Reem’s Chocolate Chip-Tahini Cookies

Chocolate chip cookies get an Arab twist with homemade halawa, sesame-like fudge, that gets folded into the dough and dotted on top.
Chocolate chip cookies get an Arab twist with homemade halawa, sesame-like fudge, that gets folded into the dough and dotted on top.

Growing up in Massachusetts with a mother forced to flee war in both Gaza and Lebanon, Reem Assil not only wears her fierce Palestinian and Syrian pride on her sleeve, but profoundly infuses it into her cooking and baking.

That’s why her new cookbook “Arabiyya” (Ten Speed Press), of which I received a review copy, is not merely a collection of more than 100 recipes that dive deeply into her Arab roots, but a testament to her hard-won battle to bring them to the forefront in all that she does.

The book’s title means “Arab woman.” And Assil exemplifies that inherent strength, never afraid to champion her Arab community at-large, starting in college, when she idealistically thought she could solve the issue of peace in the Middle East. When she realized that futility, she dropped out of school, and headed west to the Bay Area, were she became enthralled with its diversity and social consciousness.

It was here that she got the notion to start her own bakery, having grown up breaking bread at the table communally as the ultimate way to bring people together.

After a stint at Arizmendi Bakery in the East Bay, she started working with food-business incubator, La Cocina, to sell her own breads at farmers markets. Eventually, she opened her own bakery in Oakland (now shuttered), followed by Reem’s California, a restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. Her distinctive food, imbued with warm and bold Arab flavors, prompted the James Beard Foundation to name her a finalist this year for “Outstanding Chef.”

There’s no better way to enjoy Assil’s food than by sharing everything family-style with the likes of “Cheese and Nigella Seed Turnovers,” “Pistachio-Cardamom Sticky Buns,” “Sumac-Spiced Chicken Wings,” and “Slow-Cooked Lamb Shoulder.”

Her “Chocolate Chip-Tahini Cookies” are an Arab take on the classic cookie we all love. Rather than just stirring tahini into the cookie dough, though, she first makes halawa, a tahini candy known in the United States as halvah. Think of it as fudge, but made with sesame paste.

The halawa gets spread out on a pan to cool.
The halawa gets spread out on a pan to cool.
The halawa after I crumbled it -- or pinched it into small morsels.
The halawa after I crumbled it — or pinched it into small morsels.

The halawa is made by heating sugar and water together, then stirring it into tahini that then gets spread on a baking sheet to cool. Assil then instructs to crumble the halawa into small pieces like chocolate chips. My halawa was soft like cookie dough, so I found myself pinching off tiny morsels rather than crumbling per se.

The actual dough for the cookies is fairly standard except that it uses coconut oil and oat milk, making it vegan.

Most of the halawa gets stirred into the dough. The rest adorns each dough ball. Assil instructs to sprinkle on the halawa, but since mine was still so soft, I actually ended up more sticking pieces onto each ball, giving them a bit of a lumpy appearance. After that, the dough balls get sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and a pinch of flaky salt before baking.

Toasted sesame seeds and a sprinkle of flaky salt finish these crisp, chewy cookies.
Toasted sesame seeds and a sprinkle of flaky salt finish these crisp, chewy cookies.

The cookies bake up beautifully crisp on the edges and chewy within. You get pockets of soft halawa here and there in each bite. The cookies are sweet and nutty tasting with a hint of balanced savoriness from the tahini and smidge of salt.

Adding the tahini in this manner is akin to adding peanut butter chips to a cookie dough as opposed to stirring in peanut butter throughout. It provides a taste that’s more varied rather than one note.

These cookies break the mold — just like Assil.

A peek inside.
A peek inside.

Chocolate Chip-Tahini Cookies (Baskaweet Chocolata Wal Tahini)

(Makes 24 cookies

For the crumble:

1 cup tahini

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons water

1/4 cup sesame seeds

For the dough:

2 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 cups packed light brown sugar

2/3 cup coconut oil at room temperature (melt if mixing by hand)

1/2 cup oat milk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup 70 percent dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon Maldon salt (optional)

To make the crumble: Stir the tahini well and then combine with the kosher salt in a heatproof bowl. (Wrap a damp dish towel into a little nest and place beneath the bowl on a countertop to make stirring easier.)

In a small pot, combine the sugar and water over medium heat and stir continuously. Using a candy thermometer, take the temperature of the mixture. When it reaches 250 degrees, carefully drizzle the syrup into the tahini, while stirring the mixture constantly using a wooden spoon. Continue stirring until the tahini begins to look grainy and becomes difficult to stir, then on a tray spread in a 1/4-inch layer, and allow to cool to room temperature. The mixture should look crackly on top and become dry to the touch, almost like fudge. Cool to harden slightly and then break it up with your hands into small crumbles (around the size of chocolate chip morsels). You should have about 3 cups of the crumble. Reserve 1 cup for the topping.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

On a small sheet tray, toast the sesame seeds for about 12 minutes or until light golden brown. Set aside.

Increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

To make the dough: In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and kosher salt. Set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl, combine the brown sugar and coconut oil and, with the mixer on medium speed or with a mixing spoon, cream until homogeneous, about 5 minutes. Add the milk and vanilla and mix until thoroughly combined. Gradually add the flour mixture to avoid spatter and mix until well incorporated. Fold in the crumble and the chocolate.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat.

To form the cookies: Using a 2-ounce scoop, portion the dough (each should be about the size of a golf ball), and set 3 inches apart on the prepared cookie sheet. Refrigerate for 10 minutes to chill to help the cookies keep their shape when they bake.

After the dough has chilled, coat the top of each cookie with a sprinkling of the reserved crumble (or use your fingers to stick the crumble on, if need be), 1/4 teaspoon of the sesame seeds, and a pinch of Maldon salt.

Bake for 14 to 16 minutes, rotating the pan after 7 minutes, until the cookies are crisp on the edges and soft but not raw in the center. Let cool completely.

The cookies can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. These cookies can be frozen and thawed when ready to enjoy.

Tip: To make a good halawa, you need to make a correct candy syrup. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, place a bowl of iced water next to your syrup. After a few minutes of boiling, test the syrup by placing a spoonful in your water. It is at the right stage when it forms a firm ball that can be rolled between your fingers and is slightly malleable when you squeeze it.

Adapted from “Arabiyya” by Reem Assil

More Baking Fun with Tahini: Sweet Tahini Rolls

And: Tahini Sheet Cake

And: Republique’s Fig-Tahini Cookies

And: Manresa Bread‘s Tahini Cookies

And: Tahini Shortbread Cookies

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