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Halwa Chebakia – or simply chebakia – is a honey-coated Moroccan sesame cookie famously associated with Ramadan and special occasions. Also known as mkharka, the cookie is made by folding rolled-out dough into a flower shape, frying it and then dipping it in hot honey flavored with orange flower water.
In Ramadan, when chebakia is especially popular, many Moroccans enjoy the sticky-sweet cookies alongside a bowl of harira soup while breaking their fast. They also appear at special occasions such as weddings or birth celebrations, and you can find them for sale year-round at bakeries and market stalls.
The very best chebakia are those made at home with high quality ingredients. Toasted unhulled sesame seeds, anise seeds, real saffron threads, olive oil, pure orange flower water and natural honey are all key to great flavor and texture. Some recipes also call for ground almonds. Given the quantity that some families make, the cost of those ingredients can really add up.
The quality of ingredients is reflected in the pricing of ready-made chebakia. Mkharka purchased from a high end bakery will be much more expensive than an equivalent quantity bought from a market vendor, who might cut costs by omitting saffron and by using artificial scented water, very little sesame, and replacing pure honey with a sugar syrup.
Chebakia can be time-consuming to make, particularly if preparing a traditionally large batch or if you’re unfamiliar with how to fold the dough into the flower shape. For that reason, women might gather to make lighter work of the task. Several of my in-laws, for example, will get together a week or so before the start of Ramadan to make enough chebakia and sellou to last the entire month of fasting for all of their families. This can equate to a full day in the kitchen, even with three or more sets of hands.
How to Make Chebakia
The following photos show how to make chebakia following my sister-in-law’s Halwa Chebakia Recipe below. Not every Moroccan home cook is skilled at making them, so don’t worry if you have trouble mastering the folding technique. Even a misshapen cookie will taste delicious when finished! I’m only showing one folding method, but there are other ways to shape the cookies into a classic flower design.
Toast the Sesame Seeds
The chebakia recipe calls for a large amount of golden unhulled sesame seeds. Ahead of time, pick through them to remove dirt and debris, and then toast them stovetop in a skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly, or in a 400° F (200° C) for 10 to 15 minutes.
Allow the toasted sesame to cool completely before proceeding with making the dough. You can toast the sesame ahead of time and store in a covered container until needed.
Make and Knead the Dough
When you’re ready to make the dough, grind a bowlful of the toasted sesame seeds until they’re powdery, and then a little longer until moist enough to pack when pressed together. Blend the ground sesame with your other dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt, anise, cinnamon, saffron, turmeric, mastic), then add the wet ingredients (egg, melted butter, olive oil, vinegar, orange flower water, and a little yeast dissolved in water). Mix everything with your hands to form a dough.
The consistency of chebakia dough is very important for a good result. You want the dough to be firmer than bread dough but pliable enough to knead. A good example might be the texture and firmness of Play Dough. Add more flour if necessary to achieve this.
The dough then needs to be kneaded by hand for seven or eight minutes, or in a mixer with a dough hook for four or five minutes. In the photo above, we combined the dough ingredients by hand in the bowl of our stand mixer, and then used the mixer to knead the dough.
Divide the dough into four portions, shape each into a smooth mound, and place the dough in a plastic bag to rest for at least 10 to 15 minutes.
Roll Out the Dough
Take one of the portions of dough, and roll it out to the thickness of a thin piece of cardboard. Lightly flour your work surface if necessary.
Use a fluted pastry cutter to cut the dough into rectangles approximately the size of your palm. Make four evenly spaced cuts lengthwise in each rectangle. These cuts should be almost the length of the rectangle, but should not cut through to the edges of the dough. The resulting rectangles will each have five strips of attached dough.
Some people use a special chebakia cookie cutter to produce these rectangles, but I find a pastry wheel to be more efficient. A pastry wheel also allows me to control the size of the rectangle and make smaller cookies.
Once you’ve cut as many rectangles as possible, gather up the scraps of dough, mold them together, and return them to the plastic bag to rest while you begin folding.
Folding Chebakia Into a Flower Shape
Take a rectangle and thread the middle finger of your right hand through alternating strips of dough. In the first image below you can see that the first, third and fifth strips of dough are draped over the finger.
Next, with your left hand, pinch together the outer corners of dough which hang near the tip of your finger. This will form the center of the flower shape.
While holding the pinched corners with your left hand, allow the strips of dough to slide down off your right finger and gently turn them inside-out around the pinched portion.
If done correctly, you’ll have formed the dough into an elongated flower shape. If you want, you can lightly pinch the elongated ends to taper them.
Set the shaped dough onto a tray and repeat until you’ve used all your dough. Cover the folded dough with a towel until you’re ready to begin frying.
Cooking the Chebakia
To help with the work flow, have everything set up and ready to go. Heat some vegetable oil in a deep skillet over medium low heat. At the same time, heat some honey until very hot (it will begin to get frothy) and add orange flower water; keep the honey warm so it doesn’t thicken.
You’ll also want to set out a large bowl with a strainer, a platter where the chebakia can cool, and toasted unhulled sesame seeds to use as a garnish.
Working in batches, add the chebakia to the hot oil. Adjust the heat as necessary to slowly fry each batch of chebakia to a medium golden color. This should take about 10 minutes if the oil is the correct temperature. If the oil is too hot, the cookies will color quickly but the insides will not be cooked crispy.
When the chebakia are cooked, use a slotted spoon or strainer to transfer them from the oil directly to the hot honey. Gently push down on them to submerge them. Allow the chebakia to soak for 5 to 7 minutes. They’ll turn a rich, glossy amber color as they absorb the honey. In the meantime, you can begin frying another batch of cookies.
The longer you soak the chebakia, the more honey they will absorb, and the sweeter and less crispy they might become. How long to soak them is a matter of personal preference. However, too short of a soaking will result in pale-colored chebakia that eventually lose their glossy coating.
Remove them from the honey to a strainer or colander, and allow them to drain for only a few minutes. Gently transfer the cookies while hot to a large platter or tray, and sprinkle the centers with sesame.
As you finish soaking other batches of chebakia in the honey, simply drain and add them to the platter in a mound, garnishing each batch with sesame.
The photo above shows a full batch of the Chebakia Recipe cooling on a large serving platter. The batch of cookies weighed about 2 kg, or close to 4 1/2 lbs.
Allow the chebakia to cool for several hours before putting them in an airtight container for storage. They’ll keep at room temperature for a month or longer, and will freeze well for four or five months.
Chebakia Recipe - Moroccan Sesame and Honey CookiesChristine Benlafquih | Taste of Maroc
For the Dough
- 7 oz. unhulled sesame seeds - about 1.5cups
- 4 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground anise
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamo
- 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled to a powder
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 pinch mastic or gum arabic drops - mix with 1/4 teaspoon sugar and crush to a powder
- 1 extra large egg
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter - melted
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup vinegar
- 1/4 cup orange flower water
- 1 teaspoon yeast - dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water
Ahead of Time - Clean and Toast the Sesame Seeds
- Unhulled sesame seeds are used twice in the recipe: first when making the dough and then again as a garnish. Ahead of time, pick through the sesame to remove any debris, then toast them until golden. You can do this in a heavy skillet over medium heat, or by spreading the sesame on a baking pan and toasting in a 400° F (200° C) oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Allow the sesame to cool thoroughly before using or storing in an airtight container
Make the Chebakia Dough
- Grind 1.5 cups of toasted sesame in a food processor until powdery, then process a little longer until the powder becomes moist enough to pack.
- In a large bowl, combine the ground sesame with the flour, baking powder, salt and other dry ingredients. Add the yeast mixture and remaining wet ingredients, and mix with your hands to form a stiff but pliable dough similar to Play Dough in texture. Add more flour or more orange flower water if necessary to achieve that consistency.
- Knead the dough by hand for 7 to 8 minutes or in a mixer with dough hook for 4 to 5 minutes. Divide the dough into four portions, shape each into a smooth mound, and place the dough in a plastic bag to rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Roll Out and Cut the Dough
- Lightly flour your work surface. Take one of the portions of dough, and roll it out to the thickness of a thin piece of cardboard.
- Use a fluted pastry cutter to cut the dough into rectangles about the size of your palm. In each rectangle, make four evenly spaced cuts that extend almost the length of the rectangle. The resulting rectangles will have five strips of attached dough.
Fold the Chebakia
- Take a rectangle and thread your right middle finger through alternating strips of dough. With the rectangle draped over your finger in this way, use your left hand to pinch together the outer corners that hang below your fingertip. This will form the center of the flower shape.
- Continue holding the pinched corners with your left hand, and allow the strips of dough to slide off your right finger while gently turning them inside out around the pinched corner. Pinch the opposite corners closed once the dough is turned inside out. If done correctly, you'll have formed the dough into an elongated flower shape.
- Place the folded chebakia on a baking sheet or tray. Repeat the process with the remaining rectangles and mounds of dough. As you work, gather your scraps of dough to mold together into a mound, and return them to the bag to rest before you try rolling them out again.
- Use up all of your dough in this manner. Cover the trays of folded dough with a towel until ready to fry.
Cooking the Chebakia
- Set up your work area. Begin by heating one inch of oil in a large, deep frying pan over medium-low heat. At the same time, heat the honey almost to boiling in a large pot. When the honey is frothy but not bubbling, add the orange flower water to the honey and turn off the heat. Set out a large bowl with strainer.
- When the oil is hot, cook the chebakia in batches. Adjust the heat as necessary to slowly fry each batch of chebakia to a medium brown color. This should take about 10 minutes if the oil is the correct temperature. If the oil is too hot, the chebakia will color quickly but the insides will not be cooked crispy.
- Remove the golden brown chebakia from the oil with a slotted spoon or strainer, and transfer them directly to the hot honey. Gently push down on the chebakia to submerge them in the honey, and allow them to soak for 5 to 7 minutes. They'll turn a rich, glossy amber color as they absorb the honey. In the meantime, you can begin frying another batch of cookies.
- When the chebakia have finished soaking, remove them from the honey to a strainer or colander, and allow them to drain for only a few minutes. Gently transfer them while hot to a large platter or tray and sprinkle the centers with sesame.
- As you finish soaking other batches of chebakia in the honey, simply drain and add them to the platter in a mound, garnishing each batch with sesame.
- Allow the chebakia to cool for several hours before putting them in an airtight container for storage. They'll keep at room temperature for a month or longer and will freeze well for four or five months.
- If your kitchen is very warm, you can reduce the yeast to 1/2 teaspoon to avoid the cookies from becoming overly puffy.
- The longer you soak the chebakia, the more honey they will absorb, and the sweeter and less crispy they become. How long to soak them is a matter of personal preference. However, too short of a soaking will result in pale-colored chebakia that eventually lose their glossy coating.
- If the honey cools and thickens before you've finished making all the cookies, simply reheat it briefly over medium-low heat. This can be done even if some chebakia are in the pot soaking.
Nutrition information is provided as a courtesy and is only an estimate obtained from online calculators. Optional ingredients may not be included in the nutritional information.REVIEW THIS RECIPE
Christine Benlafquih is Founding Editor at Taste of Maroc and owner of Taste of Casablanca, a food tour and culinary activity business in Casablanca. A long time resident of Morocco, she’s written extensively about Moroccan cuisine and culture. She was the Moroccan Food Expert for The Spruce Eats (formerly About.com) from 2008 to 2016.