Eat + Drink » On the Table

Getting into the Moroccan Tea Cookie Business, Almond by Almond



Jmiaa El Hessni comes out from the kitchen with a plate piled with nine types of cookies and sets them down on the small coffee table. She explains, in a mixture of halting English, French and Arabic, the names and ingredients in each one.

She wears a pink and navy silk headscarf and glasses with rosy metal frames. She points a delicate, unpainted nail at a soft, powdery yellow coconut cookie in the middle and says it was the kind she made for her sister's wedding.

With help from Devva Kasnitz, El Hessni has spent the last three months putting together a business plan and her application for a cottage food permit so she can sell the cookies retail at events and by special order under the name Moroccan Moments.

Once she has the license, she'll need to take the California Department of Public Health's course on food processing (available online in French) and follow all the regulations regarding kitchen equipment and conditions.

El Hessni has help translating her Arabic from her husband, Abderrahmane El Bahi, and 15-year-old Hajar, the eldest of their three daughters, who has her father's large hazel eyes. Kasnitz also helps with the French. El Hessni's first language is Berber, an indigenous North African language spoken in her home village of Azarwan, outside of Marrakesh, Morocco. It was in Marrakesh some 22 years ago that she met Kasnitz, whose best friend was marrying El Hessni's uncle. The ninth of 11 children, El Hessni was summoned to the city to act as a guide for Kasnitz and the two quickly became close.

Decades later, El Hessni and El Bahi won a visa lottery to immigrate to the U.S. with their girls. El Hessni says it had been a dream of hers to see more of the world, to start a business and to raise her daughters in the U.S. So, the family saved for airfare and she studied French pastry. Once the family settled in at Kasnitz's house in Eureka, El Hessni got to work on the cookies she'd been making with her sisters since she was a teenager.

Depending on the cookie, the process can be painstaking or, well, even more painstaking. El Hessni's and her husband's favorite, the deceptively simple ghoriba, for example, is flourless and made of ground almonds, honey, eggs and orange blossom or rose water. She rolls the mixture into balls and bakes them with a nut pressed on top.

But for the almond variety, first she blanches and skins the nuts by hand, rubbing them with her fingers at the kitchen table for about an hour until the pile is transformed to ivory tablets. Before they can be ground, they have to sit overnight to dry out, lest they yield a soggy cookie. The result is a lightly sweet, rich cookie with a barely crisp exterior and marzipan-like interior that carries the faintest hint of orange or rose.

The almonds are blanched, skinned, dried and ground with sugar for the filling in the warda zahra cookies, too. For these sculped cookies, El Hessni makes a thin rolled dough that rests overnight to harden a bit so it will hold its flower shape once it's baked and glazed. Finally, they're decorated with tiny candies and sequin-sized flowers stamped out of chocolate and dough. The ones shaped like overstuffed purses are Hajar's favorites.

Jmiaa El Hessni with her cookies. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Jmiaa El Hessni with her cookies.

Hajar helps her mother with baking and has tried her own hand at it. El Hessni laughs and quickly scrolls a second-hand tablet for a photo of a plate of chocolate chip cookies.

"She did the cookies American," she says, setting her husband and daughter chuckling, too.

"The cookies are important for Moroccans," El Bahi explains, since they're presented to all visitors to one's home. "With tea. Always with tea," he says. Though they've met some Arabic speakers, the family has not met any other Moroccans in Humboldt. He tips his head. "We are alone."

El Hessni adds that the cookies are always at weddings and parties, and she planned on bringing a spread of them, along with a savory pie called pastilla, to the Ramadan celebration the next evening at the D Street Neighborhood Center. She sends Hajar to the kitchen for one small plate for tasting — none of them will be eating, since they are fasting during daylight hours during the holy lunar month.

In the business plan for Moroccan Moments, there's brief mention of a tea shop and bakery down the road. But for now, they'll file the paperwork for a cottage business, waiting for the next step and sharing ghoriba and warda zahra with friends. And tea.

Always tea.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.


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