded in “Flavours of Baghdad: a Family Cookbook,” written by a niece, Linda Dangoor.
I watched Khalastchy make the macaroons in her London kitchen. To mix the batter, she used only her right hand.
“I have to use my hand,” she said. “It mixes better and you can feel the consistency. It wouldn’t mix well without the hand.”
Like all good cooks, she has tinkered with the recipe to make it her own, substituting walnuts for some of the almonds, putting a pistachio instead of an almond on top, and adding one egg yolk to the whites, which makes the macaroon chewier and helps hold the dough together.
I have also tampered with tradition here: Khalastchy presses a pistachio into her cookies, but I made a thumbprint and added a tiny dab of good raspberry jam.
Almond-Walnut Thumbprint Macaroons
Time: 50 minutes, plus at least 8 hours’ resting
Yield: About 3 dozen cookies
1 3/4 cups/250 grams blanched almonds
1 1/2 cups/125 grams walnuts
1 scant cup/200 grams sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 large egg
2 egg whites
1 cup of rose water, optional
1/2 cup good quality raspberry jam, or
1/2 cup shelled pistachios
1. Put almonds in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse until mostly powdered with a few crunchy bits remaining, about 15 pulses. Transfer to a large bowl. Put walnuts in the food processor and pulse until mostly powdered. Add the walnuts to the almonds.
2. Add sugar, cardamom, egg and egg whites to the bowl and, using one hand, mix to combine. Cover with a towel and let the mixture sit for at least 8 hours or overnight to dry out a bit.
3. Heat the oven to 325 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Pour rose water or 1 cup of water into a small shallow bowl. Dampen your hands and scoop up about a tablespoon of the dough at a time, pressing it into walnut-size balls. Place the macaroons on the baking sheets about 2 inches apart and flatten them slightly. Use your thumb to make a small indentation in the middle of each.
4. Transfer the baking sheets to the oven and cook for 15 minutes, then remove and put either 1/4 teaspoon of the raspberry jam or a pistachio in each thumbprint. Rotate the pans and continue baking for 10 more minutes or until golden and firm. Cool to room temperature on the baking sheets and serve or freeze.
© 2015 New York Times News Service
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