Tahini Cookies with Apricot Compote and Sumac
My dad hates getting up early in the morning. If left alone, he’d probably sleep until 11am every day. But he did it. He did it every damn morning of my childhood, weekends too. Rising to darkness, he’d shower, iron his shirt and slacks (my father can press clothes with a tailor’s precision) dress himself, eat, and get out the door to bake the bread that fed our family—all in a half hour.
I’d rise about an hour later, but I felt his presence every morning in the steamy bathroom that trapped the smell of the cologne he’s worn for 30 years, the light hum of the voices on the morning news he’d left on in the other room, and, without fail, from the sight of the crumb-filled, half-finished Tetley tea that sat on his side of the kitchen table.
It’s curious that my dad drank Tetley in the morning (and still does). Persian, he comes from a tea culture. Tea is the national drink for a reason: Iran’s coastal climate and topography are perfect for tea cultivation, and Iranians drink tea after every meal. The tea is often brewed in glass pots with a cylindrical infuser and poured into small, slender, filigreed glasses. An Iranian tea set is quite the vision, the ceremony of drinking from it an aesthetician’s wet dream. The glasses seem to deliver a cautionary message: The hot glass will scorch your fingertips if you drink the tea when it is too hot for its flavor to be appreciated. The aroma of Iranian black tea is nothing like stateside tea, and the ritual surrounding drinking it brings together families, friends, and strangers. When there is tea, there are no divides; Iranian Muslims and Jews sip together in the tea houses that are found on every corner (though any divides are sensationalized anyway). Place a lump of pure cane sugar on your tongue, sip, close your eyes, breathe, let the marijuana-like high roll over you, and repeat—this is how Persian tea should be enjoyed. Drink it in the summer, no matter the temperature; drink it in the winter to thaw chilled bones. Drink it with rock candy (the confection originated in Iran, not at seaside American candy shops); swirl your crystal-laden stick in the warm amber liquid and let it melt. Drink it with rose-scented pistachio nougat.
But, no, my father lived to work and there was no time for proper tea. Not in the morning, not ever. The Madadians still need tea to make our blood pump, however, so 10 cups of Tetley a day would have to do—just a bag in a cup with boiling water poured over.
Curiously, my dad’s breakfast tea always accompanied one thing—the same thing he ate for breakfast every weekday from the time I was born until I was a teenager: cookies. These were not granola bars or “health cookies” made from flax seeds and oats, but regular cookies, usually those of the sandy, crumbly, shortbread-like variety—simply flavored, very dunkable. The big blue tin—the ubiquitous Danisk Danish Butter Cookies—was on heavy rotation, and I loved the crackly sound that the empty white crepe paper holders made as they bounced around the tin. The tender Armenian filled cookies, ma’amoul, that were sold at our local farmstand was another one, as was anything that involved jam. In the spring, when Girl Scout Cookies were abundant, he’d have Trefoils—those crest-printed shortbread cookies with the fake-butter aftertaste.
My dad was thin and lean and played soccer every Sunday. A superlatively hard worker, he buzzed around his vast office—an organic chemistry lab—all day long tending to everything: his responsibilities, the responsibilities of others. He was a healthy man—well, save for the genetic heart disease—and his post-breakfast diet was sound. And yet, little me would castigate him for his cookie breakfast from behind my muffin or bowl of raisin bran (both of which I now know are no more healthful than the cookies) for eating dessert for breakfast, for leaving his crumbs all over the woven place mat, for not finishing his tea. Even at that young age, I could sense how hard he worked—how his life was our family’s lifeline—and two little cookies didn’t have the calories or the nutrients to support superman.
Admittedly, I didn’t make these cookies with my father (or the upcoming holiday celebrating him) in mind. I am a tahini addict, eating through a tin a week, so uses for this ingredient come to me often. But as soon as I took a bite, I thought of my dad. He would love these cookies: The warm, nutty base; the seedy coating; the wine-cooked dried apricot compote (he loves jams, compotes, and dried fruits with everything from bagels to feta-filled pita, and he’s a whino); and the dusting of a familiar-to-him ingredient: sumac.
At night I’d eat cookies with dad for his second serving and my first of the day. I’d be doing my homework; he’d be on our clunky, grey Microsoft desktop attending to work. We were silent, but for once we shared the ritual. I loved the way the tea soaked into shortbread cookies, the golden liquid dying the cookie as it inched its way up their length, softening the cookies and scenting them with its herbal flavor. With cookie eaten, the day was over. Dad could go to sleep and prepare to start the routine again; I could stay awake much too late for a growing girl and paste homemade stickers on some overdone poster for a book report. The cookies were bookends to the drudgery that was work and school, to the responsibilities that we threw ourselves—all of ourselves—at.
We haven’t changed much. We’re both workaholics, we care too little for ourselves, we drink tea. Dad reportedly doesn’t eat cookies for breakfast very often anymore, but he’ll always love a cookie with his tea, and I’ll never sleep. Our complimentary vices bring us together.
Tahini Cookies with Dried Apricot Compote and Sumac
Makes about 25 cookies
These cookies can be made with a hand mixer.
196 grams (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) well-stirred and chilled tahini
113 grams (1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon) granulated sugar
1 egg plus 1 yolk
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons almond flour
2/3 cup sesame seeds
Dried Apricot Compote (recipe follows)
Sumac, for sprinkling
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread sesame seeds in shallow dish.
2. Using stand mixer fitted with paddle mix on medium-low speed until most of sugar is moistened with tahini. Increase speed to medium-high and beat tahini and sugar for 2 minute. Reduce mixer speed to low and mix in egg followed by yolk until combined, followed by salt, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla, and vinegar. Add cornstarch and almond flour and mix until fully incorporated. (Dough may see a bit greasy and shiny—that’s OK.) Roll 2-teaspoon portions of dough into balls between you hands and roll in sesame seeds to coat; space 12 cookies evenly on prepared baking sheet. Make small divot in cookies with rounded bottom of ¼ teaspoon measure.
3. Bake cookies for 10 minutes. Reshape the divots and fill each with a heaping ¼ teaspoon of apricot compote. Return cookies to the oven and bake until golden brown and slightly collapsed, 2 to 4 minutes longer for soft and chewy cookies and 4 to 6 minutes longer for crisper cookies with chew at the center (my preferred texture for this tea cookie). Sprinkle the apricot filling evenly with sumac and let cookies cool on sheet for 7 minutes, then carefully transfer to wire rack and let cool completely before serving.
Dried Apricot Compote
Makes about 11/2 cups
Be sure to use high-quality unsulfured apricots for this recipe. You can use any dry white wine here, but it really doesn’t have to be that good. Serve leftover compote with cheese, on toast, whatever!
5 ounces dried Turkish apricots, chopped fine
115 grams (1/2 cup) cheap dry white wine
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon honey
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
Bring all ingredients to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to simmer, cover pan, and let compote gently simmer until apricots are plumped, softened, and have absorbed most of the liquid, about 10 minutes. (When a spatula is run through the compote it should leave a trail, but the mixture should be syrupy and not dry; the compote will dry further when baked on the cookie.)