When Stella Hanan Cohen was growing up in Rhodesia, the kitchens in her community were filled with “a cacophony of Spanish, and Turkish, and Greek,” says Stella. Before celebrations, romantic ballads called romansos were sung in Ladino and women spoke longingly of their childhoods on the Greek island of Rhodes, where their community lived for over 400 years following the Inquisition. Together, the women would bake sweets like these cookies for “mesas d’alegria” or tables of happiness, a custom that comes from a time when the community lived in Spain.
“Traditionally the Rhodesli womenfolk moulded the menenas into oval shapes and decorated the tops with a feathery design by pinching the dough with a pair of tweezers,” according to Stella. A wooden mold can also be used.
Learn more about Stella’s community on the Jewish Food Society archive and in her cookbook “Stella’s Sephardic Table: Jewish Family Recipes from the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes.”
- For the Dough:
- ½ cup fine semolina flour
- 2¼ cups all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 2 heaping tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
- 9 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon whole milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- For the Filling:
- 1 cup walnuts
- 7 ounces dried dates, pitted
- ¼ cup hot water
- 2 ounces (½ stick) unsalted butter
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
- 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
- For Decorating:
- 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
- Special Equipment:
- 2 ½ x 1 ¼ inch wooden cookie mold
- Prepare the dough: Combine the semolina, all-purpose flour, baking powder, and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Add the butter and rub it into the flour with your fingertips until a grainy texture is formed. Add the milk and vanilla extract and combine until the dough begins to hold together. Using the palms of your hands, knead for 1 minute. Roll into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
- Prepare the filling: Pulse the walnuts in a food processor until finely chopped, or using a knife, finely chop the nuts. Finely chop the dates with a sharp knife. Place the dates, hot water and butter into a heavy-based large pan over medium heat. Mix and smash the dates with a fork for 2 minutes until soft and paste-like. Stir in the ground cinnamon, cloves and orange zest. Remove from the heat, add the walnuts and stir in orange blossom water until combined. Remove the date paste from the pan and transfer onto a heatproof plate. Refrigerate the date paste for 30 minutes until cooled. Take 1 heaping teaspoon of cooled date paste and roll it into about 30 small balls, between your palms. Set aside on a large plate.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line 2 baking trays with parchment paper.
- Fill the dough: Transfer the dough from the refrigerator and divide the dough into about 30 walnut-sized pieces and roll each piece with your hands into a ball. The pastry balls should be twice the size of the date balls. Press to create an indent into the center of each dough ball with your fingertip. With the index finger and thumb work around the inside and outside of the dough until you form a ¼-inch thick shell. Push in one prepared date paste ball and press the edges of the pastry together over the top. Gently pinch to enclose and seal in the filling, reshaping the stuffed dough into a ball. The date filling should be enveloped in an even layer of dough. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
- To shape with a mold: Using a decorative wooden mold, dust the mold lightly with flour and gently press the filled dough-ball into the mold, unpinched side down, with your palm. Flip the mold, then tap against a work surface and the menena will pop out. Place the decorated side up, ½-inch apart, on the prepared baking tray. Repeat with the rest of the filled pastry balls.
- Bake on the middle rack of the oven for about 20 to 30 minutes or until firm and pale in color. Make sure that the menenas do not over bake as they quickly become too hard and golden. Transfer the baking sheets out of the oven and after 1 minute, carefully transfer the baked cookies onto a wire rack. Sprinkle the cookies generously with confectioners’ sugar while still warm.
- Serve at room temperature.
Make ahead: The date filling can be prepared ahead and kept overnight in an airtight container in the refrigerator.