Make these instead of sending a cardamom
I was really lucky to grow up in a house where food was a huge part of family life, and a massive source of enjoyment and social interaction. I also grew up with two very strong women, my mum and my grandmother (nanima, we call her, it just means mother of my mother) who are the best cooks around, and extremely generous with their time and resources. So I was immersed in food and travel from a young age, and more importantly, I was given all the east African foods they grew up eating - foods that for some reason aren’t staple products in London. This bafflement is genuine - them foods is the business.
One of my favourites was always thepla - they are essentially a fried wheat flour biscuit, chock-full of palm sugar, cardamom and fennel. I can still taste that aniseed, caramel, deep fried goodness. Chewy crust and fluffy inside when freshly fried, dense and chewy when eaten cold, like the lovechild of your dream cookie and a chewy caramel. The little white poppy seeds sticking in your teeth and letting the sticky sweet aromatic flavour linger in your mouth. Palm sugar has that lovely bittersweet quality which makes things so moreish despite them being sweet and filling. Bloody delicious!
However, as with many of these fabled childhood treats, they have dwindled in supply along with the slew of old ladies that make them for us and stock our freezers. My nanima is a great cook, but she’s famous for cooking big, fast and tasty - we are constantly throwing around terms like ‘curry in a hurry’ or ‘hit and run cooking’ when it comes to her kitchen antics. She’s almost 90, she’s literally amazing. I enlisted her help one day to make bhajias and curry for 120 people - I arrived at 9am to find 2 cauldrons of curry waiting on the induction hob - enough for the event and an entire freezer drawer of my own. I had just about managed to get dressed and have a cup of tea by then.
So if nanima doesn’t know how to make something, or doesn’t make it regularly, then it’s likely because it’s a faff - it can’t be done in 30mins or less and requires batch deep frying - which in combination mean she just doesn’t have the time for it. The result is that I never learnt how to make it. So I had to go it alone.
I spent a frustratingly long time trying to replicate thepla without having to fry them. I’m not opposed to frying, but it means that you have to eat the food fresh or it just isn’t as good. So you can’t store them and have them on hand or in the freezer ready for tea and cake emergencies. Well you can, but they just aren’t the same.
Cue the timely invasion of the hippies - I saw a recipe for cookies using almond butter and applesauce - they were a bit too health food like for me but the idea of using nut butter as the base of a cookie seemed to me worth pursuing. I was failing using ground nuts, coconut flour, aquafaba… the result was always disappointingly dry and/or crumbly and just no cookieness or nostalgia. So why not try a really weird recipe that uses no flour or binding agents whatsoever, and instead trick the sloppy mess into becoming cookies by totally screwing with the temperatures it’s exposed to. This was a really epic recipe to develop and I am still so pleased with the result. It’s been so long since I ate the original thepla that I have no idea how they would compare side by side. But for me and even my nanima (who pulls no punches when giving her opinion) they hit the thepla spot. She even requests them from time to time, which is about the highest praise I can think of.
They’re totally weird in creation and consumption - a flavour combo that you rarely get in sweet treats, a sweet treat that isn’t that sweet, and sometimes confusing because they look like chocolate cookies, but have no chocolate in them. However, they quickly became the bestseller at my market stalls, because they’re tasty, moreish and are made out of fruit and nuts (i.e. they’re vegan, gluten free, refined sugar free, grain free, but not free from flavour or fun, like most of their counterparts). So whatever your sensibilities, you can justify eating these (except if you’re allergic to cashew nuts, in which case, please don’t).
Fennel and cardamom cookies
Makes around 16 cookies
100g pitted dates
100ml boiling water
125g coconut sugar
1.5 tsp ground fennel seeds
2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
250g smooth roasted cashew butter (I get mine from realfoodsource which is a treasure trove for ingredients in general!)
White poppy seeds (optional - you could also use sesame seeds or nothing, it’s just because that’s how I remember them!)
You need a couple of days to chill the mix at various stages, so I suggest making a batch of these and freezing them in advance, then you can bake as and when you need them - the freezer steps are pretty crucial or you will end up with gloopy inedible mess! It’s worth the effort!
Place the dates and boiling water in a bowl, cover and leave to soften.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the paddle place the coconut sugar, fennel, cardamom, salt and bicarb. Mix lightly with your hands to combine and remove any lumps.
Add the cashew butter and start to mix on a low speed. It will turn into a dry crumbly mess.
Mash the dates to as much of a puree as you can manage, just try not to have any large lumps or whole dates, and get an even consistency with the water all mixed in. With the mixer still running, add the date puree to the bowl a third at a time. Scrape down the sides of the bowl every so often so that you don’t get lumps of cashew butter in the final mix.
Once you’ve added all the dates, increase the speed to medium to combine the mix really well and get it as smooth as possible. It’ll look really sloppy and disturbing - that’s fine, that’s what you want.
Scrape the mix into a box or bowl and freeze for a few hours. You don’t want it to freeze solid, just firm enough that you can scoop it and handle it.
Once chilled, roll into balls around 30g in size (should be around 16 cookies) and place on a tray or box lined with parchment. Once you’ve rolled them all, freeze for at least 6-8 hours, you want them to be quite solid before baking.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 150C (140C fan) and line your baking trays with baking paper.
Place the cookies well spaced out on the trays and sprinkle with white poppy seeds (if using). Leave them for 10-15 minutes at room temperature, until you can just push your thumb into the balls, but they still feel cold and a bit firm in the middle. (It’s about catching the right moment before they get too soft and don’t hold their shape in the oven. If you bake them too soon they will be slightly fatter and spread less, if you bake them too late, they’ll spread very thin. If you spread them way too late, you’ll be scraping them off the tray)
Bake for 20-24 minutes until they have spread and started to turn dark brown. They’ll still be really soft so leave them on the tray until they have completely cooled.
Keep in an airtight container for unto 5 days, or months in the freezer. Make sure you don’t store them with other foods or they will absorb the moisture and become a squishy mess in a matter of hours.