Drivers in Morocco aren't quite like drivers here in California. Our driver on the 3 hour drive from Tangier to Chefchaouen drove in the middle of the road the majority of the way, swerving into the right lane at the last minute for oncoming traffic. He stopped at a Mosque to pray for 20 minutes, and pulled over again, half an hour later, to hack up a lung and spit it onto the shoulder. When the road turned steeply up into the mountains, the old diesel engine slowed to little over 15mph, and we chugged higher and higher, while cars whizzed by too close for comfort. And then the driver coughed for a minute, pointed up ahead and said, through a toothless smile, 'Chaouen'.
We arrived in the late afternoon, hungry, tired, overheated. Our day had started at 5am in Torrevieja, when we woke up, finished getting everything on the boat away, jumped in a cab for the hour-long drive to Alicante airport, waited in a 2 hour line that made no sense at all, ran for the flight, got to Madrid, ran for another flight, took a bus out onto the tarmac, climbed on a small plane, argued with the people who had taken our seats because they preferred them, arrived in Tangier, jumped in a cab. You know the rest. Chefchaouen was quiet in the middle of the afternoon. A group of men crowded around the cab and offered to show us to our hotel. I glared at Jam as he accepted, though, in retrospect, given the maze of the medina and that our cab driver had dropped us not at the gate we'd requested but whatever gate his old car could get to first, it was probably a good idea. Our hotel, a bed and breakfast, was blue like the rest of the town was blue. Our room was small, clean, decorated with lots of weavings, rugs and brightly coloured textiles, and backed onto a terrace, which then backed onto the roof, from which we could look out over the whole town, which itself was nestled high in the Rif mountains.
I'll skip ahead. Let it suffice to say two things: first, that eating during Ramadan when the entire country is observing a fast is uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because you can feel eyes boring into your back as you bite into things. Uncomfortable because you want to eat and not be stared at. After our first meal there, we stocked up on snacks and kept them in our bedroom to eat during the day. Second. Restaurant food in Chefchaouen isn't amazing. I think its maybe because people don't eat out very much. We ate, on our last night, in the hotel-- a meal prepared by the family who lived there. And it was amazing. It was everything I'd hoped a Moroccan meal could be. But elsewhere it was so-so.
We went to the Kasbah, and walked in the mountains, and bought lots of textiles. We talked to people. Lots of people. We drank mint tea. Lots of mint tea. We bought things sometimes just because we'd drank their tea and felt bad. And we sat on the roof at the end of the day, when the sun was setting behind the mountains, and the town of Chefchaouen spread out underneath us like a dusty blue carpet. There were people on the rooftops around us. Women, mostly, as the men were down by the river washing before going to mosque. The women were chattering next to us, the younger kids in normal clothes, the older women dressed in traditional djellabas. We made broken conversation with them. People emerged onto rooftops, put food out on tables, disappeared inside again. The sound of people in the streets below became louder, more hurried, more electric, as the sun sank lower, until it finally dipped behind the horizon, and for one brief electric moment, there was a pregnant silence, and then it started.
But better than me trying to describe the call to prayer as it started in the six different mosques dotted around the mountains, and bounced around from hillside to hillside, and better than talking about the siren that signified the end of the fast day, and how the light was changing, and how it all sounded so foreign and so eerie and so beautiful all at once, and how all I wanted to do was lie down there on the dusty rooftop and let it wash over and through me, I just recorded it for you.
Midway through the call, the women on the rooftop next to us called me over and handed me a little package of honey cakes. Chebbakia. Traditional fast-breaking sweets loaded with sesame and honey and quick energy. They're spectacular. I have, upon returning, attempted to make my own and failed spectacularly, a few times. I have come to the conclusion that chebbakia are to be enjoyed in Morocco alone, or to be made by somebody with better cooking skills than me. I'm ok with that. In the meantime, to make up for it, I have made something that I *can* make, and quite well. Shortbread, spiced with the Ras Al Hanout* I dragged back in my suitcase. Keep in mind, these cookies aren't remotely Moroccan, save the spices in them. But they're delicious nonetheless, and I would highly recommend trying them sometime soon.
Moroccan-spiced shortbread with saffron-honey drizzle
2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons butter at room temperature
1 cup potato starch
1 cup white rice flour
1/2 cup brown rice flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup arrowroot flour
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp ras al hanout (for sources try somewhere like THIS)
These instructions are for making this by hand. You can do it in a mixer too, if you like, I just find them so easy that its unnecessary. In a big bowl, beat the butter for a minute or two until its light and fluffy. Add the sugar, beat some more. Mix the flours, the ras al hanout, and the salt together, and add in three batches, waiting till the last has been incorporated before moving onto the next. By the time you add the last one it'll seem incredibly dry. Don't worry, keep going, leave the spoon and mix it by hand from here on out. When it all comes together but doesn't crumble, but doesn't stick to your hands, you'll know its ready.
For the best flavour, wrap this big ball of dough in cling film and leave in the fridge overnight. If you're desperate, as I often am, take a golf-ball-sized ball, roll it between your hands, and press flat with the base of your thumb. Lay it out on a cooking tray, and repeat until you're out of dough. I do this in three batches, instead of dirtying three different cooking trays, because I don't have a dishwasher and I am lazy. You can do it as you please.
Cook for 20-22 minutes, depending on how your oven's mood swings are. They'll be slightly golden around the outside. Now this is very important: leave them to cool before trying to touch them or move them to a plate. If you don't they will crumble and the shortbread angels will cry. You don't want to make the shortbread angels cry, do you? DO YOU? I thought not.
To serve, drizzle with saffron infused honey. Or, you can stand at the kitchen counter with your husband, sharing a cold glass of milk and dipping your cookies into the honey before you eat them. Really, whatever works for you...
1/4 tsp saffron
1/2 cup honey
For the saffron infused honey, I make it in really small portions. Because saffron is expensive as hell. That said, I can always find things to do with it, which is how it ended up on these cookies in the first place. They're fine without it, really, but the saffron honey does add an extra nuance to the flavour that I find both different and attractive.
Grind the saffron up in a spice grinder, or chop it very finely. Then put it and the honey in a small saucepan, and heat gently, not bringing it to a boil for 20-30 minutes. Decant into a jar, keeping the saffron in there.
*Ras Al Hanout translates to 'head of the shop' and its basically a spice blend of the best spices the shop has to offer. Each shop has a different blend, and they're usually quite spectacular. I've been using the ones I dragged back in everything, from roasts to tagines to, well, as you can see, cookies.