This recipe for almond and lemon holiday cookies is a new one in my cookie repertoire but I’ve made it several times and every time they have vanished in a matter of hours. I must confess I hadn’t even seen or heard about these incredibly delicious cookies until a few months ago when I first tasted them at a friend’s house.
The cookies were lacy, crisp and crunchy on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside. What makes the recipe for these lemon-scented almond cookies even more special is that they are made with only four ingredients and are both gluten-free and dairy-free. This makes them perfect for holiday entertainment when people with food intolerances are more likely to be around.
My friend Sima Morshed who gave me the recipe is from Kerman, one of the Iranian cities famous for it’s very fine sweets. She had written the recipe in her neat and beautiful Persian handwriting on the yellowed pages of an old, well-used recipe book. It came from one of her Kermani relatives who is a wonderful baker, she said.
Sima’s little notebook held a treasure of family recipes handed down for generations. I was a very lucky girl to get one of the recipes in her notebook, probably one of its most unique. I searched in my cookbooks and on the net but couldn’t find none similar to her recipe.
Kerman (Carmania of ancient historians) is a city on the edge of a huge desert with fabulous architecture and a very long tradition in making sweets. Karnameh, a Persian cookbook written in late sixteenth century, has a very curious baklava recipe called Kerman baklava that uses lentils in the place of nuts.
The city has a beautiful covered bazaar where exotic spices and spice blends, gorgeous Persian carpets, handmade copper pots and pans and delicious sweets are sold in tiny shops. If you have a Persian carpet under your feet there’s a big chance it came from one of the dimly lit small shops in that bazaar where piles of carpets are as high as the ceiling.
Beside baklava Kerman is also famous for a very tasty, subtly spiced date-filled hand pie called kolompeh. My blogger friend Fariba from zozobaking.com is a master kolompeh maker. Her gorgeous cookies, shaped by hand and stamped with hand-carved traditional wooden stamps made in Kerman, look almost too good to eat.
Sima’s almond and lemon cookies take only minutes to prepare. I was surprised to hear that she puts the ingredients in a bowl and mixes them with a spoon. No beating or kneading at all! One needs to be careful with the oven temperature though. These cookies need to bake at higher temperature for a few minutes to set and then at lower temperature to allow the egg whites to dry.
These cookies will be very soft when they get out of the oven. You must allow them to cool perfectly before peeling them off the non-stick baking sheet. Don’t panic if they spread. While they are still warm you can gently pull them to shape with the help of two dinner knives. The outside will be golden brown and crispy but the centre will remain chewy and gooey which makes the cookies even more moreish.
There are always many ways to use the extra yolks. I used the yolks to make my own heirloom walnut cookies (shirni gerdoui) which are gluten-free and dairy-free like Sima’s cookies except that they are made with yolks rather than whites of eggs. The recipe for the walnut cookies has come down in my family for generations too. Hopefully I will share it with you soon.
Sima’s recipe called for flaked almonds only. The last time I made these I didn’t have enough flaked almonds so I used a few tablespoons of almond flour (ground almonds). This helped the cookies to keep their shape much better and they didn’t spread on the sheet at all. The flavour remained the same but the cookies weren’t as lacy as the ones made without almond flour. I like it both ways. Add a little almond flour (a couple of tablespoons) to your mix if you want them to stay rounded.
Depending on how big or small you make your cookies this recipe will yield about four dozen cookies.
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Tori Egherman was one of two bloggers at View from Iran. Now she spreads her writing goodness far and wide, including The Guardian and Global Voices. You can find her on Twitter at ETori.
Tori was very kind to agree to run the article here again as a guest post with some adjustments and a few new pictures. I’m so grateful to her because many of my readers found her article fascinating when I shared it on social media a few months ago. With special thanks to Tori please find the text of the article below.
By Tori Egherman
One of the keys to Persian cooking is understanding that some foods are considered hot and others cold. What exactly does that mean? Global Voices asked Persian food expert Maryam Sinaiee, of the website The Persian Fusion, to explain the concept:
Hot and cold don’t really refer to the temperature of food or its ingredients, they are rather descriptions of inherent properties in food ingredients that cause changes in the body.
The concept is based on Unani medicine [an ancient Greek medicinal tradition], according to which, individuals differ in nature too with some having a hot nature and others, cold. These attributes are associated with the color and temperature of the skin, temperament, etc.
In practice, this means that if you have a health problem that is categorized as “hot”, you would eat cold food to counter it. The opposite is also true: if you have a “cold” nature, eating too much cold food can throw you off-balance.
It’s quite elaborate and complicated so I’ll be giving you a very simplified version. Generally, high-energy, high-fat foods and most spices are considered hot. Many vegetables and grains, such as rice, are considered cold. The aim of the Persian cook is to balance hot and cold ingredients in a dish as components of a meal, or to correct the imbalance that is causing trouble to an individual, with food.
But does every Iranian cook have a chart of hot and cold foods — or a chart of each diner’s needs?
Most Iranians, at least the older generation, just know these things or ask more knowledgeable people around them. When things are too difficult to address by home remedies, a traditional doctor may be consulted too.
For instance, everybody knows that chocolate and nuts are hot. So if a person has a rash, they’ll immediately tell him to hold off these foods. They might tell them to drink distilled chicory plant water, because it has a cooling effect on the body and will help get rid of the rash.
Coriander (cilantro) and sour plums are considered as cold. So if a person has fever, they’ll usually be given a coriander and plum soup (ash-e geshniz ba alu) to help with the fever.
Is this starting to make sense? The Iranian version of your grandmother’s chicken soup is coriander and plum soup. Sounds delicious! Sinaeei added:
Traditional dishes are usually very balanced, though. Take fesenjoon, a scrumptious Persian stew of chicken or duck in walnut and pomegranate sauce. Walnuts are considered hot and pomegranates cold. Or rice with broad beans (fava beans) which is called baghali polo. Broad beans are considered as very cold, rice is cold too, so the dish is balanced with the addition of dill, a hot herb. The same goes with fish, a cold meat. It’s usually eaten with rice filled with herbs like dill, as well as with garlic, another hot ingredient. Yogurt, a cold food, will never, ever, appear alongside fish on a Persian table.
In other words, hot and cold categories can also help balance out a menu:
Persians love to eat tender, new season, romaine lettuce hearts with a syrup made from wine vinegar, mint and sugar (sekanjebin). That’s because lettuce is cold and the syrup’s heat will balance it.
Unsurprisingly, the summer and winter months require their own special foods — cold for summer and hot for winter:
Generally, hot dishes are served during the colder seasons. Normally, the rich and luxurious fesenjoon is saved for colder months, unless there is a big feast with many dishes to choose from. In summer, people usually tend to eat food of a colder nature — dishes that are less rich and made with lots of vegetables, cucumbers and yogurt.
The hot-and-cold rule stands true for desserts too — and yogurt is a go-to counterbalance for hot foods:
After a meal with a cold dish like fish, a Persian family will usually serve a hot dessert made with lots of sugar, fat, and spices such as cinnamon. An example is khagineh, a sort of big pancake torn into pieces and drowned in a saffron-spiked syrup.
Yogurt is often served with or stirred into certain other dishes if they are hot. In my grandparent’s house, there was a bowl of ground, dried, bitter orange peel mixed with ginger (both hot ingredients) and sugar on the table too, as if all the precautions that my grandmother (a fabulous cook) took were not enough. My grandfather took a spoonful after most meals, presumably because he considered most food as cold.
For first-time visitors to an Iranian feast, the spread of food can be overwhelming — but that hasn’t stopped many fans of Persian cooking from sharing their food photos on Instagram.
In this photo shared by Instagram user shore.coli, there is plenty of hot and cold to go around:
This shot of bagali polo, that master mix of hot and cold, was uploaded by Instagram user foodie_express:
This recipe for meatball stuffed aubergine bundles in verjuice sauce combines two of my favourite ingredients, the humble aubergine (eggplant) and the very special verjuice. I know this second ingredient sounds unfamiliar to many but bear with me. I’ll tell you all about it soon. You may wonder where this quaint ingredient had been all your life when you taste this dish. But not to worry if you can’t find or make it. There are substitutes you can use.
The idea for making these tasty bundles comes from Turkish cuisine where a similar dish is called islim kebab. The Turkish and Persian cuisines have been borrowing from each other for centuries so our cuisines have a lot in common. The least is names. So you get Persian dishes with Turkish names such as dolmeh from dolma (stuffed leaves or veg) and Turkish dishes with Persian names such as pilaw from polo (cooked rice), kebab from kabab (cooked or grilled meat) and kofte from koofteh (pounded meat).
Making aubergine bundles has become quite popular with Persian cooks in the past two decades. The dish has all the flavours and flair that Persians adore in food. In most Persian versions the use of verjuice to flavour the sauce gives the dish Persian character, that sour flavour we so love. Islim kebab already has a Persian name, boghcheh-ye bademjoon “aubergine bundles”, and seems to be a dish that has, or will, naturalise in the cuisine of Iran.
People who have grapevines around them can make verjuice very easily at home. There, I let the bird out! Verjuice comes from grapes, unripe tart green grapes. Perhaps getting to know this fabulous ingredient will let you use the grapes from that lovely vine you planted a few years ago, the vine that bears lots of lovely bunches of grapes refusing to ripen in that not so sunny spot of the garden.
Verjuice is extensively used in Persian and Syrian cuisines to flavour stews, sauces, salads and even soups. But it’s not only a Middle Eastern ingredient. A Roman recipe from 71 AD refers to verjuice and it used to be a common ingredient in medieval English kitchens too. Surprising, right?
In Iran verjuice is made by two methods: Pressing the grapes and letting the juice develop its distinctive acidic flavour in bottles with a little help from the warmth and light of the sun, or by cooking the juice briefly before bottling it. Either way the juice develops a lovely brownish-red colour and mellower flavour.
But what if you don’t have or can’t find verjuice for your verjuice sauce? I find that gooseberries (fresh or frozen) do the job quite decently. Blend a few handfuls of chopped gooseberries with a pinch of salt and put the pulp in a sieve over a bowl. Let the juices drain. Bring the juice to a boil and let cool. Use with some caution. Gooseberries can be very tart so it’s best to add the juice to a dish gradually and taste for sourness. Any remaining juice can be frozen in ice-cube trays for future use.
Now a few words about aubergines or eggplants as they are called in America and the meat for the meatballs. Aubergines come in many shapes and sizes, even colours. To make these bundles you need long and rather slim aubergines. For the meatballs you can use beef, lamb, a mixture of the two or even minced chicken or turkey. I used beef.
The key to best flavour in this dish is slow-cooking as it helps blend flavours and mellow the verjuice sauce. Arrange your aubergine bundles in a shallow pan and simmer very gently on the smallest burner for best results.
For the bundles:
For the sauce: