A Passover cookie from Baghdad finds a new home in Montreal

When Passover arrives each spring, I know I’ll be busy making matzah bark and flourless chocolate cake. These staples appear on many tables throughout the holiday, and as much as I love each of these desserts, I can’t say they’re my favourite. Rather, that special place is reserved for massafan cookies, traditionally made for Passover in the Jewish Iraqi community. 

Massafan cookies are made of almond flour, ground cardamom, sugar, egg whites, and rose water. The five ingredients come together in perfect harmony to create a dessert that is more than the sum of its parts. Soft and chewy, fragrant with the delicious smells of cardamom and rose water, I can’t get enough of these treats.

Not only have I made them countless times in my own kitchen, but I’ve made hundreds of these cookies for the many Wandering Chew events we’ve had over the years. They were the dessert we served at our first ever pop-up dinner in 2013, a five course Jewish-Iraqi meal, and something we’ve taught people to make at many of our cooking classes and demos, both in-person and virtual. 

The recipe for the specific massafan cookies I love to make comes from the kitchen of Evette Mashaal, who was gracious enough to share her recipe with me when I interviewed her to learn about the Jewish-Iraqi community in Montreal and its unique food traditions.

Evette grew up in Baghdad and moved to Montreal in 1952 with her family when she was thirteen years old to escape persecution. Settling in Montreal wasn’t easy for Evette, whose Jewishness was questioned because she didn’t speak Yiddish and didn’t eat the Ashkenazi foods that most people were familiar with. 

As Evette travelled across the world to her new home in Montreal, so did her recipe, and it remains a Passover staple for the Mashaal family. The cookies are a connection to the home she and her family left, and their Jewish Iraqi heritage. 

Evette still makes these cookies today, mixing the ingredients alongside her granddaughters in an activity that bridges generations. This isn’t a complicated cookie to make, therefore  providing a great introduction to Jewish Iraqi cuisine. The dough comes together in a snap by mixing the ground almonds (I like to use pre-ground, but you can also blanch and grind your own almonds as Evette does) with the ground cardamom and sugar. Once these ingredients are combined, an egg white is added to form a soft, sticky dough. Then comes the fun part: dipping your fingers into rose water and shaping pieces of the dough into five-point stars. An indentation is made in the center of each cookie so they don’t puff up in the oven, where they bake until light golden brown. 

Although they are lesser-known outside of the Jewish Iraqi community Evette explained in my interview with her, that every Jewish home in Baghdad made these during Passover, they were as common as coconut macaroons are in North America.

These flourless almond based cookies are part of a long line of Sephardic and Mizrahi sweets made of almond paste, also known as massapan, from which the name of the cookie is derived. Sugar and nut pastes—with almond being the most common—were introduced into Spain and Sicily by Muslim Arabs around the 9th century and became central to the cuisine of Sephardic Jews. These desserts were served at life cycle celebrations such as births, weddings, and bar mitzvahs, as well as for Passover and Purim. As they spread throughout various Jewish communities, different regional flavourings were added to the almond paste, such as orange blossom water, rose water, orange zest, lemon juice, cinnamon and cardamom. As such, a wide variety of different sweets and pastries were developed. Some of these include rings of almond paste called kaak bi loz from Syria, almond paste cookies flavoured with orange blossom water called guizadas from Tunisia, and cookies filled with almond paste called Les Cornes de Gazelle or Gazelle’s Horns from Morocco. Massafan came from the culinary landscape of Iraq, where cardamom and rose water are central ingredients. 

These cookies are just one example of the diversity of Jewish cuisine. The many dishes found within the culinary landscape of Jewish food hold stories and histories that can teach us about the people who make them, the communities they come from, and can help foster a better understanding of the many different Jewish experiences that exist. 

This Passover, make these cookies to bring something new to your holiday table, to represent the diversity of Jewish food, and to celebrate the many people and identities that make up our community. 

Get the recipe for massafan cookies here

Header image courtesy of Wandering Chew.

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