The keeping kind

This Thanksgiving, I cooked exactly nothing. That’s precisely how much I baked, too, which brings the grand total amount of food that I prepared for the holiday to a whopping zero dishes. Instead, I focused on the eating. I am what Calvin Trillin would call a “serious eater,” and with nothing to distract me from scooping up the next bit of food and raising it to my lips, I was in top form. I know well the satisfaction of spinning a kitchen full of ingredients into a table full of food. But there’s a quiet pleasure, too, in lifting my plate from a leaf-strewn table and loading it with food that’s been roasted and sliced and mashed and whipped and rolled out entirely by somebody else. I’d forgotten about that, and it felt really nice to remember.

By Friday morning, I’d been out of the kitchen for a while, and I woke up feeling bake-ish. We were in Ohio with my family, which meant that I had access to Amy’s cookbook collection, including a copy of Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert. Around the holidays, some people trim trees. I trim cookbooks. That morning, with a fresh pack of sticky tabs by my side, I gave Pure Dessert the old flip and trim treatment, plucking and pressing yellow tabs onto one promising recipe after another. A recipe for something called sesame coins had caught my eye somewhere along the way, and I skipped back a few tabs to find it.

Sesame coins. I made them twice. Is it possible to have a favorite currency? Is that a thing? And do cookie currencies count? I’m going to go ahead and say yes, yes, and yes, if only for the chance to tell you that I would like nothing more this holiday season than a life-size piggy bank filled tail to snout with sesame coins, plus a hammer to smash it at once.

When I read in the recipe notes that these cookies are “inspired by the taste of halvah,” I thought, “hey, I’m inspired by the taste of halvah, too!” Inspired, that is, to make a cup of tea, and maybe peel an orange. That was my nightly routine when I was living in Israel. I would buy a soft brick of halvah at the market every week or two and, before bed, I'd shave off a slab to go with my tea. In the winter, I’d usually eat an orange, too.

What makes these cookies so gloriously reminiscent of halvah is a generous scoop of sesame seed paste, which I call by its Hebrew name, techina, and you might call tahini. It’s all about texture, the texture that’s at once grainy and smooth and, I’m pretty sure, is responsible for both the halvah lovers and the halvah haters in this world. Eli is in the latter camp, and this was his response to these cookies: “They’re great. But there’s something weird that happens with the texture at the end. They remind me of something… Halvah?” Swap his “but” for an “and,” his “weird” for a “wonderful,” and his “?” for an “!,” and you’ll have my response, instead. My friend, Janet, offered the wisest observation about these cookies. She took one bite, and uttered a single word: “Creamy.” It struck me, at first, as an odd thing to say about a cookie that’s tender, but notably on the drier side. You know what, though? Janet was right. They are creamy. They’re creamy in the way that halvah is creamy, which is to say that they give the strong impression of creaminess, while being fully capable of - even inclined toward - crumbling. Just like halvah. Janet! You’re so smart.

According to Alice Medrich, these cookies will keep for up to a month if you store them in an airtight container. I’m going to have to take her word for it, given that my entire first batch – forty-some cookies – was gone in a day, and my second batch didn’t last much longer. That sesame coins are the keeping kind of cookies makes them an excellent addition to the holiday tin, especially one that needs a few days to get where it’s going. (Just be sure to wrap the cookies carefully for shipping; they’re more delicate than they look.) Of course, they’ll do just as well in the tin parked on your very own kitchen counter. They’re the keeping kind of cookies in that way, too.


It's Chanukah! Whether or not you're celebrating, may your week be filled with joy and light. If you’re still in need of a potato latke fix, here are some recipes for you from the archives:

Eli’s Potato Latkes
Sweet Potato Curry Latkes

We serve them with cranberry applesauce and sour cream.

For dessert, here are a couple of recipes for cakes made with oil, a nod to the tiny bit of oil that, according to Chanukah legend, lasted for eight days :

Carrot Cake Cupcakes

Olive Oil Citrus Cake

Sesame Coins
Adapted from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich

The original recipe recommends that you chill the dough for at least two hours, but I would suggest chilling it for at least four, or overnight. At two hours, my dough was still quite soft. I found it difficult to work with. A few more hours in the fridge made all the difference. Also, you might want to take a look at a ruler before you begin. It turns out that ¼ of an inch is much thicker than I realized. You don’t want to roll out the cookies any thinner than that, or you might have trouble transferring the cut dough to the baking pans. For a double recipe, says Alice, use one whole egg instead of two yolks.

2/3 cup (3 ounces) flour
¼ tsp. baking soda
2/3 cup unsalted tahini (sesame seed paste)
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
½ cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
½ tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. sesame seeds

Whisk together the flour and baking soda in a small bowl, and set aside. In a medium bowl, mix the remaining ingredients (except for the sesame seeds) until smooth. Add the flour mixture, and work it into the wet ingredients with your hands. The dough will feel like an oily, slightly crumbly pie dough.

Divide the dough in half and pat into thick disks. Wrap each disk in plastic and chill for at least four hours, or overnight.

When you’re ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Remove half of the dough from the refrigerator and allow it to soften, but only slightly. Unwrap the dough, place it between two pieces of wax paper, and roll it into a ¼-inch sheet (no thinner; see my note, above). Sprinkle the dough with half of the sesame seeds, and lightly roll over them with the rolling pin to press them into the dough. Using a 1½-inch round cookie cutter, cut as many “coins” as you can from the rolled-out dough. Transfer each coin to the lined baking pan. I use a metal spatula to keep from bending the edges of the cookies with my fingers. With a light touch (you don’t want to overwork or over-warm the dough), press together and roll out the remaining dough, and cut a few more cookies.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the edges of the cookies are lightly brown. Allow the cookies to cool completely on the baking sheets. While the first half of the batch is baking, repeat the above steps with the second disk of chilled dough.

Yield: About 40 cookies.


molly said...

I am fairly certain the world would have peace if only we were to trade in (wonderful)(!) cookie currency.

But I don't buy the keeping bit. I fully intended to share my allotment, but alas, somehow there were only crumbs by the time I got home.

linda said...

this is a celebration of sorts for me…this post brought back childhood memories of my father buying fresh halvah on fridays & me eating the creamy, rich & wonderful treat…
so these cookies are next up for me.
& jess, thanks for the memories!!

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

I LOVE the flavor of tahini, especially when it takes on a little sweetness (which it does quite well).

Thanks for the reminder to stop and eat some sesame every once and a while. ;)

Tracy said...

Yes, cookie currencies count :) What a great idea for a holiday gift...A cookbook with a package of little yellow post-its. Great photos. You always manage to capture moments perfectly.

Molly said...

This reminds me of a similar recipe from a "Food & Wine" from last December. The tahini dough is rolled into logs, rolled in sesame seeds, then placed in the freezer for a few hours. When it's time to bake, just slice the rounds and toss them in the oven. My cookies were mysteriously too salty; my guess is because of the kosher salt I used.

Jess said...

Molly - Well, you did share with Zoe at the table. That counts for something, I think.

Halvah triggers childhood memories for me, too, Linda. I can't wait for you to try these cookies. I think you're going to like them.

A Plum By Any Other Name - Agreed. I'll often swirl a bit of honey into a couple of tablespoons of tahini and spread it on toast. Now that is good stuff.

Thank you, Tracy. And I love that gift idea!

Hi, Molly. I actually considered rolling this dough into a log and slicing it for my second batch, but I was afraid that the dough wouldn't stand up to it. Maybe some time in the freezer would toughen it up, though. I'm going to look into that recipe from Food & Wine and see how it compares to this one. Thanks for mentioning it.

Rogue Unicorn said...

I kind of run hot and cold about halvah. Sometimes I'm like: Halvah! Halvah! Halvah! And sometimes I just can't be bothered. Cookies, on the other hand, I can always go for. So glad my home's marketplaces are getting a shoutout in your blog. :)

Molly said...

Last January. My bad.

Maddie said...

How cool that you used to live in Israel -- and I love the anecdote about your bedtime snack. My boyfriend loves halvah; I barely know what it is, but it sounds like this cookie would be a wonderful introduction!

And happy Hanukkah to you, too (cranberry applesauce sounds exquisite). I'm seeing Andrew Bird perform tonight in a synagogue, which is my way of celebrating. :)

olga said...

These look amazing. And I'ma huge huge fan of halvah :) so I know I'll love them! Happy Hannukah to you as well!

Rose-Anne said...

I echo Maddie! I think your halvah plus orange plus tea story was my favorite part of this post.

Ironically enough, since it's the winter holiday season and all, and therefore it's cookie season, I'm on a cake kick. My cookie tin is empty, but I'd be happy to fill it with sesame coins.

Jess said...

Rogue Unicorn - Yes, halvah's definitely the kind of thing you need to be in the mood for, I find. Save this recipe for the next time you're feeling, "Halvah!"

Thanks so much for posting the link, Molly. The first thing I noticed is that the recipe is by Maura Kilpatrick, of Hi-Rise, Oleana, and Sofra fame. I'm already sold! I'm going to have to try these and see how they compare.

Ooo, Maddie, you must try these cookies. I bet your boyfriend will love them, and hopefully you will, too. I hope you enjoyed the concert. We had a couple of songs from his album, Noble Beast, (I love "Tenuousness") on our Chanukah party mix this year, so we celebrated with him too, I guess!

Thanks, Olga.

Well, Rose-Anne, when the cookie feeling strikes, you'll know what to do. Until then, enjoy your cake!

El said...

These look pretty tasty. Hope you guys had a Happy Chanukah!

Lisa said...

I'm on Eli's side when it comes to halvah (and curry, for that matter), but this post makes me feel like you could probably change my mind. I mean, let's be honest, you once even found a way to get me to eat prunes.

Paulina said...

I love halva! I will put the recipe on my to do list immediately! Happy Chanukah, Jess!

Jess said...

Thanks, El. We did!

Wait, Lisa, I thought you were a fan of those sweet potato-curry latkes, no? The next time I make a batch of these cookies, I'll give you one to try. You never know; they might surprise you.

Thanks, Paulina, and hi! I hope you'll like these cookies. I have a feeling you will.

redmenace said...

What a lovely post. I'm so glad you enjoyed your holiday. They are meant for relaxing, no? I think it sounds just perfect. And, to add baking a wonderful new cookie to it, sounds wonderful.

I like this currency. A lot. xo

Antonietta said...

These look delicious! So happy I found your blog!

Stephanie said...

My husband's godmother LOVES halvah and basically anything with tahini in it, so I'm running to the store for sesame seeds and I'm baking these today. I'd been struggling to find something homemade to send her, so thanks for sharing. We'll send them off in a cute little tin and hope they don't break on the way. Even if they do break a little, I'm sure she'll eat every last bite.

Cheers and happy holidays, Jess!

Jess said...

Thanks, redmenace. It really was wonderful, a much-needed time out. I hope you're resting up these days. I've been thinking of you, Robin.

Thank you, Antonietta.

Oh! I hope your godmother enjoys them, Stephanie. If you think of it, please do report back once you've had a taste. I'd love to hear what you think.

Happy weekend, all!

angi said...

Oh my goodness, I just pulled the first pan of these out of the oven and tried one. They're incredible! And I agree with your friend that if ever a cookie can be called "creamy", these would be it. I was going to give them away to people but now I'm having second thoughts.... :)

I followed your recipe to the letter, except that I left the dough in the fridge for an extra day because I got too lazy to bake yesterday. Thanks so much for sharing this, Jess!