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Cookie recipe: Spicing up sweet treats with Middle Eastern flavor

Spices including cinnamon, coriander, and black pepper add

Spices including cinnamon, coriander, and black pepper add layers of flavor to oatmeal cookies. Credit: Eve Bishop

During the summer, I went through a Middle Eastern phase in the kitchen. I rubbed cumin and coriander on chicken kebabs, sprinkled couscous with nutmeg and cinnamon, tossed ground cardamom and black pepper into a marinade for leg of lamb. Suddenly and with very little effort, my dinners were layered with alluring flavor.

So when I wanted to celebrate the fall with a batch of oatmeal cookies, I looked at my old recipe with new eyes. I had always put some cinnamon in my dough, but I wondered whether my cookies, sweet and buttery and chewy though they were, could use a little more spice.

Flavorful spices have been the hallmark of Middle Eastern cuisine since Arabian traders controlled their movement between Asia, India, Africa, and Europe 4,000 years ago. In between all of the buying and selling, there was cooking. Pepper from India, cinnamon from China and coriander from North Africa made their way into Middle Eastern dishes.

Traditionally, many of these spices are used in both savory and sweet dishes. Cinnamon is as essential in Lebanese hushwee, a dish of ground beef and pine nuts, as it is on rice pudding or in baklava. Saffron is as likely to flavor doughnuts as it is pilaf. Why not add a few new spices -- ground ginger, cardamom, coriander, and black pepper -- to my oatmeal cookie dough?

I didn't stop there. I had a jar of tahini, a paste made out of ground sesame seeds, that I had been using in hummus and baba ghanoush. Sesame seeds, like spices, are a staple of the Middle Eastern pantry. And like spices, sesame is featured in both sweet and savory foods. Halvah, the Middle Eastern candy made with ground sesame seeds and sugar or honey is the most well-known sesame-based confection. Lebanese cookies called barazek are sold in Middle Eastern bakeries throughout New York.

Replacing some of the butter in my recipe with tahini, I was able to add yet another flavor layer to my cookies. For good measure, I threw in some roasted sesame seeds, instead of the chopped walnuts that I usually add to the dough. Apricots replaced raisins. The result was an oatmeal cookie that was comfortingly familiar, and yet strikingly different.

Tahini and Spice Oatmeal Cookies

Tahini, like natural peanut butter, will separate while standing. Stir it well to before using.

11/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

3/4 cup well-stirred tahini

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)

1 cup chopped apricots

1/2 cup toasted sesame seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Combine the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, and black pepper in a medium mixing bowl.

3. Cream the cooled, melted butter, tahini and sugars together in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until smooth. Stir in the flour mixture until just combined. Stir in the oats, apricots and sesame seeds.

4. Drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls onto ungreased baking sheets, leaving about 3 inches between each cookie. (Balls of dough may be placed next to each other on parchment-lined baking sheets, frozen, transferred to zipper-lock plastic freezer bags and stored in the freezer for up to 1 month. Frozen cookies may be placed in the oven directly from the freezer and baked as directed.)

5. Bake the cookies until they are golden around the edges but still soft on top, 12 to 15 minutes (a minute or two longer for frozen dough). Let them stand on the baking sheet for 5 minutes and then remove them with a metal spatula to a wire rack to cool completely. The cookies will keep in an airtight container for 2 to 3 days. Makes about 48 cookies.

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