Fanciful 5 Ingredient Shortbread for Mother’s Day: Ghraybeh
By: Blanche Shaheen/Arab America Contributing Writer
When people think of the shortbread cookie, they might imagine the traditional Scottish shortbread cookies shaped like oblong rectangles served at teatime. However, there are countless variations of this humble cookie in the Middle East, Persia and Africa, dating back to the 7th century when sugar became more accessible.
There are as many varieties of this cookie as there are spellings, from Sekerleme in Turkey to Kourabia in Armenia, to Ghraybeh in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. Ghraybeh is the shortbread I grew up with, which was shaped like diamonds or the letter “S,” hence Arab Americans also call them “S Cookies.”
My siblings and I would wait anxiously to eat these S cookies as my mother baked them, filling the house with the intoxicating scent of browned butter. So why so much wide regional popularity for a simple shortbread? The answer is a melt-in-your-mouth texture and elegant simplicity that appeals to most taste buds.
What makes Middle Eastern shortbread different from its European counterpart is the use of ghee, or clarified butter, instead of regular butter. The ghee imparts a pleasant sweet flavor, does not harden the cookie the way butter does, and increases the shelf life of the cookie, because the milk solids have been removed. While my mother and grandmother spent hours melting a dozen sticks of butter to make clarified butter, I found that store-bought ghee imparts the same authentic flavor with less mess and time. Today ghee is much easier to find, available in most supermarkets.
The cookies are then baked on the lower temperature of 300 degrees so that they don’t crack and turn brown. Unlike traditional American cookies, these cookies should be a pale cream or even yellow color rather than browned. I add a touch of rose water for that authentic Middle Eastern flavor and smell, but you can substitute any extracts you wish, from vanilla to almond to even orange blossom water.
Traditionally the cookies are topped with blanched almonds, but you can use any nut of choice, from pistachios and pine nuts to walnuts to no nuts at all. These cookies are also egg free, so they are great for children with egg allergies.
This Mother’s Day I will be paying back the favor by making my mother a batch of these nostalgic confections, which go perfectly with a cup of strong Arabic coffee or black tea. Dusting these cookies with powdered sugar also gives them a festive touch, great for tea parties, showers, or christenings.
For a tutorial on how to make this cookie, click on the video below:
Ghraybeh: (Makes about 20 cookies)
1 cup superfine sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup clarified butter or ghee
½ tsp Rose flower water (optional)
1/4 cup pine nuts, blanched almonds, or pistachios
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees
Sift together the flour and set aside. Beat the butter for at least 5 minutes or until it is fluffy and almost white in color. Then add the sugar and rose water and beat one minute more. Mix in the flour on low speed gradually, by a half cup at a time, scraping the sides with a spatula if needed. Cover the dough with plastic wrap then refrigerate for about 1 hour. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to 1/4 inch thickness, and shape them into a letter “S” by rolling them into a log first. You can also roll them out and shape into circles, ovals or diamonds. To shape into diamonds, roll out the dough into a log about 1 inch in width, then flatten with your fingers. Cut diagonally into diamonds. Then place a nut in the center of each cookie. Bake for 20 minutes in a preheated oven. Do not over bake and do not let the cookies brown. Let the cookies cool for at least an hour. Remove carefully with a metal spatula and sift powdered sugar over the cookies to serve if desired. Ghraybeh keeps frozen or in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
Note: How to make clarified butter
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Place the butter in a heavy saucepan and melt slowly over low heat. Remove the pan from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes.
Skim the foam from the top, and slowly pour into a container, discarding the milky solids in the bottom of pan.
What makes clarified butter so great is its higher smoke point. This means you can cook meats and fish at a higher temperature than you can with regular butter, making it ideal for pan-frying. For baking clarified butter results in a more tender cookie. Try clarified butter in any of your cookie recipes and you will notice the difference. By clarifying the butter during a slow cooking process, you’re able to strain out the milk solids that burn quickly as well as the water and salt. You’ll lose about 1/4 of your original butter amount during the process, and the clarified butter will keep, tightly covered in the refrigerator for about 1 month.
Blanche Shaheen is a journalist, food writer, and host of the cooking show called Feast in the Middle East. She specializes in Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond You can check out her cooking video tutorials and cultural commentary on growing up Arab American at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv Her recipes can also be found at: https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/