Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Sweet Spiced Sesame Thumbprint Cookies

I spent most of my childhood not giving much thought to sesame seeds.  Until these cookies made their debut, my mother sprinkled these little white seeds on top of her homemade challot and once in a while, used them as a decorative garnish for Chinese food.  Having grown up in an Ashkenazi community in Toronto, I wasn't aware of any other logical reason to use them.  I remember the first time my mother made these cookies and how my siblings and I wrinkled our noses, unsure of what she was doing.  Why ruin a perfectly good cookie by rolling it in something as mundane as sesame seeds?  But the fact that she added sesame seeds to something sweet as a cookie didn't come as a complete surprise - after all, she was a cooking teacher for the COR - the kashrut organization of Toronto - and was always experimenting in our kitchen.  And we - her children - were her (not always willing...) resident guinea pigs.  While we didn't always like the outcome of her culinary experiments (ie. the spinach tofu meatballs...), most of the time we lucked out.  Like we did with these cookies.  That first bite forever changed the way I thought about sesame seeds. 

As a result of her serious baking addiction, we had a spare full-size freezer in the corner of our laundry room that was filled to the brim with soups, challot, stuffed cabbage and an amazing array of baked goods, among them these cookies.  I would often wait until her back was turned - either when she was washing dishes or on an important phone call - and then I would sneak by into the laundry room and grab a couple of these cookies on my way to my room, hiding them in the palm of my hand.  Years later, when I was dating the man who became my husband, my mother would ply him with all kinds of baked goods and he remembers these cookies more than any of the others.  And I know why.  There's something unbelievably addictive about them, the way the lightly toasted sesame seeds and subtle saltiness create a perfect balance to the crisp cookie and the sweet jam filling.  
It wasn't until we were living in Israel, that sesame seeds became a staple in our diet, as the basis of halva and tahini as well as Middle Eastern sesame cookies, crackers and yes, as a topping for challot.  

 I love making (and eating!) these cookies and they always remind me of my childhood.  And while I don't have to sneak them out of the freezer anymore, I've found that my kids are doing just that.  And so continues the circle of life.  I've deviated from the original recipe a bit by adding some more sesame flavor and jazzing them up with a little more spices.  With Purim just around the corner, it's the perfect time to make them.  Legend has it that while Queen Esther fasted with her handmaidens before risking her life to save the Jewish people, she subsisted on sesame seeds.  Their pods are an excellent source of copper and manganese, but they also provide calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphoros, vitamin B1 and zinc.  Given their ingredients of sesame paste and cardamom and the addition of pomegranate jam, these are truly Persian cookies.  You can even shape them into triangles with your fingers before filling them to make them more reminiscent of hamentaschen.  While these cookies are meant to be filled with raspberry or apricot jam, my favorite filling is the pomegranate raspberry jam manufactured by St. Dalfour, which you can find relatively easily at your local supermarket.

Sweet Spiced Sesame Thumbprint Cookies Filled with Pomegranate Raspberry Jam

Yields approximately 4 dozen

1 c. margarine or butter, room temperature
1/2 c. sugar
1 tsp. almond extract
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. cardamom
1/2 tsp. salt
2 c. flour
1/2 c. sesame seeds
1/4 (or more) pomegranate raspberry jam

Set oven temperature to 400 degrees.  In your food processor, cream butter and sugar until fluffy and light.  Add vanilla, almond, cardamom, salt and flour.  Process until dough comes together into a ball.  Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper or silpat liners.  Put sesame seeds into a small bowl and the jam in another bowl.  Wash hands well.  Using a small cookie scooper or a small teaspoon, scoop out small balls of cookie dough (about 1" balls) and roll in sesame seeds.  Place cookies about 2" apart on cookie sheets and flatten slightly. Press a small yet deep indentation in each cookie and fill carefully with jam.  Do not overfill or jam will leak out over the top of the cookie.
Bake for 10-12 minutes until edges are slightly golden.  Let cool completely.  
These cookies freeze beautifully!

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