by Maitre Gilles de Beauchamps, OC, OP, OL
Yule came and went and I did not bother to make cookies once again. Perhaps this was fortuitous, because now that I am ready to work at another baking project, we find ourselves on the slow and steady march towards Valentine’s Day. While the chocolate laden gestures and rosy seductions of that over commercialized holiday seems to have little to do with the desserts from the medieval Middle East, bear with me.
The cookies I have in mind are known in Arabic as Irnin, which means “stuffed cookie.” The origins of that name, however, hint at a remote pagan past, particularly in Sumeria, the regions of what is now Iraq and eastern Persia. Irnin, it is thought, is a linguistic twisting of Innana, sometimes known as Ishtar. She was a well-regarded goddess of love and war, sometimes gentle, sometimes ferocious. One of the hallmarks of celebrations of Innana was the fashioning of moon-shaped stuffed cookies. Even if worship of Innana/Ishtar began to wane as patriarchy rose in the eastern Levant, Innana’s, cookies, if not her cult, retained the loyalties of many bakers.
Inanna/Ishtar is known to the Greeks as Aphrodite, to the Romans as Venus. Another one of her cults in the western Levant was that of Astarte, and it is speculated that the German spring goddess Eoster is related to that. So the cookies also have a relation to our Eastertide, but for the moment I am sticking with Valentine’s Day or I will never get any baking done.
One ingredient in Irnin dear to both Inanna and Aphrodite would be rosewater as roses were closely associated with these two. Rosewater was in common use in the Middle East before the rise of Islam, and it became even more readily available due to the discovery by ibn Sina of how to produce rosewater and oil through the process of distillation. Rosewater has cooling properties, and is considered good for ailments of the chest and stomach. A rosewater syrup may indeed pull you through a hangover. The proportion of sugar is a bit hefty (two pounds of sugar to ½ cup water) and might give you pause, but then, a hangover can be a relentless foe, a thought that should have struck home the night before.
The use of rosewater provides one of the most distinctive of tastes in Middle Eastern cooking, and it entranced European cooks up until the beginning of the eighteenth century, which more or less marks the beginning of modern cookery. Some people have an instant aversion to a perfumed scent in their foods, others find it pleasing enough to consider the advent of modern cookery to be something of a mistake.
The particular cookie we are baking this time calls for the addition of almonds, pistachios, and sesame seeds. Almonds form the backbone of medieval cooking, so much so that one might speculate that, without the almond, much of the ingenuity and pleasure in eating this type of food would be gone. Almonds contain a moderate amount of heat which will balance the coolness of the rosewater. They are considered slow to digest but have the effect of unblocking one’s system — it relieves costiveness, not only constipation, but also slowness of speech, understanding, and movement. Taken with sugar, they are good for curing a dry cough as well as increasing the virility of both body and mind. Because there is nothing that does not exact a price for its benefits, be forewarned that almonds are fattening. Ibn Sina suggests that eating 50 bitter almonds before drinking will prevent one from becoming intoxicated, should this however fail, one may resort to the rosewater syrup.
Pistachios are considered hot and drying, and they have a quality of bitterness and astringency, indicating that eating them is good for one’s liver. They are popular as served salted along with wine, and also eaten alone are thought to sweeten the breath.
Abu Ishaq al-Sabi enthused over them in a poem:
I describe them as a philosopher might
With pleasant and charming words
An emerald wrapped in silk
Enclosed in an ivory vessel.
Some even claim that eating them brings on its own type of euphoria. Perhaps under the effects of such euphoria, Ibn Wabshiyya claimed that if one took the kidney of a goat sliced open and buried it with a bone from a peacock’s spine, sprinkled this with fumewort, and buried it for the better part of a month, a pistachio tree will sprout. Presently I am fresh out of fumewort, but if any of you wish to give it a try, do let me know if you attain success.
Sesame seeds are best toasted and taken in small quantities as they contain a powerful heat. This can be useful for curing earache and dispelling gas but they are also hard to digest and, consuming too many of them, can bring on excessive internal drying. Perhaps the rosewater in this recipe is indeed a necessary cooling factor given the combined heat of these elements. That said, rosewater and ground nuts, particularly these two, provide a taste that is quintessentially Middle Eastern.
To make these cookies, you will need the following ingredients:
- 2 ½ cups of flour
- 2 teaspoons sesame seeds
- 4 tablespoons chopped pistachios (I used shelled, salted pistachios and if you don’t have these, add a teaspoon of salt to the recipe; you may also substitute walnut for pistachio)
- 8 tablespoons ground almonds
- 6 tablespoons melted butter (I used ghee)
- 6 tablespoons almond oil
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- 8 tablespoons water
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- 3 tablespoons rose water
- 3 tablespoons honey
If your almonds still have skins, slip them by bringing the almonds to a boil for a minute in a pan of water. Let cool and slip the skins free. Process three tablespoons of the almonds and two of the pistachios and add them to the flour and sesame seeds in a bowl. Blend thoroughly and make a well in the center. To this, pour in your melted butter, oil, and water. Mix very well and form a dough. It will be a little stiff and will become more elastic as it rests. If it is still stiff after two hours of resting, add a little more oil to the dough and knead it very well. It should then be sufficiently elastic. Cover your dough and let it rest for two hours or so.
While the dough is resting, grind or chop finely the remaining pistachios and almonds. Place them in a bowl and add the sugar, the spices, and honey. Add the rosewater and work it into a thick paste.
Take the dough and knead it briefly. Break off a small round and work it into a ball, approximately two inches in diameter. Push your finger into the bowl and smoosh a teaspoon of the rosewater nut filling into the ball so it fits into the center. Work the dough to cover it and then lightly press the ball between your palms. When these cookies were made for ritual use, the Sumerians used a special mold, but this is not necessary. The recipe above will provide for a little more than a dozen cookies. You could of course make them smaller, but that is a tease, not a cookie.
An additional finishing touch, if desired, would be a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Place these morsels on a greased baking tray and bake at 350* for about half an hour. They are done when lightly brown. Watch carefully, as lightly brown turns to scorched quite easily. Carefully place them on a cooling tray and, just as carefully, transfer item onto your serving platter when ready. The cookies are crumbly, not too dry, not too sweet, and for those not familiar with its perfumed goodness, not saturated with rose water. Good enough, one might say, to make a long-forgotten goddess smile.
Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s Tenth Century Baghdadi
Cookbook: Nawal Nasrarallah. Brill. 2010.
Sweet Delights From a Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional Arab
Sweets: Habeeb Salloum, Muna Salloum, Leila Salloum Elias; I.B. Tauris 2013.
The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: Shihab al-din al-Nuwayri. Penguin