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.
What does kaak mean?
Kaak (كعك) literally means “cake” in classical Arabic. It is a term which can designate several North African and Middle Eastern pastries which generally have a ring shape. They can be savory or sweet.
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.
Libyan gastronomy also connects to the traditions of the Mediterranean and North Africa.
These Italian influences can be found in recipes like sabayon, bottarga or even shakshuka, this dish that is now very popular around the world and that most people would consider North African, but may indeed have 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 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 are available in any pantry, like oil, flour and butter. These savory cookies are usually shaped into rings or braided, for example in a similar fashion to koulourakia, this Greek butter-based pastry that is typically made around Easter.
It is possible to use sesame seeds, or fennel seeds (sweet cumin) in the dough itself, or use an egg wash so the seeds stick to the biscuit.
The different variants of kaak
In Tunisian cuisine:
- Kaak anbar, sweet, with almond powder and flavored with amber.
- Kaak Louz, sweet, with almond powder and flavored with bitter almond.
- Kaak warka, sweet, made from flour, icing sugar, butter, and almond powder. It is scented with orange blossom or rose water.
In Algerian cuisine:
- Kaak, a brioche from Oran, in the shape of a crown.
- Kaak el aaqda, a shortbread from the town of Kolea whose recipe has never been revealed.
- Kaak Bouchkara, a ring-shaped brioche made from flour and wheat semolina, originally from Algiers.
- Kaak m’saker, a shortbread crown covered with a glaze, originally from eastern Algeria.
- Kaak nakache, shortbread stuffed with date or almond. The particularity of this kaak is the pinching with which it is decorated, a very popular specialty of the city of Bejaïa in Kabylia. To do this pinching, cake tongs with a serrated end are used. This kaak is prepared for weddings or Aid parties.
- Kaak Tlemcen, a sweet sourdough cookie flavored with orange blossom water, from the city of Tlemcen
In Moroccan cuisine:
- Kaak mesfioui, sweet and savory biscuit, flavored with anise and orange blossom water, from the city of Safi
- Kaak souiri, a sweet shortbread, flavored with anise, orange, sesame seeds and orange blossom, from the city of Essaouira
- Kaak oujdi, a ring-shaped brioche, from the cities of Oujda, Berkane and Taourirt
- 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 the bowl of a stand mixer and mix.
- Sift the flour, salt and baking powder into the bowl.
Knead the dough until smooth.
- Place in a plastic bag and refrigerate for an hour.
Roll into ropes of about ⅓ inch (1 cm) diameter and cut sections of about 6 inches (15 cm). 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 (190˚C) for around 15 minutes or until light golden.