Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dessert: Anise cookies



Oh my, is it March already? I've had this post ready to write for so long, but as it turns out, moving got in the way. That's right, I'm moving to the other side of the pond, for now at least. I never know who regularly reads this blog (thank you if you do), but I do apologize for the long wait. As a forewarning though, the next few months may not be any better as I try to settle into a new rhythm, but I will do my best to keep posting.

All that to say that the first entry for 2012 will be in honour of my great-aunt Yola. She was born in Egypt, but her family is originally from Armenia, though her immediate family came from the Levantine. So the culinary talents and influences in her family span across different cultures. She married my grandmother's brother - George- and after he passed on, she remarried in Canada another man also called George. With her new family in Montreal, and my family close by, Yola's connection to our family remained close. Though I never got a chance to get to know her very well, I still remember her when I was a child as being a very elegant lady with a warm smile. She just recently celebrated her 80th birthday, and is still just as elegant as ever and still knows how to whip up a great dish.

My aunt and father still talk about her dazzling meals and desserts. In fact Yola's second husband also came from a family of culinary talents; so much so that someone from his side of the family decided to compile a list of their best recipes and circulate it around. It has pages and pages of recipes that would woo just about anyone. Sumptuous cakes and mouth-watering and perfectly spiced meat dishes, all written with a nod to to the cook in the family who was known for that particular creation. My aunt gave me a copy not too long ago and I found the first thing I wanted to make: anise cookies (or biscuits).

To be honest, it was around the time of Christmas that I was searching for a cookie recipe that was easier to make than Kahk, but just as satisfying in taste. We all have tasted anise at one time or another in licorice candies. Hopefully you haven't been tainted by the fake versions of licorice in cheaper candies, but now's a good time to start in on the real thing.

Anise, surprisingly, has its roots in Egypt. It has been cultivated in Egypt for at least 4000 years. It grows readily around the Mediterranean area, which is why anise-flavoured liquors abound in just about every country. Arak in the Levantine, Ouzo in Greece, Raki in Turkey, Zambuca in Italy, and Pastis in France. While many associate Egypt and the Middle East with no alcohol, the anise beverage has been a favourite since the early days of the spread of Islam. It's a drink one has with Mezza (appetizers) to balance the strong flavours of the garlic and spice. In fact, it was the Islamic empire that discovered how to distill alcohol making it possible to extract anise into a fine spirit.

Today, while there is no official Egyptian anise liquor, the peasants (or fellaheen) do have their own moonshine version called zibib.

Prior to that, Egyptians had been using anise for medicinal purposes. It has properties which relieve bloating and aid with digestion. It is usually drunk in a tea, by boiling a few spoons of anise in water. Specifically in Egypt, anise tea - Yansoon- is also given to nursing women to aid with the production of breast milk.It is also used to calm any muscle spasms.

When Egypt became a Roman province around 30BC, they too brought with them a different way of using anise: in baked goods. They usually ate these anise desserts after a large meal since it helped with digestion. It is quite possible that the impetus for today's recipe stems from the Romans using anise directly in foods.

I will admit that while the fresh-out-of-the-oven cookies are yummy, I did take it a step further and made a little chocolate/rum sauce to drizzle over the cookie. It's probably one of the few times I strayed away from the original recipe; but if you're a chocolate lover, you might understand why.

Enjoy!

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Total preparation time: 15 minutes
Total baking time: 15-20 minutes
Yield: 15 cookies

INGREDIENTS
3 eggs
3 cups of flour
1/2 cup of milk
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of oil
3 teaspoons of baking powder
1 tablespoon of vanilla
3 tablespoons of anise
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DIRECTIONS

1. Mix all ingredients in a bowl.

2. Grease a baking sheet or place a silicon baking cover.
3. Drop about a tablespoon worth of cookie batter on sheet.

4. Heat oven to 350F and bake until they are all golden.



Chocolate drizzle (optional)
1. Melt half a cup of dark chocolate chips with 1/4 of milk.
2. Mix melted chocolate until consistency is smooth.
3. Add about 1 tablespoon of rum.
4. Mix well.
5. Dip or decorate cookie with chocolate.