My childhood memories of Easter are a mixed bag of American traditions and Lebanese traditions. The Lebanese side of my family is Christian, so Easter was very much celebrated. While my paternal grandmother (Sito) was still alive, Easter dinner was all Lebanese.
Sito colored eggs with onion skins, so they were all a rusty red color. At home, we would color eggs the multi-colored American way. But at Sito's house and at home, we would crack eggs - a Lebanese tradition. One person holds an egg with the top or bottom exposed while another person gently taps the egg with another. One egg breaks, the other doesn't. The winning eggs compete with each other until one emerges champion.
The traditional Easter meal is Muggadabeah - the spelling is a total guess (accent on the second-to-last syllable). I don't have a Lebanese cookbook that includes this. It is a very time-consuming dish to prepare.It consists of little dough balls (half the size of marbles) in a chicken and onion soup (with chick peas). The only women I know who can make the dough balls are Lebanese-born. My sister makes a lot of Lebanese food, but she buys the balls from a cousin.
The very best traditional Lebanese Easter food is the Easter cookies. They are called kaik. This is a two-syllable word with a very subtle distinction between the syllables. The pronunciation is so similar to a slang word for a part of the male anatomy, that we rarely use it around the non-Lebanese. We just say "Easter cookies."
I have never made kaik before. My sister made it once with the Lebanese-born cousins. They wouldn't let her do anything because they were afraid she would mess it up. Their cookies are perfection. Each is a perfect circle or semi-circle, with evenly-fluted edges and elaborately-decorated tops. She said it was no fun. So when her sister-in-law, Linda, asked if she was making them this year, Holly said "No." But Linda offered to help and Holly was convinced because the perfectionists would not be there. A friend of mine (Susie) expressed interest too, so we all got together at Holly's house with my mother's recipe, Linda's experience, 10 pounds of flour, huge packages of mashed dates and walnuts, and a "What the hell" spirit. We were joined by another sister (Carol) and another Lebanese friend (Dolores).
Holly ground up the walnuts the night before and searched through the dates for pieces of shell. Living in Michigan is a real advantage when you are making Lebanese food. There are more Arabs in Michigan than any other state, so the ingredients for Lebanese food are usually available. These cookies call for finely ground muhlub (cherry pits) and anise. No problem. Just go to the bulk food store on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Linda and I mixed up and kneaded the dough - five pounds each. Then we covered it and set it aside to rise.
Next, we mixed the dates and walnuts together. Holly and I decided we needed to look more like the old Lebanese women who are always dressed in black with babushkas, so we found something black to throw over our heads.
But Linda said we looked too happy, so we tried again.
We had to leave the dough to rise for 2 1/2 hours, so Linda went home for a while. Holly started working on Easter dinner and I made patties out of the date mixture.
When the rest of the gang arrived, we got down to business. We worked like an assembly line. Holly, Carol, and Susie rolled the dough and assembled the cookies.
Rolling the dough Spreading on the filling
Folding over the dough
Pinching the edges. I was the chief edge-pincher.
Holly's granddaughter Tianna decorated the tops. She has a number of presses she's using to make designs on the cookies. See the chicken feathers she's holding? That's tradition too. There need to be holes in the dough to keep it from puffing up too high.
Linda has a different method. She has a patterned press, over which she spreads the dough. Then she puts some filling over the dough and folds the edges in over the filling. No fluted edges . . . just the design from the press. It looks a lot easier than our way. We want one of those presses. It came from Lebanon. Linda's family is from a different village than ours. Everyone has their own way of doing things.
Dolores was in charge of cooking.
When they are finished cooking, we brush them with milk and sugar.
And here's the finished product . . . . Ta Da!
Here's a tree. And there's a fish!
The perfectionists would be horrified. We had too much dough in some cookies and too little in others. Our fluted edges were erratic. The shapes were far from symmetrical.
But you know what? They taste just the same as the perfect ones. And we had so much fun, we decided to make it a new yearly tradition!
March 23, 2008 -- dianne johns