April 8, 2013
Author: Leah Hadad
Not my grandmother, Amma Zahra is my honorary Bubbie. She treated my siblings and me, as she would have had her own grandchildren. Growing up, I spent more time with her than I did with my grandmothers. When my mother was at work, she babysat us. She was my maternal great aunt. Yemenite Arabic draws a distinction between maternal and paternal aunts and uncles. Amma is the word denoting a paternal aunt. Zahra was also my mother’s name until she immigrated to Israel, upon which time she was assigned the name Sarah. Her aunt kept her original name – Zahra, the morning star.
Amma Zahara always seemed very old to my young eyes. She was believed to have been born at 1895, which would place her in her mid 60s when I was born. When I think back, she had to have been older than that. Even in my early memories, her face is a weave of deep, close-knit wrinkles. Her eyes imparted kindness and wisdom, and I remember her as warm and good-natured. From many miles away years later, she still occupies a special place in my heart.
In those simpler times, Amma Zahra fit the bill of an Eshet Hayil. I watched her cook, bake, clean, and do the laundry. She also found time for sewing, Yemenite style embroidery, and basket weaving. Her ‘kitchen’ was a small corner of her one room residence. There, she squatted in front of a portable, single-burner kerosene stove, prevalent in 1950s Israel. She practiced old-world cooking, utilizing every edible portion of the raw food; nothing was wasted.
While she kept herself busy, she always made time for her afternoon Yemenite coffee into which she dunked ka’aka. It was the time to visit with family, friends, and neighbors. Shoot the breeze. That generation knew to take the time for rest and to find joy in the small things. It is those simpler pleasures that I miss when I think about Amma Zahra and to which this ka’aka takes me back.
Ka’aka is a pastry type prevalent in the Arab world and is known also as ka’ak. There are many variations, sweet and savory. By sweet, I do not mean the sweet concoctions to which we are accustomed these days. Sugar was then used as a condiment, not a main ingredient.
In the recipe I offer here, I re-imagine the ka’aka I remember. In Israel, Yemenite immigrants adapted their cooking to local, cheaper ingredients. This pastry was most likely been baked originally with ghee – clarified butter – or olive oil; today, in Israel, it is baked with margarine. I am using butter and a mix of all-purpose flour and whole grain wheat because even the ‘clean’ flour in Yemen was in all likelihood less refined than ours. Enjoy!
Makes 14-16 cakes
1 c unsalted butter
3 c AP flour (350 g)
1 1/3 c whole wheat flour (150 g)
1/2 c sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp baking powder
2 large eggs
1/4 c ice cold water
2 Tbsp. Sesame or nigella (black seed)
Preheat oven to 350°;
Place all ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix with a wooden spoon or by hand until dough comes together. It will be soft and a bit tacky. Alternatively, use a food processor and mix for about 7-10 min.;
Tear a chunk from the dough and with cup of your hands form into a ball (65 g). It should be 2 “ in diameter;
Place on an oiled or parchment-covered baking sheet. Press the ball gently with the palms your hands to flatten;
Spread seeds on top and bake for 25 min. You could brush top with egg wash, but it is not necessary.