In Iraq, in Christian and Muslim families alike, kleicha, a cookie made with dates and with a delicious cardamom flavor, can be found on every kitchen table during religious holidays. It is the national pastry of Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
What is kleicha?
Kleicha (in Arabic : كليجة ) is a traditional Iraqi cookie usually stuffed with date paste or with a mix of walnuts and sugar.
The date variant is undoubtedly the most popular and widespread one in Iraq. This date pastry is called kleichat tamur.
This version is made by rolling up cookie dough around a thin layer of date paste. This process forms smooth biscuits with a rounded shape and a clear contrast between the white cookie dough and the black date paste.
A special feature of kleicha lies in the fact that its cookie dough is leavened and does not contain eggs.
This dough is very fragrant since it contains small nigella seeds. Some traditions even add sesame seeds and rose water in the dough. Others even flavor the egg yolk that covers the cookies with saffron before putting them in the oven.
Nigella seeds are very fragrant and really give the cookies a distinctive flavor. They are also used to bake different types of bread like the Italian bread from Tunisia, or to decorate some biscuits.
Traditionally, kleicha is a familial pastry made for big occasions and religious holidays. It is therefore made at home and in large quantities. Also, don’t be surprised, this cookie is neither too sweet, nor too big. Its consistency is rather dry but quite pleasant.
What is the origin of kleicha?
Once, ancient Babylonians baked similar cookies called qullupu. They had a round shape. Etymologically, the word kleicha borrows from Semitic languages and from the Greek language. Semitic languages are a group of languages spoken in the Middle-East during ancient times : they were primarily found in Northern Africa, the Middle-East and in the Horn of Africa.
Therefore, the word kleicha is derived from the word kull, which means “whole” in Semitic languages. It would also come from the greek kolo, which means “round” and from the word kuklus as well, which means “wheel”. This round shape represents in reality the cyclical year and the wheel of time.
How to make kleicha and religious traditions
The preparation of kleicha doesn’t leave room for improvisation : it is a ritual. In the past, the cookies used to be baked on wood fire in the big communal oven. If there was no wood fire oven, they could also be sent to bakeries to have them baked. This traditional oven is called tannour, and this is the same oven used to bake khubz tannour, the popular flat bread.
The dough was once prepared in big bowls named nijana. Kleicha dough is a kind of bread dough that was kneaded for a long time until it gained elasticity.
Iraqi muslims usually prepared kleicha for the two most important religious holidays in Islam : Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adhha.
Id al-Fitr is a three-day long fast celebrating the end of Ramadan. Kleicha are also made for Id al-Adhha, a four-day long fast celebrating the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Iraqi Christians generally made kleicha for Christmas and Easter. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ while Easter celebrates his resurrection. Easter is celebrated the first Sunday following the appearance of the full moon after the 20th of March.
Until the middle of the 20th century, there was a strong Jewish community in Bagdad. These Iraqi Jews prepared date kleicha for the Purim holiday, celebrated on the 14th of Adar in the Hebrew calendar. This celebration usually takes place in March every year, but the exact date changes depending on the lunar calendar.
Traditionally, oznei aman are the same cookies but triangle-shaped. However, in Iraq, Iraqi jews made them round and called them ba’ba’ bit-tamigh.
The different types of kleicha
It probably is the most iconic biscuit from Iraq. However, kleicha is a pastry that requires a few tricks to succeed in making it. That is why the date versions are often left to be made by the elders, since making a smooth and thin layer of date paste is hard: it requires expertise.
Thus, many variants of kleicha exist, depending on the thickness of the dough and of the date paste.
In some households, kleicha are more swollen, more rounded and bigger. In others, they’ll be thinner, flatter, and will have more black layers. It is customary to exchange plates of kleicha between neighbors during the holidays : that is why they should be made with care.
Furthermore, kleicha can be found in different shapes :
The walnut kleicha usually have a half-moon or crescent shape. It is not unusual to find date and cardamom kleicha with this shape as well.
Kleicha can also be found in a round shape. They are decorated with a specific wooden mold. This mold is called galab al-kleicha.
Tips to make perfect kleicha
First of all, the kleicha dough must be nicely flattened. The main secret in the recipe lies in making a good cookie dough. Indeed, the dough must be flattened with a rolling pin since it will swell in the oven.
The cookies may seem small, but they will double, or triple in volume during baking. Thus, once the roll is made, it should be slightly flattened with a rolling pin for a longer kleicha.
The dough can be a bit sticky. It is therefore advised to put the roll in the fridge for five minutes before cutting the kleicha with a knife. That way, cutting the roll will be easier. Using a sharp, non-serrated knife to cut the cookies is recommended. The cookies will then be smooth and the contrast between the dough and date paste will be a success.
The kleicha should have room in between them on the baking tray before being put in the oven. It is recommended to only place 10 to 12 kleicha on a regular 8×12 inch baking tray, otherwise the cookies will swell on top of each other during baking.
Kleicha around the world
Kleicha is found under many names and in different forms. Kolompeh are found in Iran. Kolompeh are very popular in the Kerman region in Iran.
Like kleicha, kolompeh are cardamom cookies stuffed with dates. They differ by their appearance : they look like small tarts, decorated with patterns. Just like kleicha, kolompeh can be made with walnuts instead of date paste.
It is a variant of maamoul. Date maa’moul are known as menenas. They have a similar shape to kleicha. They are made during the two main Muslim holidays : Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
Ma’amoul are small pastries stuffed with dates and walnuts, or pistachios (sometimes with almonds).
Unlike kleicha, the cookie dough does not contain yeast. Furthermore, in the maamoul dough, some fine semolina is usually added to the flour. They are decorated by hand and shaped with a wooden mold.
We hope that you will particularly enjoy this recipe. You can serve kleicha anytime during the day, with a Turkish cardamom coffee or even for breakfast.
This recipe is validated by our expert in Iraqi cuisine Nawal Nasrallah. An award-winning researcher and food writer, Nawal is the author of the definitive cookbook on the Iraqi cuisine Delights from the Garden of Eden.
- 5 cups plain flour
- 1 cup melted butter
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon caster sugar
- ½ tablespoon salt
- 5 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons nigella seeds
- 20 oz. date paste
- 3 tablespoons sunflower oil
- 1 tablespoon ground cardamom
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons milk
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the flour, yeast, nigella seeds and sugar. Mix.
- Dig a well in the center of the flour and add in the butter.
- While kneading at low speed add water gradually and knead for 2 minutes. Add the salt.
- Knead to obtain a soft, slightly moist and homogeneous dough.
- If necessary, add a little water if the dough is too hard or, on the contrary, a little flour if it is too sticky.
- Cover the dough with a cloth and let it rise for one hour in a warm place away from drafts.
- While the dough is rising, prepare the date filling.
- In a large Dutch oven, heat the sunflower oil.
- Add the date paste.
- As the pot warms, the date paste should start to soften. Finally add the ground cardamom.
Continue stirring for 5 minutes until obtaining a smooth texture that can easily be spread and rolled.
- Divide the dough into 4 pieces.
On a large sheet of parchment paper, spread the first dough in a rectangle about ¼ inch (6 mm) thick. The parchment paper will help to roll the kleicha more easily.
- Place the date paste between two large sheets of parchment paper and spread it about the same size as the dough. Remove the top parchment paper from the rolled date paste, then turn the date paste over and place it on the dough. Detach the other sheet.
Alternatively, take small pieces of date paste, and flatten them on the dough, until the surface is all covered.
- Starting from the largest part of the rectangle, roll it on itself by tightening it well.
- Flatten slightly the roll thus formed.
- Beat the milk and egg yolk in a bowl.
Brush the entire surface with this mixture and cut ½ inch (1,25 cm) thick slices.
- Place the slices on a baking sheet, lined with parchment paper, with the opening facing down.
- Repeat the process with the other three pieces of dough.
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180˚C).
- Bake for 20 minutes.