Nothing like mother's recipe
Older people are regretting the decline of the age-old tradition of making kahk, a traditional Ramadan biscuit, at home, finds Hanan Radwan
One morning, Amira Abdel-Qader went to work only to find that she, along with several others, was to be laid off. Hit by the post-revolution economic crunch, the tourism company where she worked had had no other option.
Several months later, while sitting on her lap her young niece begged Abdel-Qader to make her kahk -- an unusual request at that time of year since the famous Egyptian biscuit is mostly baked during Ramadan, for the Eid or for festive occasions like weddings.
However, weak in the face of child power, Abdel-Qader acquiesced and delighted the family with a batch made according to her mother's favourite recipe. Today, she has turned her kahk-baking skills into a serious business, and for the first time in her life she loves her job.
Without realising it, Abdel-Qader has not only managed to save herself from unemployment, but she has also helped to conserve an integral but fading element of Egyptian culture: home-baked kahk.
This is so because kahk is more than just a cookie. It is a half-moon, sugar-coated biscuit that dissolves in the mouth, leaving behind a euphoric aftertaste of buttery goodness, and it acts as a social bond that in the past brought family members, neighbours and all manner of acquaintances around the baking table.
Because of the complexity of the baking process -- kneading hot clarified butter and flour by hand -- home-made kahk is traditionally produced in large quantities by a group of women once a year during Ramadan. The baked cookies are then distributed amongst the housewives who have baked them.
Usually, women congregate at the end of Ramadan to bake other sweet treats like ghorayeba (a fluffier biscuit not covered with sugar), petits fours (soft biscuits made plain or with cocoa) and salted biscuits. However, no matter the array of desserts that might be made, kahk is always the star, and it is the main motivation behind the group-baking process.
Unfortunately, today that tradition may be disappearing since the pressures of modern life are such that many housewives have little time and energy to spend half-day sessions kneading, shaping and baking kahk.
Older generations that have savoured the home-baked richness of this unique biscuit, as well as the warmth of the familial and social ties that are fostered on kahk-baking days, lament the growing disappearance of the custom.
"It isn't just about baking cookies," Mona El-Gamal, 60, explains. "I remember as a young girl I would eagerly look forward to the day of kahk baking, when I would get together with all my female cousins and we would all chatter and laugh as we shaped the dough together. Now, we're all busy with our own lives, and even when we get together, we hardly have half the fun we used to."
Such annual get-togethers were used for gossip, debate and even matchmaking by the women. Bothaina Abdel-Moneim's family is the product of a matchmaking deal made on a kahk-baking day by her mother and neighbour, for example. More than 40 years later, Abdel-Moneim, 65, still gathers her daughters and grandchildren on the last week of Ramadan to bake kahk.
"I have to keep up this tradition, even though kahk day is backbreaking for me now. I employ a maid to help knead the hot dough, but because we make more than six kilos for three families and my own oven is small, I have to bend over for more than three hours to bake the whole batch," she says, recalling that during her childhood years households would send their cookie trays to be baked at the local bakery.
These days, however, local bakeries can hardly keep up with the demand for bread, and few have the capacity to incorporate household trays. Nevertheless, some women, such as Fardous Shehata, 57, who lives in Boulaq, are persistent. Like many residents of shaabeya (popular) neighbourhoods, Shehata has a long-standing agreement with the local bakery and tips the staff well so that they will bake her annual seven trays of kahk.
"Our children long for this time of year so that they can eat kahk, and we can't afford to pay LE50-60 for a kilo of store-bought kahk," she says.
In any case, those who have tasted home-made kahk are often fastidious about sampling the commercial version. The reason is that some bakeries skip the cumbersome and lengthy step of kneading the hot dough and instead just mix the flour and other ingredients with cold clarified butter.
For many like Abdel-Moneim, the toasted earthiness of home-made kahk cannot compare to store-bought cookies, which "taste like sand". In fact, earlier generations took kahk baking so seriously that the slightest mistake could be declared the death knell of a good housewife.
Zeinab Barakat, 71, vividly remembers when one year she tried a different brand of flour than the one she normally used in her kahk recipe. The end result was tasty, but "the cookies were so hard you could almost bounce them off the wall. They did not melt in the mouth like good kahk does," she recalls.
"It was a terrible Eid for me as a result. I spent it in bed crying over my failure and out of fear of what my relatives and neighbours would say. The only thing that made me feel better was when my husband bought me a sack of my regular flour and I re-made the three kilos all by myself."
Barakat had every reason to feel ashamed of her mishap. When home baking was the tradition, family members and neighbours exchanged samples of their finished products on the first day of Eid, and each household would tactfully pass judgement on the other's cookies.
"At the end of the day, after sharing my kahk with friends and neighbours, I would hardly have any left over for my own family. Instead, we ended up with batches from others who had shared them with us," she said.
"Kahk means joy" is an informal adage acknowledged by most Egyptians, and so much so that baking kahk, or even eating it, is avoided for the first year after the death of a family member or a close neighbour.
"The younger generations simply don't understand what kahk signifies," El-Gamal said. "They just think of it as a cookie like any other that they can easily get from any bakery during Ramadan and Eid. They don't understand that there is a whole culture behind it. I feel sorry for them because they have not experienced the wonderful moments of family love, hard work and satisfaction that kahk baking brought to us."
Abdel-Moneim concurs, scoffing at the growing trend of health-conscious Egyptians to shy away from kahk. "People these days avoid eating kahk, saying it will make them gain weight or raise their cholesterol. What about the fast food and soft drinks they have every day? Isn't home-baked food always better?"
Judging from Abdel-Qader's swelling number of customers, all may not be lost for Egypt's signature cookie. Although some of her cookies (stuffed with pistachios and Turkish delight) fetch LE110 per kilo, Abdel-Qader can hardly keep up with the orders. And she does not mind standing for more than five hours in front of her oven during the steamy days of Ramadan.
She is proud to be helping to give her fellow Egyptians a taste of an important slice of their culture, and one that is crumbling almost as fast as a bite of kahk. As she puts it, "if they are too busy or unable to bake kahk at home and feel the happiness and social fun that this brings, at least I can give them a taste of the end result of this beautiful tradition."