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Ghoriba Bahla - A Silly Name for Shortbread Cookies
These little Moroccan shortbread cookies have a pleasantly surprising crunch, thanks both to the dough's sandy texture and the now-traditional additions of toasted sesame seeds and almonds.
Cracks in the surface of the cookie have led to the cookies being known as ghoriba bahla (ghriba behla), a name which loosely translates in my mind to "silly cookie," but more accurately to "silly stranger." The word ghoriba itself means stranger and is used to refer to a number of round... Moroccan cookies which are traditionally shaped by hand.
The cracks are essential in order for the cookie to earn its name of silly, or bahla; otherwise it is simply a ghoriba. An example of the cookie without cracks can be seen with my Ghoriba with Toasted Sesame.
But now let's move on to see how to make the bahla with their requisite crackled surface.Continue to 2 of 13 below.
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Ghoriba Bahla - The Ingredients
It's always easiest to measure out ingredients before you begin mixing. This shortbread uses a mix of unsalted butter and vegetable oil, granulated sugar, flour, baking powder, vanilla sugar and a pinch of salt. Here I'm adding in a half cup of toasted unhulled sesame seeds. I could use toasted and ground almonds instead, or a mix of sesame and almonds. Ground pecans would also be fabulous, but it's not traditional.
For exact measures and printable directions, see the Ghoriba Bahla... Recipe.Continue to 3 of 13 below.
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Begin Mixing the Dough
Begin by combining the sugar, unsalted butter and vegetable oil in a large bowl. A heavy wooden spoon will make short work of this task, but use your hands if you prefer.
Next mix in the sesame (and almonds, if using), vanilla sugar and salt.Continue to 4 of 13 below.
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Work the Flour Into the Dough
Time to mix in the flour and baking powder. Do this in increments, adding the baking powder with the first addition of flour.
You might not need all of the flour, and this step is best done by hand since the dough will become increasingly stiff and crumbly. My bowl is big enough to accommodate my hands, but many Moroccan cooks prefer to use a wide, shallow when making dough.Continue to 5 of 13 below.
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The Kneading Begins by Hand or with Mixer
With enough flour mixed in, the dough should now be too crumbly to pack well. To make it manageable, it must be kneaded and mixed further.
You can do this by hand for a good 20 minutes or longer – indeed many Moroccans would insist on hand kneading – but a stand mixer with paddle attachment at low speed takes only 10 minutes and will leave you free to clean up or do something else.Continue to 6 of 13 below.
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The Dough is Ready
So what is the correct texture of the dough after kneading? Well, it should resemble what's shown here – dry enough to crumble between your fingers yet moist enough to easily squeeze and mold into a pliable ball.
If the dough does not have this texture toward the end of your 10-minute kneading, an adjustment will need to be made. If it's too dry and crumbly, work in a tablespoon of oil. If it's too moist and has formed a uniform mass, work in a little more flour. In either case,... continue kneading long enough to fully incorporate your addition.
Now it's time to move on to shaping and baking.Continue to 7 of 13 below.
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The Bakeware - Special Ghoriba Mold or Regular Pan
The traditional pan for making ghoriba bahla is a molded baking sheet like the one shown here. It's large enough to make a full batch of the shortbread cookies, and although it's not a must, using it will allow the cookies to bake with a desirably concave, cup-shaped bottom.
If you don't have the mold, a regular baking sheet will work fine, although your cookies will, of course, have a flat bottom. Neither pan requires greasing, but I here I'm using parchment paper for the regular... pan for the sake of easy clean up.Continue to 8 of 13 below.
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Preheat Your Oven
There are two baking methods to choose from. Select one or plan to try both to see which you like better:
- Preheat your oven to 338° F (170° C) with the rack in its lowest position. This oven temp will be used in combination with the broiler or grill element for a few minutes, after which time the rack will be re-positioned and the oven used alone.
- Preheat your oven to 400° F (200° C) with the rack positioned up high, in the top third. This method requires no adjustments other than a pan rotation... from front to back if you feel it's necessary.
The day I took these photos I tried both methods to see how they affected the cracks in the cookies. We want the cracks to be well defined but not so deep or wide as to distort the round shape of the cookie.Continue to 9 of 13 below.
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Shaping the Cookies
Take a little dough and squeeze it back and forth in your hands a few times to press it together and make it pliable. Shape it into a smooth ball of about 1 1/2" (3.5 cm), then flatten it slightly in the palm of your hand without cracking the edges.
If using the special pan, gently press the dough onto the top of a mold. Otherwise, arrange the dough on a regular baking sheet.
The dough shown here is shaped on the thick side. You can be a bit more particular if using the molded pan by shaping... the dough a little flatter and by pressing the edges even thinner so that the dough curves better over the mold. This will yield a thinner cookie with notable cup-shaped bottom which is preferred by perfectionist Moroccan bakers.Continue to 10 of 13 below.
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Bake the Cookies - Two Methods
Note that every oven behaves differently, so you may need to make small adjustments to get a good result.
- If your oven was preheated to 338° F (170° C), turn on the broiler or grill element. Place the cookies in the oven with the rack in the lowest position for 5 to 6 minutes. Turn off the grill and move the rack and baking pan to the upper third of the oven. Continue baking for another 15 minutes, or until the cookies have cracked and are colored.
- If your oven was preheated to 400° F (200° C),... bake the cookies on the rack in the top third of the oven for about 15 minutes, or until the tops are cracked and the cookies are nicely colored.
Remove the cookies from the oven and allow to cool and set on the pan for a few minutes before transferring to a rack to cool.Continue to 11 of 13 below.
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Ghoriba Bahla - Comparing Results
I test-baked the ghoriba bahla on both types of pans with both baking methods. The results are shown here. Note that the color of the cookies in the photo is a bit off because of the brightly hued paper I used for labeling. (Oops! Photography lesson learned!)
The traditional mold (left side of photo) yielded cookies with the deepest cracks, although they may have been too deep and wide had I not shaped the cookies as thick as I did.
The cookies on the conventional baking pan (right side of photo) h...ave finer but acceptable cracks. Perhaps a higher positioning of the rack would yield deeper cracks, but I was out of dough for experimenting further.
I've concluded that both methods are acceptable, but that the oven- grill method will give a slightly more dramatic crackling effect, particularly when combined with the traditional ghoriba mold. Depending on your dough's consistency, that effect may be too much, as drier dough will develop thicker, deeper cracks.Continue to 12 of 13 below.
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A Look at the Bottom of the Ghoriba
Here's what the bottom of the cookie will look like when baked on the ghoriba mold. Had I shaped the dough into a flatter disc and molded it down over the mounds on the special pan, my ghoriba would have had an even deeper cup and thinner edge.Continue to 13 of 13 below.
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Cooling, Storing and Serving Ghoriba Bahla
Allow the ghoriba bahla to cool completely before storing in an airtight container. You'll want to use waxed paper, plastic or foil between the layers to avoid crumbs from upper layers ruining the appearance of the cookies underneath. The cookies will keep well at room temperature for a week or two, but freezing will ensure best flavor if they aren't likely to be consumed in the first week.
To learn more about ghoriba bahla, take time to visit Nada Kiffa's post on the topic.
For other easy-to-shape cookies, see my List of Ghoriba Recipes.