Makes 24 rings
My mother and her mother emigrated to Shanghai from Iraq in 1930. My grandmother had been widowed many years earlier. Over the intervening years, her three older children had all found their way to Shanghai, and her only son, Jason, eventually sent for Granny and my mom once he was able to support them. At the time, thousands of Iraqi Jews resided in Shanghai, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. The Iraqis did what they could to maintain their customs. Granny, the widow of a rabbi, went to synagogue twice a day.
We all lived together in her one-room apartment during World War II. Granny was a fabulous cook and baker. Her kitchen only had room enough for one person, so my mother wasn't able to learn from her. What my mom and I remember best are the smells, tastes, and textures of Granny's food. The two pastries that stand out as the sine qua non of her repertoire are kahk and cheese sambouseks (see page 111). When my family immigrated to San Francisco in 1950, we had to leave Granny behind in Shanghai. She eventually traveled with my uncle Jason and his family to Israel and then to Canada, but she died without us ever seeing her again.
It then became my mom's job to try to re-create some of our most treasured memories of Granny's cooking. She experimented with doughs for kahks and fillings for sambouseks and finally succeeded in making what we both think taste very close to what Granny made. When we make kahk and sambouseks, we feel as if Granny's with us again.
These savory bracelets of dough remind me of breadsticks: dry, crunchy and addictive. Kahk are eaten any time of the day as a delicious nibble. In Shanghai, it's the first thing I'd reach for every day when I came rushing home from school. The dough may be plain or flavored with fennel, cumin, or caraway seeds. Granny often made some of each type, and she brushed the tops of the kahk with an egg wash and sprinkled them with sesame seeds. Making this dough is a breeze with the food processor, and it is very easy to work with.
2½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (spooned into the cups and leveled)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
9 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
1/2 cup cool water
2 teaspoons fennel, cumin, or caraway seeds (optional)
1 large egg, beaten with a pinch of salt for egg wash
Sesame seeds for sprinkling
To make the dough, combine the flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar in a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process for 5 seconds. Add the butter and pulse 10 times, or until the mixture is the consistency of fine meal. With the machine running, add the water in a steady stream, taking about 10 seconds to do so. Process for 1 minute. The dough will gather into a ball and form a mass that whirls around the blade. Feel the dough. It should be smooth, soft, elastic, and no longer sticky. If necessary, adjust the texture with droplets of water or small amounts of flour, processing a few seconds after each addition. If you want to add seeds to the dough, knead them in by hand on your work surface.
Divide the dough into 24 pieces and shape into balls (3/4 ounce each). Cover the balls of dough loosely with a kitchen towel and let stand for 20 minutes.
Adjust two oven racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two 17 x 14–inch cookie sheets with silicone baking pan liners or cooking parchment.
Roll each piece of dough beneath your palms into a log about 7 inches long and 1/2 inch wide, with tapered ends. Bring the ends together, overlapping them by about 1 inch, and pinch tightly to seal; each ring will be about 2 inches in diameter. Set the rings on the prepared sheets, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Paint each bracelet with the egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Bake for about 30 minutes, until the kahk are golden brown. Rotate the sheets top to bottom and front to back once during baking to ensure even browning. Cool the kahk completely on the baking sheets.
Kahk keep well stored in an airtight container at room temperature for 2 to 3 weeks. To freeze, pack them into heavy-duty resealable plastic bags and freeze for up to 1 month. Thaw them in their bags, then arrange on a baking sheet and refresh in a preheated 300°F oven for 10 minutes. Cool before eating.