Happy New Year!
If the past two years have taught you to view new beginnings with suspicion rather than excitement, I hear you. If you’re entering 2022 with the battle-weary persona of a ye-olde-medieval video game character about to embark on his final quest, I hear you. And if you’d rather just pretend 2020/2021 didn’t happen and have muted all alerts for ‘variant’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘Joe Wicks’, I hear you (especially about Joe Wicks; nothing against the man but I just can’t trust anyone who looks like they enjoy HIIT that much.)
If, however, you’re feeling a bit more optimistic about this year then I might have something for you. (For those in the first category I can only recommend gin?)
My #positivevibesonly NY recipe is inspired by the Scottish Hogmanay tradition of first-footing.
The origins of first-footing – the belief that the first person who enters your home on New Year’s Day will bring good luck for the coming year – are vague. A 19th century article on the topic seemed to suggest it was a relatively modern practice, invented in the 17th or 18th centuries by young women of a, um, lustful nature who encouraged their sweethearts to visit them just after midnight on New Year’s Day. Following this first-footing visit, a marriage was usually made between the suitors on the subsequent New Year’s Day.
By the 19th century the tradition had become a bit of community fun. Generally a dark haired handsome man would knock on the door after midnight on the 1st January with a variety of specific gifts and bestow good fortune on the household. He would then be rewarded with food and drink and the general NY festivities would continue.
One gift often mentioned in the sources is shortbread, which has become absolutely synonymous with Scotland. The earliest recipes that we’d today call shortbread date back to the 16th century under the name ‘short cakes’, with the earliest one I could find appearing in Thomas Dawson’s 1594 The good Huswifes handmaide for the Kitchin.
But, and this is meant with no disrespect to the noble Scottish delicacy, shortbread can be a bit… basic. I couldn’t help think that the combination of the fundamental components of shortbread – wheat flour, sugar and fat – had to have been discovered before the 16th century.
I also couldn’t help thinking that we were due some frankly fantastic fortune after the past two years, and I wondered if that fortune would be more forthcoming if ushered in with extra special shortbread.
And so, having established the most tenuous of tenuous links between current events and today’s experiment, I present one of the earliest ‘shortbread’ recipes I could reasonably claim: Khushkananj.
To make Kushkanaj
It is that you take excellent samid flour and put three ounces of sesame oil on every [pound], and knead it hard, well. Leave it until it ferments, then make it into long cakes, and into the middle of each put its quantity of pounded almonds and sugar kneaded with spiced rose water. Then gather them as usual and bake in the brick oven and take them up.A Baghdad Cookery Book. trans. Charles Perry
This is shortbread in only the most technical of terms in that it is short (ie crumbly). I’m not here trying to attribute historic Scottish cuisine to the Middle East (although that’s actually not as far fetched as it might sound…), or slap European labels on non-European foods like an appropriation arsehole, Ok? Ok.
The recipe can be found in the 13th century Baghdadi work كتاب الطبيخ Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh (The Book of Dishes), compiled by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdādī. Originally it contained 160 recipes, with additional recipes being added over the centuries to account for changing tastes and techniques. Charles Perry – the editor/translator of the English version – has stated that the Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh was so influential that for centuries it was the Arabic cook-book of choice for Turkish sultans.
At some point after 1226 a further 260 recipes were added to book and the collection was renamed Kitāb Waṣf al-Aṭᶜima al-Muᶜtāda (which is a great title for exploring the rarely used symbols section in my Word). In the late 15th century the Turkish physician Mahmut Şirvâni added 82 extra recipes of his own and translated the rest into Turkish, thus compiling the first ‘original’ cookery book of the Ottoman Empire.
Today’s experiment appeared in a section basically titled ‘On making things mixed with flour’, which was a pretty underwhelming start for my new year of good fortune, but I continued.
The first thing that stood out to me was that the recipe contained quantities – actual recognisable quantities! What was more, they were helpful quantities that could be scaled down easily. Anyone who’s followed this blog for a bit now will know the biggest issue I have trying to recreate medieval (European) recipes is the lack of clear instructions. Yet here, on the first day of this auspicious year was a sign from the god of imperial units that good fortune was coming my way indeed. Sure, they were Perry’s interpretation of whatever the original unit was, but that wasn’t the point: the point was that they were there at all.
The next thing to contend with was the term samid flour. This has been translated by Perry and Laura Kelley, author of The Silk Road Gourmet, to be semolina.
The third thing I realised was that the semolina, once mixed with (untoasted) sesame oil, was supposed to be left to ferment – a definite move away from traditional shortbread. In all honesty, I gave it 24 hours with a bit of warm water to do its thing before I realised I was in serious danger of missing the New Year’s Day cut off for good luck, so I don’t know how fermented it really was in the end.
The rest of the instructions were reasonably straightforward. The dough felt and looked reasonably similar to shortbread dough in that it kept bloody crumbling up every time I tried to move it, and the rose water/almond additions filled the kitchen with a very appetising scent as it cooked.
Time to come clean: these were not very similar to shortbread at all. They were dry and crumbly, for sure, but they weren’t as sweet and they lacked that melt in the mouth feel because the semolina was much coarser than wheat flour and the sesame oil couldn’t match the butteriness of, well, butter.
Those aren’t all bad things; if anything the mild sweetness tempered with the perfumy rose notes was actually more nuanced than the high-pitched sugariness shortbread can sometimes have. I felt I had to work through each mouthful, in the same way one might work through a dry Weetabix, which made them weirdly satisfying.
In the end I had to be my own dark haired biscuit-bringer, but I hoped these very distant shortbread cousins shared some of the minimum required properties of New Year’s Day shortbread – enough to win me a year of good luck, at least.
Here’s to 2022!
To make 8 Kushkanaj
85g untoasted sesame oil
Spices: I used ginger, cardamom, saffron
- Knead the semolina with the oil and add enough warm water to form a relatively sticky dough that holds its form when you squeeze it.
- Leave overnight somewhere warm or until it begins to ferment (you can skip this step if you want).
- Roll the dough into 8 portions.
- Grind the almonds, and add to the sugar.
- Add the rose water and spices to the sugar and almond mixture.
- Create an indent in each dough portion and spoon a little of the almond and sugar mixture into this. Close and seal.
- Now it’s up to you: you can bake these in moulds as per the original instructions, or you can leave them as discs.
- Bake at 200 degrees C for about 30 minutes or until turning golden brown.