Kleicha (various spellings) is ubiquitous at religious holidays and special occasions in the Middle East. There are many variations of recipes for the pretty roll-ups of crispy yeasted dough around a smooth date filling. But the cookies always include dates, cardamom, and sometimes nigella (often labeled Black Seed or Kalonji in Middle Eastern grocery stores.) I love the savory pop of nigella seeds, so included them here. And while some kleicha recipes start with date paste, using pitted dates cooked to jammy consistency yields best flavor.
But which dates to choose?
At the recent TuttoFood exposition in Milan, Italy, I was delighted to find that dates were the featured ingredient in the expos creative cooking competition. Talking to representatives from Saudi Arabia’s National Center for Palms & Dates I learned that while the Kingdom has 34 million date palms, producing more than 300 varieties of dates (!), we here in America are likely to see only a few. Two varieties I found in Chicago included the dark, round Ajwa dates, which are firm with a chocolatey, caramelly flavor, and Sukkary—sometimes called “Royal Dates” which are soft and sweet, with a honeyed flavor and golden brown color. The Sukkary variety (available refrigerated at the Pita Inn grocery in Skokie/Evanston) are delicious in this recipe. But any good-quality soft dates will do.
To make the cookies, you’ll mix the dough first. While it rises, you’ll pit and then warm the dates with cardamom and a little oil, mashing and/or kneading the mixture into a smooth paste. Rolling out and rolling up come next. To simplify this, I spread my work area with cling wrap, spreading more wrap over the surface of first the date paste and then the dough before rolling each out into thin 9-inch x 12-inch rectangles.
You’ll then remove the top sheet of plastic, flip the date paste sheet over the dough sheet and roll the stack jelly-roll style to make a log. All that remains from here is to slice each roll into ¾-inch slices, bake and serve.
With only 3 tsp of sugar in the dough, and none added to the filling, the sweetness of the cookies is all fruit! That makes kleicha nutrition- and fiber-packed little nuggets. They keep well, and taste especially good with a cup of strong black tea.
Date & Cardamom Spiral Cookies (Kleicha)
- For the Dough:
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 ¼ tsp, active dry yeast (1 packet)
- 1 tsp. ground cardamom
- 1 cup melted butter (salted)
- 3/4 cup warm water
- 3 tsp. sugar
- 2 Tbsp nigella seeds
- For the date filling:
- 2 Tbsp sunflower (or other neutral) oil
- 2 lbs. Sukarry dates, pitted (OR other high-quality soft dates)
- 2 tsp. ground cardamom
- For the eggwash:
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 Tbsp milk or water
- Make dough: In a large wide bowl, whisk together flour, yeast, nigella seeds, and sugar. Make a well in the center; add melted butter. Stir to combine. Add water and continue stirring until mixture comes together. Knead dough until smooth. Leave ball of dough in bowl; cover with clean towel and place in a draft-free area to rise a bit while you make the filling.
- Make filling: In a small pot over very low heat, combine pitted dates with oil and cardamom. Mixture will be very sticky. Continue mashing until warm and partially smooth. Remove from heat. Coat hands with oil and continue mashing and kneading dates with your hands until you have a smooth date paste. Set aside.
- Assemble: Cover a clean worksurface with two overlapping sheets of plastic wrap to make a 14 x 14 inch square. Place ¼ of date paste in center. Cover with two more sheets of overlapping plastic wrap. Pat paste down to flatten. Using a rolling pin, roll paste out into a thin rectangular sheet about 9 x 12 inches. Set aside.
- Cut risen dough ball into four pieces. Spread work surface with two more sheets of overlapping plastic and use same procedure you used for rolling out the date paste to roll out the dough. Remove top pieces of plastic from surface of dough sheet. Retrieve sheet of date paste. Remove top pieces of plastic from surface of date paste sheet. Flip (invert) date paste sheet over the dough sheet. Using the edge of plastic wrap on the shorter side of the rectangle, lift edge of dough-date-stack up and tuck and roll up jelly-roll style to make a log. Place log seam-side down, slightly flatten; wrap and refrigerate. Repeat with remaining three portions of dough and date paste.
- Bake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush each log with egg wash. Using a very sharp knife, slice each log into ¾ to 1-inch pieces. Place raw cookies upright on parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes until tops are golden brown. Remove from oven. Serve hot, or at room temperature.