Ka’ak: Syrian Sesame-Anise Rings

Rituals of kneading, baking, and eating, with hope for the new year.

This recipe for ka'ak, a crisp and savory Syrian biscuit, comes from Gloria Kaufer Greene’s 1985 The Jewish Holiday Cookbook. Greene got the recipe from the Syrian Jewish community of Deal, New Jersey, from Deal Delights, a cookbook compiled by the Sisterhood of the Deal Synagogue. In Deal and other Syrian Jewish communities, ka'ak are served at just about every gathering and celebration, but are particularly well suited to breaking the fast after Yom Kippur, as they are not sweet and are seasoned with refreshing spices. The sesame seeds on top represent “the hope that the coming year will be fruitful and replete with good deeds.

 

Ka'ak is the Arabic word for biscuit, and can be used to describe many different baked goods throughout the Middle East -- commonly, it refers to this kind of dried and hardened leavened ring. There are several varieties of ka'ak found in multiple religious traditions of the region, but this version, scented with anise, sesame, cumin and coriander, is common in the Syrian Jewish diaspora.

 

The Syrian Jewish community is entirely diasporic. The State Department reported in 2021 that there are no Jewish people currently living in Syria. This reveals over a century of migration by Jewish families, the hardships they experienced in Syria, and the strong support systems Syrian Jewish immigrants and refugees have established throughout the world where Syrian Jewish traditions, like ka'ak, persist.

 

Syrian immigration to the United States began at the turn of the twentieth century. This migration was primarily Christian, although there was Jewish immigration as well. Many Syrians found themselves living and working on New York City’s Lower East Side at the bustling pushcart market, where we can imagine you might have been able to pick yourself up a fragrant ka'ak in addition to a pickle or knish from a neighboring stall. In Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience, scholar Alixa Naff estimates that approximately 75-80% of female Syrian migrants were street peddlers between 1890 and 1910.

 

In Syria, antisemitic violence began to dramatically increase in the 1930s and 1940s due to anti-Zionist hostility. Many Jewish people sought to escape Syria during this time, and many did, primarily to Palestine. There were several devastating pogroms in the 1940s, and in 1948 a law was passed prohibiting Syrian Jews from working for the government or in banks, having a driver’s license and owning a telephone or radio. Jewish property was seized, Jewish bank accounts were frozen, the Jewish cemetery in Damascus was paved over and Jewish schools were closed. This increase in Jewish persecution coincided with the American Immigration Act of 1924 (aka the Johnson-Reed Act), which imposed severe immigration restrictions and race-based immigration quotas, limiting Syrian options for any sort of mass migration to the U.S.

 

During that time, however, Syrian communities in the United States continued to thrive -- many Syrians moved to Brooklyn after 1924, which is currently home to the largest Syrian Jewish community on earth. Many other Syrian families decamped for New Jersey, to communities like Deal, where this recipe comes from. The first Syrian Jewish family to live in Deal, as local historian Jim Foley told the New York Times in 2009, moved there in 1939. The Deal Synagogue was founded in 1973, and by 2009 Syrian Jews made up about 80% of Deal’s population.

 

When the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated the quota system, Syrian immigration to the United States began to increase but the Syrian government severely restricted Jewish mobility. A 1964 law in place restricted Jews from traveling more than 5 kilometers from their hometowns. By the Six-Day War in 1967, the Jewish population in Syria had reduced from an estimated 40-45,000 in 1948 to about 5,000 people. After the Six-Day War, restrictions tightened, and pogroms continued. Most Syrian Jewish emigration during that period was done in secret, often with assistance from other countries. For an example of one such operation, check out Rachel Harrison’s blog post for AJHS about proxy marriages conducted in 1977 to help young women immigrate to the United States as the wives of men from Brooklyn they’d never met.

 

Starting in the 1980s, around the time that Gloria Kaufer Greene leafed through the Deal Delights cookbook, Syrian restrictions on Jews loosened slightly. At that time, however, President Hafez al-Assad required Jews to purchase round-trip tickets, and the United States admitted them as tourists. As a result, they were granted political asylum and received temporary non-immigrant visas, rather than being admitted as refugees with a pathway to citizenship. Without citizenship or greencards, these migrants could not leave the country, work in certain professions or qualify for public assistance, a situation that was not remedied until 2000.

 

Eventually, due to the combined efforts of Jewish community organizations and countries around the world, Jewish people were evacuated from Syria. I recommend giving this ka'ak recipe a try -- as your kitchen fills with the warm and inviting smell, and you diligently lower your oven temperature and rotate the baking sheets to get the biscuits perfectly crisp, as you brew yourself some coffee or tea and enjoy the crunchy-yet-bready texture, I encourage you to think about all the families, in Deal and around the world, who have conducted the same ritual of kneading, and baking, and eating, and who might hope, each year, for a new year safer than the year before. With the ongoing refugee crisis in the news today, these biscuits remind us of the long and global history of refugee migration, as well as the importance of international cooperation to provide safe harbor where traditions like these can be preserved. 

 

 

 


KA’AK (SAVORY SESAME-ANISE RINGS) 

From The Jewish Holiday Cookbook (1985) by Gloria Kaufer Greene, adapted by Aurora Clare 
Makes 2-3 dozen ka'ak - recipe easily halved 

 

Ingredients:

BISCUITS 

1 package (2 ¼ tsps) active dry yeast, or 2/14 tsp instant yeast 

1 tsp granulated sugar 

 1 ¼ cups warm (105-115 degrees) water  

4 to 4 ½ cups all-purpose flour  

2 tbsp anise seeds  

Generous ½ tsp ground cumin  

Generous ½ tsp ground coriander  

2 tsp salt  

⅔ cup vegetable shortening  

1 tbsp vegetable oil 

 

GLAZE AND TOPPING 

1 large egg, lightly beaten with 1 tsp water 

About ⅓ cup sesame seeds 

 

Instructions:

In a small bowl, dissolve the active dry yeast and sugar in the warm water and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes, or until foamy.

 

In a large bowl, combine 4 cups of the flour, the anise seeds, cumin, coriander and salt (If using instant yeast, add it to the dry mixture). Cut in the shortening and oil with a pastry blender or electric mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add the yeast mixture and mix to make a firm dough (if using instant yeast, add water and sugar). Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for 5 to 10 minutes, or until it is smooth and elastic. Add sprinkles of flour, if necessary, to keep the dough from sticking.

 

Put the dough into an oiled bowl and turn it so that all surfaces are oiled. Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and a dish towel and let the dough rise until it has doubled in bulk, about 1 ½ to 2 hours.

 

Preheat the oven to 400. Punch down the dough; then divide it in half. Form one half into a log about 2 inches in diameter. Cut the log into approximately ½-inch-thick slices. Roll each slice into a rope that is ½ inch thick and 4 to 6 inches long. (If you want all the rings to be exactly the same size, cut the ropes to the same length). Bring the ends of each rope together to form a small ring and pinch the ends tightly together.

 

Dip the top (only) of each ring into the egg-water glaze and then into the sesame seeds. Place the rings, seeded-side up, about 1 inch apart on a large lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. For a ‘fancy’ look, use a small sharp knife to cut notches about ½ inch apart around the outside of each ring. Bake the rings at 400 for 10 minutes.

 

Meanwhile, shape the remaining dough into rings, place on another baking sheet, and bake as above. When the rings are done baking, make sure they are loosened from the baking sheets, but leave them in place. Lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

 

Return the rings to the oven (one baking sheet can be put on the top shelf, and one on the bottom). Bake the rings for 20 to 40 minutes, rotating the sheets every 10 minutes for even baking, or until they are dried out and crisp, like ‘hard’ pretzels. Cool them completely on wire racks, then store them in an airtight container.

 

The rings keep quite well, and can be stored at room temperature for several days, or frozen for at least 3 months. 

 

About the author:

*Aurora Clare is a historian and educator based in New York City. She completed a Master’s Degree in History from New York University in 2016, with a thesis on domestic space and public housing in twentieth-century New York. Aurora has worked with institutions including the Tenement Museum and New-York Historical Society. Aurora loves to bake, and especially loves to put food in broader historical context  -- she catalogues her historical sweet tooth on Instagram at @historybakes.

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*Pushcart and Syrian Quarter image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

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