These Moroccan shortbread cookies have a pleasantly surprising crunch and great flavor, thanks to the dough’s sandy texture and now-traditional additions of toasted sesame seeds and almonds. They’re a family favorite in many Moroccan homes, and so deliciously crumbly that you’ll probably want to hold a napkin under the cookie when you bite!
Cracks in the surface of the cookie have led to the cookies being known as ghoriba bahla (ghriba behla), a name which loosely translates to “silly” cookies but really means “silly stranger.” Others may offer you a different translation. For example, a Moroccan tour guide I work with refers to bahla as “stupid” cookies, such a funny description that her guests often want to try them! The word ghoriba itself means stranger and is used to refer to a number of round Moroccan cookies which are traditionally shaped by hand. For this particular version, the cracks are essential in order for the cookie to earn its name of silly, or bahla; otherwise it is simply a ghoriba.
How to Make Bahla Shortbread Cookies
But now let’s move on to see how to make the bahla cookies with their requisite crackled surface. The photos below will walk you through the process. The printable recipe appears at the end of the post.
1. The Ingredients
As is the case with many shortbread cookie recipes, the ingredient list for ghoriba bahla is not long. It’s always easiest to measure out ingredients before you begin mixing. This shortbread uses a mix of unsalted butter and vegetable oil, granulated sugar, flour, baking powder, vanilla sugar and a pinch of salt. Here I’m adding in a half cup of toasted unhulled sesame seeds. I could use toasted and ground almonds instead, or a mix of sesame and almonds. Ground pecans would also be fabulous, but it’s not traditional.
2. Begin Mixing the Dough
Begin by combining the sugar, unsalted butter and vegetable oil in a large bowl. A heavy wooden spoon will make short work of this task, but use your hands if you prefer. In fact, using your hands is most traditional!
Next mix in the sesame (and almonds, if using), vanilla sugar and salt. If you’re using liquid vanilla extract instead of vanilla sugar, it can be added with the wet ingredients in the next step.
3. Work the Flour Into the Dough
Time to mix in the flour and baking powder. Do this in increments, adding the baking powder with the first addition of flour.
You might not need all of the flour, and this step is best done by hand since the dough will become increasingly stiff and crumbly. My bowl is big enough to accommodate my hands, but many Moroccan cooks prefer to use a large wide, shallow dish called a gsaa when making dough. A gsaa is also used when making and serving couscous.
4. Knead by Hand or With a Stand Mixer
With enough flour mixed in, the dough should now be too crumbly to pack well. To make it manageable, it must be kneaded and mixed further.
You can do this by hand for a good 20 minutes or longer – indeed many Moroccans would insist on hand kneading – but a stand mixer with paddle attachment at low speed takes only 10 minutes and will leave you free to clean up or do something else.
5. The Dough Is Ready
So what is the correct texture of the dough after kneading? Well, it should resemble what’s shown here – dry enough to crumble between your fingers yet moist enough to easily squeeze and mold into a pliable ball.
If the dough does not have this texture toward the end of your 10-minute kneading, an adjustment will need to be made. If it’s too dry and crumbly, work in a tablespoon of oil. If it’s too moist and has formed a uniform mass, work in a little more flour. In either case, continue kneading long enough to fully incorporate your addition.
Now it’s time to move on to shaping and baking.
6. The Bakeware – Special Ghoriba Mold or Regular Pan
The traditional pan for making ghoriba bahla is a molded baking sheet like the one shown here. It’s large enough to make a full batch of the shortbread cookies, and although it’s not a must, using it will allow the cookies to bake with a desirably concave, cup-shaped bottom.
If you don’t have the mold, a regular baking sheet will work fine, although your cookies will, of course, have a flat bottom.
Neither pan requires greasing, but I here I’m using parchment paper for the regular pan for the sake of easy clean up.
7. Preheat Your Oven
There are two baking methods to choose from. Select one or plan to try both to see which you like better:
- Preheat your oven to 338° F (170° C) with the rack in its lowest position. This oven temp will be used in combination with the broiler or grill element for a few minutes, after which time the rack will be re-positioned and the oven used alone.
- Preheat your oven to 400° F (200° C) with the rack positioned up high, in the top third. This method requires no adjustments other than a pan rotation from front to back if you feel it’s necessary.
The day I took photos for this post, I tried both methods to see how they affected the cracks in the cookies. We want the cracks to be well defined but not so deep or wide as to distort the round shape of the cookie.
8. Shaping the Cookies
Take a little dough and squeeze it back and forth in your hands a few times to press it together and make it pliable. Shape it into a smooth ball of about 1 1/2″ (3.5 cm), then flatten it slightly in the palm of your hand without cracking the edges.
If using the special pan, gently press the dough onto the top of a mold. Otherwise, arrange the dough on a regular baking sheet.
Note that the dough shown here is shaped on the thick side. You can be a bit more particular if using the molded pan by shaping the dough a little flatter and by pressing the edges even thinner so that the dough curves better over the mold. This will yield a thinner cookie with notable cup-shaped bottom which is preferred by perfectionist Moroccan bakers.
9. Bake the Cookies – Two Methods
Note that every oven behaves differently, so you may need to make small adjustments to get a good result.
- If your oven was preheated to 338° F (170° C), turn on the broiler or grill element. Place the cookies in the oven with the rack in the lowest position for 5 to 6 minutes. Turn off the grill and move the rack and baking pan to the upper third of the oven. Continue baking for another 15 minutes, or until the cookies have cracked and are colored.
- If your oven was preheated to 400° F (200° C), bake the cookies on the rack in the top third of the oven for about 15 minutes, or until the tops are cracked and the cookies are nicely colored.
Remove the cookies from the oven and allow to cool and set on the pan for a few minutes before transferring to a rack to cool.
10. Ghoriba Bahla – Comparing the Results
I test-baked the ghoriba bahla on both types of pans with both baking methods. The results are shown here. Note that the color of the cookies in the photo is a bit off because of the brightly hued paper I used for labeling. (Oops! Photography lesson learned!)
The traditional mold (left side of photo) yielded cookies with the deepest cracks, although they may have been too deep and wide had I not shaped the cookies as thick as I did.
The cookies on the conventional baking pan (right side of photo) have finer but acceptable cracks. Perhaps a higher positioning of the rack would yield deeper cracks, but I was out of dough for experimenting further.
I’ve concluded that both methods are acceptable, but that the oven- grill method will give a slightly more dramatic crackling effect, particularly when combined with the traditional ghoriba mold. Depending on your dough’s consistency, that effect may be too much as drier dough will develop thicker, deeper cracks.
11. A Look at the Bottom of the Ghoriba Bahla
Here’s what the bottom of the cookie will look like when baked on the ghoriba mold. Had I shaped the dough into a flatter disc and molded it down over the mounds on the special pan, my ghoriba would have had an even deeper cup and thinner edge. This was definitely an amateur attempt.
12. Cooling, Storing and Serving the Moroccan Shortbread
Allow the ghoriba bahla to cool completely before storing in an airtight container. You’ll want to use waxed paper, plastic or foil between the layers to avoid crumbs from upper layers ruining the appearance of the cookies underneath.
The cookies will keep well at room temperature for a week or two, but freezing will ensure best flavor if they aren’t likely to be consumed in the first week. They make an excellent addition to a Moroccan tea time table and are generally served alongside other Moroccan ghoribas, cookies or pastries.
Ghoriba Bahla Recipe - Moroccan Shortbread Cookies
Ahead of Time - Prep the Sesame and Almonds
- Toast the unhulled sesame seeds. Preheat your oven to 400° F (200° C). Spread the sesame seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in the preheated oven for about 10 minutes. Let cool before using.
- Toast (or fry) the blanched almonds, then grind. To toast, spread the blanched almonds on a baking sheet and place in a 350° F (180° C) oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, until pale golden. (To fry, heat a shallow layer of vegetable oil in a small pan over medium heat; add the almonds and stir constantly until golden, then transfer to a paper towel lined plate.)When the almonds are cool, coarsely grind them.
Make the Cookie Dough
- In a large bowl, combine the sugar, butter and oil. Mix well.
- Stir in the ground almonds and toasted sesame seeds.
- Add half of the flour and all of the baking powder then mix until well-combined.
- Use your hands to work in as much of the remaining flour as needed to get a very crumbly, dry mixture.
- Use a stand mixer and paddle attachment to mix the dough on the lowest speed for 10 minutes, or knead by hand for 20 minutes, to make a dough that clumps together but is not so moist as to form one uniform mass. If the dough seems to be too moist, add a little flour. Conversely, if the dough remains too dry and crumbly to easily pack into a ball, then add a tablespoon or two of oil. In either case, allow ample mixing time to blend any additions fully throughout the dough
Shape and Bake the Cookies
- Preheat your oven to 338° F (170° C). If you don't have a special ghoriba mold, line a regular baking sheet with parchment paper. There is no need to grease the ghoriba mold.
- Take a small portion of dough and squeeze it in your hand to compress it and make it easy to mold. Shape it into a 1 1/2" (3.5 cm) ball, then flatten the ball to a smooth disc shape. Correct any cracked edges.
- Gently press the shaped dough onto the molded pan or place the disc on your prepared pan. Repeat with the remaining dough. Plan to bake the cookies in batches, one pan at a time.
- Place the baking rack to its lowest position and turn on the broiler. Bake the cookies for 5 or 6 minutes, then turn off the broiler and move the cookies to the upper third of the oven. Continue baking for another 15 minutes, or until the cookies are lightly colored with crackled tops.
- Remove the cookies from the oven and allow them to cool a few minutes on the pan. Transfer them to a rack to cool completely before storing in an airtight container with wax paper or plastic between layers.
- Instead of using both the oven + broiler method above, you can simply bake the cookies at 400° F (200° C) in the upper third of the oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until lightly colored with cracked tops. The cracks won't be quite as deep but it's easier and the result is still good!
- If time allows, you can test bake a few cookies using one or both methods to see how your dough reacts in your oven. My current oven, for example, heats differently than other ovens I've had, requiring that I bake cakes, cookies and breads in the upper third of the oven rather in the middle.
- How dark to make the cookies is up to you. Traditionally, most shortbread recipes require baking until set and barely colored, but many Moroccans consider pale cookies to be under baked. These should be baked long enough to at least achieve a dry crumb, but many cooks prefer to continue baking to a golden hue. Take care not to burn them.
- If using the special ghoriba mold, you can shape the dough into flatter discs to achieve a more dramatic hollowed-out bottom. You will need to be extra careful to avoid cracked edges, though.
Nutrition information is provided as a courtesy and is only an estimate obtained from online calculators. Optional ingredients may not be included in the nutritional information.