Kaak are little biscuits that are very popular in Libya. Kaak malih (كعك مالح ليبي or “salty cake” in Arabic) is a delicious savory version of the biscuit.
Libya is the fourth largest country in Africa, after Algeria, the DRC and Sudan. It is actually as big as Alaska, the largest states of the United States. Over the years, the country was ruled by Carthaginians, Persians, Egyptians and Greeks before it became part of the Roman Empire. After the fall of the Roman Empire, various invasions brought Islam and Arab colonisation until Ottoman rule began in 1551.It was temporary an Italian colony from 1911 to 1943, before it became independent in 1951.
My mother was from Tunisia, and I was raised eating dishes that I always considered Tunisian until I realized the same or very similar recipes existed in Italy. Whether it is sabayon, bottarga or even shakshuka. Yes, shakshuka, this dish that is now very popular around the world and that most people would consider North African, has indeed Sicilian roots.
The cuisine of Libya definitely mixes Arab and Mediterranean influences with some Italian twists. Pasta is actually a staple food in the Western area of Libya, the closest area to Italy, whereas rice is generally the staple food in the east.
Khubs bi’ tun, literally meaning “bread with tuna fish” is a street food favorite. It is very similar to the “Tunisian sandwich” made with khobz talian (Italian bread) that I grew up eating and that also contains canned tuna and harissa.
Kaak malih are savory cookies and the typical accompaniment to a thick Arabic coffee, or a tea, often flavored with mint, sage, basil or rose petals. They are traditionally served alongside sweet cookies and Libyan special breads like khubzah bil A3shab (خبزة بالأعشاب). Sweet cookies include kaak lebi hilw (orange and cumin biscuits) or kaak halkoom (cookies with Turkish delight – كعك حلقوم in Arabic).
The recipe for kaak malih is very easy and uses ingredients that you should have in your pantry, like oil, flour and butter. These savory cookies are usually shaped into rings or braided. I chose to braid mine in a similar fashion as koulourakia, this Greek butter-based pastry that is typically made around Easter.
You can use sesame seeds, or fennel seeds (sweet cumin) in the dough itself, or you can do as I did by using an egg wash so the seeds stick to the biscuit.
I made these kaak malih twice on a Saturday morning. After my first attempt, which included a little orange blossom water and too much baking powder, Vera nicely asked me to remake them as they were way too big. On my second attempt, I used half of the baking powder, and made them smaller. I am glad I did as the result was quite different and closer to authentic kaak malih. The addition of orange blossom water (zahr) is actually optional and gives a nice sweet touch to those savory biscuits.
- ½ cup milk
- ½ cup butter , melted
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3½ cups flour
- 1 egg , beaten
- ½ cup sesame seeds
- Pour the milk, melted butter and oil into a mixing bowl and mix.
- Sift the flour, salt and baking powder into the bowl.
- Knead the dough with a stand mixer until smooth.
- Place in a plastic bag and refrigerate for an hour.
- Roll into ropes of about ⅓ inch diameter and cut sections of about 6 inches. Braid each sectioned rope like a single-stranded challah bread.
- Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Brush with the beaten egg. Sprinkle sesame seeds.
- Bake at 400 F for around 15 minutes or until light golden.