I know this is off-color, and I’m sure there will be comments that require deletion. Read this: it’s G-rated…the entendre is up to you.
Everyone loved my husband’s grandmother Sito. With thinning blue-white curls and a faded cotton apron stretched over her small round belly, you might think Sito was a feeble old lady, but she rolled grape leaves so tight they popped…and she played cards like a riverboat shill.
Sito was the queen of a Lebanese pastry with an unfortunate name, ka’ak (pronounced ‘cock’). Every Christmas Sito would pinch off hundreds of ka’aks with her tiny hands, branding each soft mound with a nasty metal tool just before shoving a batch in the gas oven.
We’d tear open our annual Holiday shipment of cold ka’ak and let the packing fly, unzipping successively smaller plastic bags to devour the sweet booty inside. Sito packed her ka’ak so tight sometimes we’d need to bang it on a hard surface just to separate ka’ak from box.
It is a family tradition to gorge ourselves on ka’ak to celebrate the birth of the Christ child.
Now that Sito’s gone I don’t crave ka’ak as much as I used to, which is probably a good thing. Once I start it’s hard to stop. I tell my husband that I must have acquired an unfortunate sensitivity to eating ka’ak, and I often politely decline. These days I only eat ka’ak when I can no longer resist the aroma, once or twice a year.
If you don’t eat ka’ak right away it gets too tough to chew, and it loses that faint anise scent that fills the house, letting everyone know that someone is downstairs eating ka’ak. Sito’s ka’ak was pretty big, so it was perfectly acceptable if guests wanted to split a ka’ak with a firm jerk of the wrist. It’s a shame not to try a little, and it’s always interesting to see folks acquire a taste for the stuff. Guests who initially turn up their nose have been heard to politely inquire as they enter my kitchen, “Do I smell ka’ak?”
Our daughter’s friend Jason would down two or three ka’aks in a single sitting. When Jason went away to college, I even sent him a care package with “FRAGILE: Ka’ak” written on the box.
By New Year’s Eve though, we all get sick of stuffing our faces with ka’ak and toss what’s left into the freezer. Ka’ak freezes surprisingly well. It’s naturally kind of dry, and thawed ka’ak is even worse, so I always had something juicy around the house to wash it down, especially when the kids were little. It would have been awful to rush a child to the Emergency Room after he choked on ka’ak.
Everyone in my family is kinky about ka’ak. I prefer mine in the morning, served so hot I can barely touch it, lubed up with a little butter. I’ll look at it, bulging and steaming, and I’ll tell myself to take little savoring nibbles, but I’m embarrassed–and just a little boastful–to admit that I often devour an entire ka’ak in a few bites. My husband prefers his ka’ak straight up at night. For our daughter, ka’ak smeared with just about any condiment is a meal in itself.
For our some reason our son never cared much for ka’ak. He’d toast his ka’ak until you could hear it sizzle, and then scoop ice cream on top before wolfing it down, hoping to disguise the taste.
After my husband’s grandmother Sito passed away, her only daughter became the Keeper of Ka’ak. Auntie’s ka’ak tastes like Sito’s, but there’s something about the texture that will just never be the same.
I am afraid someday when Auntie passes away, no one in our family will eat ka’ak again. It’s sad to even contemplate the Holidays without embarrassing Lebanese pastry. Perhaps to defy that day, Auntie in her later years has done Sito proud: she’s become wildly prolific, giving away so much ka’ak that by summer I break up what’s left in the back of our freezer and scatter broken ka’ak on the back deck where it’s picked at by neighborhood felines.
Poor Auntie has become self-conscious about the lore that surrounds this delicacy, so she has invented a euphemism for ka’ak. She’s in her 80’s now, and she calls it “cookies”, but you can’t fool us: we all know ka’ak when we see it.