If you happened to be out in the streets of Tangier anytime on Monday, you would be greeted not-so-pleasantly by trashcan bonfires, men covered in soot and dried blood carrying machetes, ram horns and hooves strewn along the gutters, and pained bleats from remaining sheep.
This is not the apocalypse, this is Eid Kbir, also known as Eid al-Adha.
Contrastingly, if you were to get out of the emptied streets and into almost any home, you would find something much more welcoming: warm kisses of hello, family laughter, large platters of sizzling meat doused in spices and garlic, home-baked bread and sweets.
Almost three years living in Tangier, three of these holidays have now passed. Before coming here, I knew virtually nothing about Islamic culture and traditions, so the first time I was invited by my husband (then recent boyfriend) to his family’s house for an annual sheep slaughter, needless to say I was nervous, but determined to stick it out with an open mind and willingness to learn. By the third time round, I must admit I’m still not exactly thrilled by the butchering of the sheep itself, but I am practically a veteran in terms of helping with the meat preparation each year: cutting up the liver, making chouwaya (grilled kebabs), and helping to cook up tagines. The most important thing- as with any major holiday- is simply sharing the time with family and friends.
I was discussing Eid with one of my dearest friends from the States who grew up with me in the same neighborhood and somehow has also found herself living in Tangier (fate, I tell you). She was saying that recently she has been meditating and reflecting on the significance of this holiday, especially since she is an off-and-on vegetarian. What can we glean from this day, being obvious and humbled outsiders to the history and tradition of it all? She mentioned how in everything we consume, there is always sacrifice, and isn’t it so true? We cannot feed ourselves without taking away from something else. Even if it is not as obvious as the sacrifice of an animal life, there are always laborers toiling, wildlife disturbed, bees buzzing endlessly from bud to bud. Eid is the time to dwell on these sacrifices and give as much gratitude as we can find in ourselves to those who help feed us. I have witnessed the beauty in the extensive care, prayer and thanks that are given to each sheep that is consumed during this holiday. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could be as mindful about everything else we eat?
On that note, let’s be mindful of each delicious nibble of these traditional Moroccan almond cookies- mlouwza (ma-lew-za). Almost every holiday in Morocco seems to be marked by the sharing and swapping of Halwa (sweets). Even if I am not always super willing to get my hands dirty in terms of washing sheep parts, I am completely willing to bake my heart out for beloved family and friends.
I made these to share with my in-laws with the help of another one of my closest friends here; she is my go-to-girl for authentic, homemade Moroccan anything. This recipe in particular comes from her mother, no doubt passed down from her mother and so on and so on, so you know it’s the real deal. Traditionally I've heard these cookies don’t contain lemon, but her mother decided to add some zest since it gives a lovely freshness to each chewy bite. They look so pretty, yet are surprisingly simple.
Make with love and share.
Mlouwza- Moroccan Almond Cookies (gluten free)
makes about 4-5 dozen small cookies
- 700g almonds, blanched and peeled
- 300g granulated sugar
- 6-7 eggs
- zest of 1 lemon
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 1 heaping tablespoon apricot jam
- powdered sugar for topping
- Preheat your oven to 175ºC (350ºF) and line a cookie tray with parchment paper.
Once you have blanched and peeled your almonds, dry them with a dishcloth or paper towel and take a large handful (about ¼ cup) to save for the tops of the cookies. Slice each of these almonds in half and set aside for later.
Grind the remaining almonds in a food processor until there are no big pieces left (you may have to do this in two batches), then add the sugar and grind again, this time until it forms a sticky paste.
Separate 4 eggs, cracking the yokes into a large mixing bowl and saving the whites off to the side in a small dish. Whisk the yokes together with the lemon zest, baking powder and jam. Stir in about 1/3 of your almond paste and once that is combined, mix in another whole egg. Add the next third of the paste followed by the second whole egg. Mix in the last third of almond paste. The mixture should be thick, but still slightly sticky and malleable. If it seems to heavy, add one more egg.
Roll the dough into about 1” round balls and flatten slightly, dipping one side in powdered sugar. Press your thumb in the middle of the cookie to make a print, then while keeping your thumb there, take a knife and make four slits on each edge around the cookie for the flower-y effect. Place on the baking tray with at least 2” of space in between each one. Grab the almonds you sliced earlier and take each half, dip it into your saved egg whites and place in the center of each cookie. Bake in batches for 15 minutes (times may vary depending on your oven) or until the bottom edges turn a bit golden brown.
Let cool until they firm up a bit, then serve with mint tea.
Eid Mubarak <3