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How to make sweet date cookies from Iraq

At Eid, this dough delight comes into its own.
Kleicha can be stuffed with fragrant nut-sugar mixtures such as walnut, sugar and cardamom or even coconut and sugar (@babylonbakehouse/Instagram)

If Iraq has a national cookie or biscuit then it has to be the kleicha.  No Iraqi can mark a special occasion, religious or otherwise, without this smooth date paste, wrapped in richly spiced dough.

At home it used to come into its own near the end of Ramadan, as our mum prepared them ahead of Eid. It didn't matter if we were welcoming 10 or 100 guests, she would still lovingly make the same quantity (although those biscuits would never hang around long for understandable reasons).

Unlike maamoul, its more famous cookie cousin from the Levant, kleciha dough does not contain semolina. It can also be stuffed with fragrant nut-sugar mixtures such as walnut, sugar and cardamom or even coconut and sugar. Traditionalists use carved wooden moulds to shape the dough but it can also be rolled and sliced as I have done here.

This recipe makes a substantial amount (about 50 pieces). They are good for a week in an airtight container or can be frozen once baked and then de-frosted at room temperature.

Traditionally, kleicha are served with hot tea or Arab coffee: sit back, relax and try to stop at one.


Recipe

Makes: About 50

Preparation and cooking time: 2 hours

Though similar to maamoul it does not contain semolina (@babylonbakehouse/Instagram)

1. Ingredients

For the dough

  • 420g (3 cups) plain flour
  • 250ml (1 cup) vegetable oil
  • ¼ tsp  salt
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 sachet dried yeast
  • 1 tsp hawaij blend (this can be substituted with a mixture of cardamom, cinnamon, allspice and nigella seeds)
  • water

For the filling

  • date paste or stoned dates
  • ¼ tsp ground cardamom
  • 1 tsp oil (only if using fresh dates)
  • 1 tbsp milk (only if using fresh dates)
     

2. Method

Making the dough

  1. In a stand mixer, add the flour, butter, vegetable oil, spices, yeast and salt.
  2. Mix the ingredients on a low setting.
  3. The dough will be very crumbly so add water gradually, until it starts to come together. It should have a moist, not wet, consistency.
  4. Remove the dough from the mixer and knead it with your hands for a few mins. Don't worry about getting a perfectly smooth ball of dough.
  5. Cover with a damp clean towel to prevent air getting to it. Leave to rise for 45 mins.

For the filling

If using date paste:

  1. Place in a bowl and add the cardamom.

If using fresh dates:

  1. Chop into small pieces and place in a frying pan with a little oil.
  2. Warm over a medium-low heat until the dates soften and the mixture starts to stick together as a bit of a ball.
  3. Add the ground cardamom and add as much or little of milk as needed (depending on the softness of the dates to begin with).
  4. Mash the dates with the back of a wooden spoon until you have a smooth, but still thick and sticky, mixture. 
  5. Leave to cool completely.  

Baking preparation

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
  2. Oil some baking pans very lightly.
  3. Set aside.

Rolling the dough

  1. Using your hands, shape the date paste into long, thin rolls.
  2. After the dough has risen, move it to a work surface and divide it into small balls.
  3. Roll out each dough ball into a rectangle, with the longest sides parallel to you. Roll until you have a thickness of approx ¼ inch (half a centimetre).
     
Be sure to cover the dough properly (@babylonbakehouse/Instagram)

Filling the dough

  1. Using your hands, roll the date paste into a long oblong and place along the long edge of the rectangle (it’s easiest to start from the bottom edge and work your way up).
  2. Press the date paste down on the dough and start to roll the dough upwards.
  3. Cut the rolled dough into pieces about 1 inch (about 2.5cm) wide and dock/prick each with a fork about 2 or 3 times. Arrange in a pan.
  4. Continue making and filling the rest of the dough.
     

If using moulds

  1. Form small balls of dough.
  2. Stuff each ball of dough with the date.
  3. Roll the ball so the filling is fully coated with dough.
  4. Put the dough inside the wooden mould and pack well.
  5. Turn the mould over and give a quick tap to unmould.

Baking

  1. Once finished, brush all the kleicha with a beaten egg.
  2. Bake in the pre-heated oven at 180°C (350°F) for about 20 mins, until they are golden brown on the top and on the bottom.
  3. Cool completely on cooling rack.
  4. Serve immediately.

Sura and Nuha are two sisters of Iraqi origin who want to create, showcase and champion the Middle Eastern food they grew up with. They have started Babylon Bakehouse, a London-based business, where they plan to showcase their dishes and provide catering services. You can follow them at @babylonbakehouse on Instagram or www.babylonbakehouse.com