As spring struggles to push the winter out during this volatile month, or as the common Italian saying goes Marzo è pazzo “March is Crazy!”; the women of the Jufra are busy baking golden sweet Ka’ak Alrabea. These rich fluffy rings of bread are then presented in a procession by colorfully dressed young girls, to ward off the winter cold and bring in the warm yellow rays of the sun.
The practice of eating enriched breads during the spring (on or around the spring equinox) is as old as religion itself. A form of brioche bearing different names and flavors are eaten in almost every country around the Mediterranean basin, be it for cultural or religious practices. For the people of North Africa, this marks the beginning of the sowing season for those whose livelihoods depend on farming. In southern Europe, egg and butter rich sweet breads are gifted for Easter.
It is unclear when the people of the Jufra started making this bread or where the influence came from. The first documentation of the Spring Welcoming festival was during the second Ottoman Dynasty during the Karamanli rule in 1819, where a voyager visited Sokna and wrote about his observations of this festival. It is possible that this bread was influenced by the Ottoman Turkish Çörek (pronounced chorek) like the adopted Algerian Chrik, Egyptian Shorek or Greek Tsoureki; although the etymology does not support this.
Another name common name for Ka’ak Alrabea is Ka’ak M’khamer or “Yeasted Cake”. This refers to the process of leavening these rings with yeast rather than ammonia bicarbonate traditionally used in another Ka’ak recipe commonly baked during Eid in Libya. Recipes by the same name (Ka’ak M’khamer) can be found in other Berber regions of Algeria and Morocco, who also partake in the Spring Welcoming tradition. It is possible that this bread may have its roots in the Berber community, as Ka’ak Alrabea is not common in Arab cities throughout Libya.
Like all the breads of the region during this season, Ka’ak Alrabea is loaded with symbolism. The dough is naturally dyed yellow using turmeric, to represent the warm golden sun. The dough is then braided to represent the bounty of wheat spikes. They can be baked as loaves or rings, which represent the circle of life, or the renewal of life that comes with spring. Although many southern European recipes (especially in Spain, Italy and Greece) incorporate colored eggs into the shaped dough before baking, this practice is not common in North Africa.
Background on Ka’ak Making
Ka’ak Alrabea is a yeast bread enriched with egg, milk and fat (butter, sheep’s fat, ghee or olive oil) and sweetened with sugar. It gains its yellow color from the addition of turmeric and is commonly flavored with anise seeds. Other additions are orange zest, orange blossom water, mastic, sesame and nigella seeds. The dough is silky and soft and gives off the sweet aroma of anise while baking. The bread is light and airy. It easily pulls apart into fluffy cotton-candy like strands. Many recipes now call for the addition of vanilla and baking powder although the elders of this community would argue that this goes against tradition.
I felt that it was counter-intuitive to add baking powder to a dough already containing yeast. Left to rise for a relatively long period of time, baking powder becomes inactive. After a few tries testing out this recipe I believe that baking powder has been added for several reasons.
The high fat and sugar content, along with the anti-fungal properties of turmeric, tend to retard fermentation. Butter and oils are added at the beginning , rather than incorporated after the dough is kneaded (as in brioche and other enriched bread recipes). The fat coats the flour making it harder to produce gluten.
It was also common to add baking powder when neither yeast or baking powder were as reliable as they are today. Both may have been added to ensure that the bread would rise, or because there wasn’t a good understanding of how they would work together. If the recipe worked with the addition of baking powder, it was passed down that way. In the recipe below, I have opted not to use baking powder, taking the recipe back to its origin.
Ka’ak Alrabea Recipe:
Makes one 24cm (9½ in) ring
Prep time: 30 min active
2 ½ hours rising and proofing
3 ½ hours total
Baking temperature 175 °C (350 °F) or Gas mark 4
- 2 ½ cups all purpose flour (Type 00 Italian Flour)
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon anise seeds
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ tablespoon yeast
- ½ cup milk (lukewarm)
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 egg (room temperature)
- ¼ cup butter softened
- 2 tbsp melted butter
- ¼ cup confectioner’s sugar
Sift or whisk together the dry ingredients (first four) in a large bowl.
Mix the yeast with the milk to activate the yeast and allow it to ferment for a few minutes (until the yeast bubbles and becomes foamy).
Whisk the sugar and egg into the yeast mixture until well incorporated.
Slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and knead for 10 mins or until the dough holds together and no longer sticks to the bowl. You can do this step in a stand mixer if you have one. The dough should be slightly firm.
Now knead in the butter one tablespoon at a time, until fully absorbed by the dough.
Cover and allow to rise (ferment) until double in size (approximately 2 hours).
After the dough has risen, knock it back and divide into 3 equal portions. Round each portion and allow to rest on the bench (or counter) for a few minutes before shaping.
Meanwhile grease a 24 cm (9 ½ in) savarin mould. If you don’t have one you can use a greased baking sheet.
Roll each of the dough balls into 1cm ( ½ in) thick ropes approximately 70 cm long.
Pinch the three ropes at one end and braid. Transfer the braid to the mould and pinch the ends together. If using a tray you can bake as a loaf (wheat spike shape) or shape into a circle and pinch the ends together.
Cover and allow the dough to proof (rise) for about 30 minutes. Bear in mind that the dough will continue to rise in the oven.
Preheat oven to 175 °C (350 °F).
Place the mould or tray in the oven on the center rack. Bake for 20-30 min or until puffed and golden.
Remove from the mould and allow to cool for ten minutes before brushing with butter and dusting with sugar.
Best eaten warm, it keeps well for a few days in an airtight container. Serve with tea or milk.
Note: Other names and meanings of Ka’ak Al-Rabea
- Ka’ak M’khamer (كعك مخمر): Yeasted Cake
- Ka’ak Albalad (كعك البلاد أو بلدي): Country cake
- Ka’ak Asfar (كعك أصفر) : Yellow Rings
- Ka’ak Soknah (كعك سوكنه) : Rings from the city of Soknah
- Ka’ak Hoon (كعك هون): Rings from the city of Hoon (most common name in Tripoli, and cities outside the Jufra region)