Cookery Feature - The United Nations of Cookies

When publisher Kristin Jensen’s brilliantly conceived Blasta Books hit the Irish publishing scene with a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign in May 2021, it was immediately obvious that something very different was afoot in the world of Irish cookbooks. Now, after the publication of three of the quartet of titles planned for 2022 – and the fourth, Wok, due out on November 3rd - their impact is astonishing. Well-deserved accolades for these ‘little books with big voices’ (and the bigger ones under sister imprint Nine Bean Rows) keep rolling in and details of the four titles planned for 2023 have already been announced.

These little books tell a lot of stories and celebrating diversity is key to the Blasta Books philosophy. This is expressed in many ways, including the donation of a percentage of profits from sales of books and merchandise to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency – and this is taken much further in the most recent title, The United Nations of Cookies. As Kristin Jensen puts it, “Cultures and cuisines have many differences, but one thing they all have in common is cookies. No matter the country, cookies evoke fond childhood memories and feature in many holidays and celebrations. But there’s more to Blasta Books #3 than just a sweet treat.”

For this is a book on a mission and co-authors Jess Murphy (of Kai restaurant in Galway) and Eoin Cluskey (of Dublin bakery Bread 41) are donating all author proceeds to UNHCR. Jess Murphy is an official High-Profile Supporter of the UNHCR, with whom she works to raise awareness and to advocate for refugees. She has worked with refugees around Ireland, as well as immigrants who have made Ireland their home, to collect and share the 25 recipes in the book. All were all tested at Bread 41 and baker Eoin Cluskey shares the philosophy, saying, “We can rekindle … childhood nostalgia, that simplicity and joy of food, while addressing the challenges our world faces and the need to come together. At its core, food is universal and ever evolving. This book is a love letter to how it brings us all together.’

The stories are powerful and the cookies delicious – this book is a one-off.

Blasta Books #3: The United Nations of Cookies by Jess Murphy and Eoin Cluskey (€15) is illustrated by Dublin artist Nicky Hooper and published by Blasta Books (, price €15. All author proceeds will be donated to UNHCR.


Syrian sesame and pistachio cookies (barazek)
Makes 18

In 2019, Jess Murphy travelled to Lebanon, where she met with the Al Jamous family, who had been selected for resettlement to Ireland. The family are from Da’el near Daraa in southern Syria, which was the centre of the unrest that led to the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011. Sami, his wife Haifa and their three children – Mohamad Habib (16 years old), Mahmoud (14 years old) and Maria (11 years old) – fled to Lebanon in 2013. They were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Bir Hassan, in southern Beirut. Sami, who worked as a florist in Beirut, was looking forward to the opportunity to find peace and for their children to get a good education. ‘Sami had said, all I want is the kids to ride a bicycle up and down the street,’ Jess says. ‘When I visited them in Birr a year or so later, they were on their bikes in their school uniforms. Haifa was baking and their faces had completely changed. They were so happy.’
‘These biscuits are one of the most traditional Syrian sweets,’ say Haifa and Sami. ‘We have so many special memories of preparing these biscuits with our families.’

110g unsalted butter, softened
80g icing sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
190g plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
a small pinch of fine sea salt
50g sesame seeds
1 tbsp runny honey
50g pistachios, finely chopped

Cream the butter and icing sugar together until pale and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and mix again until well combined.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together, then gradually fold into the butter and sugar mixture, being careful not to overmix. Cover the bowl with cling film and chill the dough in the fridge overnight.

Preheat the oven to 180°C fan. Line two large baking trays with non-stick baking paper.
Mix the sesame seeds and honey together in a small bowl and set aside. Put the pistachios in a separate bowl or on a plate.
Break off 1 tablespoon portions of the dough and roll into balls. Press one side into the pistachios and the other side into the sesame and honey mix.
Space the barazek 2cm apart on the lined trays. Bake in the oven for 15–20 minutes, until golden brown.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the trays for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Serve with mint tea.

Yemeni festive cookies (ka’ak al-Eid)
Makes 2 dozen

Sara Althabhaney is a forensic science student in GMIT in Galway. She fled the war in Yemen when she was 13 with her mother, sister and brother, seeking safety in Ireland, where they were granted asylum. While food plays an important role in communities around the world, this is even more so for people forced to flee to other countries. ‘Having that little bit of home is such a big thing,’ Sara says. ‘Being able to create certain food is very close to your heart.’
Ka’ak al-Eid are like a cross between brioche and a biscuit and they aren’t very sweet. They are traditionally served to guests and only during the Eid (feast) at the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan, Eid al-Adha and at the end of Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, though some families might now serve them on other special occasions. ‘These cookies remind me of my childhood in Yemen,’ Sara says. ‘As kids, we liked to dip the ka’ak in sweet, fragrant, milky tea.’

150ml lukewarm milk
½ tsp fast action dried yeast
800g plain flour
2 tbsp icing sugar
½ tsp fine sea salt
270g butter, diced and softened
2 eggs
2 egg whites
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp milk
nigella seeds
sesame seeds

Put the warm milk in a measuring jug and stir in the yeast. Leave for 10 minutes to let the yeast foam up.
Mix together the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and either using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or your fingertips, work in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add the milk and yeast mixture along with the two whole eggs and the two egg whites.
If you’re using a stand mixer, switch to the dough hook attachment and knead on a medium speed just until everything comes together into a smooth dough or knead by hand, but either way, take care not to overknead. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave to rise for 30 minutes in a warm, draught-free place.

Preheat the oven to 190°C fan. Line two baking trays with non-stick baking paper.

Pinch off 50–60g portions of the dough (roughly the size of a large egg) and roll into a ball between the palms of your hands, then flatten each ball into a disc. You can leave them as flat discs, but if you want to create a decorative edge, then flatten all around the edge even more so that they look almost like ravioli, with a bump in the middle.
Using your thumb and forefinger, pinch the edge and twist it towards you to create the decorative edge, repeating this all the way around the disc to create overlapping twists. Place on the lined trays, spaced a little bit apart.
Whisk the egg yolks and milk together, then brush the tops of the cookies with this egg wash. Sprinkle over a small pinch of nigella and sesame seeds on top of each one.
Bake in the oven for 20–25 minutes, until golden brown. Allow to cool on a wire rack, then eat with strong, sweet, milky Yemeni cardamom tea.

Afghani shortbread (nankhatai)
Makes 20

Khatira Hassanpour grew up in Iran, but her family fled in 1984 during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four decades later, the subsequent waves of violence and displacement from Afghanistan continue in what is now the longest protracted refugee situation covered under UNHCR’s mandate. Today, Iran is host to over 3 million Afghans.
Khatira, a translator by profession, now lives in Galway with her husband and two children. Like Afghan refugees in Iran, she preserves the taste of home with food such as nankhatai, a type of shortbread biscuit. Khatira says, ‘These cookies are very popular in Afghanistan. They remind me of my parents, as we ate them all the time when we were children, especially on New Year’s Eve. My mom still makes them at home.’

250ml sunflower or vegetable oil, gently warmed
120g icing sugar
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp vanilla extract
300g plain flour
50g pistachios, very finely chopped

Put the warm oil and icing sugar in a large bowl and mix until well combined and smooth. Add the cardamom and vanilla and mix again. Add the flour and mix with a wooden spoon or gently knead with your hands until the mixture comes together into a soft, smooth dough. Place the dough in a bowl, cover with cling film and chill in the fridge for 1 hour to firm up.
Preheat the oven to 150°C fan. Line two baking trays with non-stick baking paper.
Using a tablespoon, scoop out small balls of the dough, roll them into neat balls between the palms of your hands and place on the lined baking trays, spaced a little bit apart. Press each dough ball lightly with your finger to put a little dent in the top (to sprinkle the pistachios into after baking).
Bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and add a pinch of chopped pistachios into the indent you made in each cookie. Allow to cool for 10 minutes on the trays, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Somalian biscuits (biskud)
Makes 8 dozen

Ifrah Ahmed was born in Somalia and fled the outbreak of war in 2006 at the age of 17. She escaped traffickers and was granted asylum in Ireland. Since settling in Ireland, she has devoted her life to helping eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) and to providing integration support to newly arrived youth migrants and refugees from Africa in Ireland. Ifrah has been supporting the UNHCR since 2014 and is now a High-Profile Supporter.
Ifrah says, ‘In Somalia, old women have these biscuits with coffee in the morning. For everyone else, biskud are most often eaten at weddings, Eid, celebrations or as a special treat. You often get a small box of biskud and other sweets to take home with you from a wedding. During Ramadan, you look forward to having these biscuits to break your fast – when I was younger, we’d go to our neighbours’ house during Eid and they’d give us these. The traditional shape is a long rectangle with lines on top. In Somalia you can get a special attachment to make this cookie shape by pressing the dough through a meat grinder, but a cookie press fitted with any shape you like is just fine too – flowers are also popular.’

190g unsalted butter, softened
200g caster sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
500g plain flour
1½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp ground cardamom

Preheat the oven to 180°C fan.
Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition until fully incorporated and smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Stir in the vanilla.
In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and ground cardamom together and stir to combine, then add to the wet ingredients and mix just until it all comes together into a dough.
Transfer the dough into a cookie press fitted with whatever shape you like. Push out the cookies directly onto two unlined baking trays.
Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes, until they are light golden brown on top. Leave to cool for a few minutes on the trays before moving onto a wire rack to cool completely. Store in a large glass jar or airtight container and serve with coffee.

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