This post is a fun one. You’re going to hear a shortened version of the Solar Decathlon Africa saga that was my life for 5+ years and get a brilliant cookie recipe along the way. Moroccan Bahla Cookies were recommended by my two closest Moroccan friends, Ilyass and Hiba, and I was fortunate enough to try the real thing while visiting last fall. They’re also a staple cookie in the country, especially during Ramadan. Ghoriba Bahla, as they’re also called, are the sandiest shortbread I’ve ever had with a unique nutty flavor that I can only describe as Moroccan. It’s like they were designed specifically to be eaten with mint tea…which is probably exactly what was intended. More to come on these cookies in a bit!
This post is in honor of Ramadan ending on May 23 (today!) in Morocco this year and for all of my Moroccan friends who I’ve been thinking about each day during this pandemic. My connection to Morocco began in March 2018 when my crazy friend Lucy and I convinced our Tiny House Club advisor at Mines (yes, a club whose mission is to build an ultra-modern, high-tech tiny house) to compete in the Solar Decathlon Africa which was to take place an hour outside of Marrakech, Morocco in September, 2019. In this competition, 18 collegiate teams from around the world set out to design and build full-sized, solar power houses to compete against each other in 10 different contests: Engineering & Construction, Architecture, Innovation, Market Appeal, Comfort Conditions, Home Life & Entertainment, Appliances, Sustainability, Electrical Energy Balance, and Communications & Social Awareness. A bit of a kicker, you only have 3 weeks to build the house and you compete over a 2-week period. After 18 months of insane amounts of work (I think we spent over 2 weeks of our lives in Zoom meetings), we competed as the Inter House team and won first place in the whole thing! Like, what?!
Here's Lucy and I celebrating.
I could write a very long book about the whole process. Some moments were incredibly fun and celebratory, and at other times I thought I was never going to see it to the end. I was the project manager of our team and had many sleepless nights not just about our chances of success or because I was thinking about whether our shipping container filled with solar panels and other high tech stuff was lost somewhere in the Atlantic, but about how I was leading the team – was I being unrealistic or too practical? Did I actually support the team as well as I could and make the right calls when tough decisions came up? I know I was not perfect and did make mistakes (we basically made everything more difficult than it needed to be, but that wasn’t just a me thing), but in the end I grew more as a leader and gained more inner authority and trust in myself over that 18 month period than I have in most of my other years combined.
But as tough, and I will say, scarring (not necessarily a bad scarring) as the experience was, I do not regret a minute of it. And one of the best things about the Solar Decathlon Africa was that we partnered with several universities in Morocco, which turned out to be critical for a tiny Colorado school to build a house in a foreign country…there’s not a Home Depot on every corner in Marrakech that you can just run to every five minutes when you realize you need ANOTHER screw. Among other things.
The friends I’ve made in Morocco are lifelong and made this experience mean something completely different to me. Ilyass was our resident architect and 100% mine and Lucy’s rock through the whole thing. I only have incredible things to say of Ilyass. Hiba is the most bubbly, positive spirit who taught us that everything would be ok even when it wasn’t. She was just so excited about life that it was impossible not to also be excited around her. Hiba also taught me how to say “cat” (“kitta”) in “Frarabic” – French-Arabic, the most widely-spoken Moroccan language – so she instantly became the best. Maryame is another architecture student who created all of the beautiful renderings, walkthroughs, and graphics of the house. She was so calm and collected, I knew Maryame would be able to handle anything thrown at her. And Yazid, our landscaping hero, has such a beautiful English-speaking voice that he may as well be singing. He’ll always make you laugh.
Here's the Inter House Team (that’s us!) right after our win:
And here’s a beautiful rendering of our house by Maryame (top) and the house itself at night (bottom):
Again, I could go on and on about this adventure. But among all that I’ve learned about construction, HVAC systems, Morocco’s building code, Morocco’s lack of a building code, and the beautiful cultures of North Africa, I’m here to talk about Morocco’s cookies.
“Ghoriba” (also spelled ghribia, ghraiba, or ghriyyaba) is a type of shortbread cookie common in North Africa and the Middle East and often served with Maghrebi mint tea in the afternoons and evenings. I asked Hiba and Ilyass to let me know what some of their favorite Moroccan desserts and baked sweets were, and not only did they both recommend these Bahla, but it was definitely the most approachable recipe, and one of my favorites from when I visited. (I was too shy to go to my hotel restaurant in Morocco, so I would hoard these cookies during the breakfast buffet and eat them for dinner :D).
Traditionally Bahla require blanched and fried almonds and some pretty specific steps during the mixing and baking processes. They’re also usually baked on a special pan made just for these cookies which I think is really fun. (Fun fact: have you heard of Moroccan Tagine? “Tagine” is actually the name of the pan used to cook this standard Moroccan meal; just like a casserole is just named so because it is baked in a casserole dish.) But no worries, I just baked these on a regular cookie sheet.
For my adaptation here I wanted to make this recipe a bit more approachable and simpler to bake so that I and every other home baker can make them anytime without trouble. So, here are some tips!
First, I do not use blanched and fried almonds, just almond flour. You still get a nuttiness from it and a nice crumbly texture without the mess that comes with frying. However, I still do include toasted sesame seeds which are a staple in this recipe. Sesame seeds being an especially unique North African flavor to these cookies and while it might feel like they don’t quite belong at first, they’re totally necessary.
The dough is easy to mix up whether you use a stand mixer or not. It does require a bit more time and patience than your everyday chocolate chip cookie, and it will seem almost too dry and crumbly. But trust me, this is how you want it. You can add an additional 1 to 2 tablespoons of water to the dough if you can’t get it to stick together at all when forming your cookies, but I would suggest erring on the drier side. It took me a bit to get a hang of forming the cookies into little disks, so don’t worry if you’re also having trouble. I recommend taking about 1/4 cup of dough and combining it as best as possible into a ball using your hands. Then gently flatten it out into a disk, smoothing out cracks along the edges as best as you can. They won’t spread when baking, so you can pack them nice and tight on your cookie sheet. But again, I’ll say that while it might be a crumbly frustrating mess at first, the more you work the dough the easier it will begin to stick together and form into your desired shape. And as annoying as it is, the ultrafine sandy texture of these cookies once they’re baked makes it worth the struggle.
Finally, I definitely recommend eating these cookies alongside a cup of coffee or tea as they really are dry. Moroccan mint tea is incredibly popular there, it’s served hot or cold and is like sweet tea infused with peppermint. Not my favorite, but I did enjoy the experience while I was there, and it is truly a perfect pair to these richly nutty cookies.
One last fun thing: one of the scored contests in the Home Life and Entertainment portion of the Solar Decathlon was to host a dinner party where you invite over judges and students from competing teams and cook for them in your Solar Decathlon house! We hosted 2 dinner parties during the competition, one was a taco night (go USA!) and the other was a very traditional Moroccan meal. Our menu consisted of preserved lemon and cauliflower, a traditional chicken tagine, mint tea, and a cookie spread. Delicious!
I’m guessing this recipe will be new to many of my American friends, so I hope you enjoy and can’t wait to hear what you think of it. And to Ilyass, Hiba, Maryame, Yazid, Dr. Amery, and every other single Moroccan and person I know celebrating, I hope you had a lovely Ramadan despite the circumstances. Miss you all! And I love your cookies!
Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes
Servings: About 15 cookies
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