Whether based in bias or fact, all Palestinians agree that the ka'ak made in Jerusalem taste better than those made anywhere else in the country. In fact, the full name of these beloved oblong sesame breads is “ka’ak al Quds,” which means "Jerusalem Ka’ak.” Some will say it’s the old traditional wood-fired ovens, others will argue it’s the yeast in the walls and atmosphere that has been there for generations. For others still, it’s the aura of Old City, where they are baked daily and a ubiquitous part of the area's history and culture, past and present. Men push their ka’ak-laden wooden carts through the streets shouting, “Kaaaaaaa’aaaaaak,” and everyone, from school children to workers to shop owners and even tourists, gathers round to pay the trivial price for these delicious and filling breads. Whatever it is, ka'ak al Quds does seem to taste different in Jerusalem.
The history of these breads dates back to the Middle Ages, when they were so popular in Arab cuisine that medieval cookbooks did not deign it necessary to even include a basic recipe for them, instead only including variations. Originally they were more akin to a cracker than an actual bread, but they have evolved over time into countless variations and traversed the globe. As I wrote in an earlier piece here, it is very likely that ka’ak was the precursor to the modern day bagel as well.
Today there are so many breads similar to ka’ak al Quds across the world, from Turkish simit to Polish obwarzanki, many of which are likely descendants of ka'ak. What distinguishes the variety sold in Jerusalem is not only the distinctive flavor, largely thanks to being baked in centuries-old ovens heated with olive wood, but also the shape. It is an oblong ring usually more than a foot long, with a thin crispy crust and light airy interior. They are sold from carts and from neighborhood ovens, and their only downside—one common to many breads—is that they are best enjoyed soon after baking. Still, leftovers can be frozen and reheated in an oven for a close enough approximation.
At their most simple, ka’ak are sold wrapped in newspaper scraps with some za’atar alongside to dip into. For a more filling meal, one can purchase falafel or hay-baked eggs from the same cart vendors. For me, my entire childhood in Jerusalem is dotted with memories of these delicious breads. I won’t claim the recipe here will taste the same as the ones sold on the streets of Jerusalem, but they are a fantastic placeholder until one finally visits the Old City.
For the Dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine bread flour, sugar, salt, yeast, baking powder, and milk and mix at medium speed until a smooth and elastic dough forms. Alternatively, mix the dough ingredients in a large bowl, kneading by hand until a smooth and elastic dough forms.
Rub the dough all over with just enough olive oil to very lightly coat, cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel or plastic wrap, and set aside to rise in a warm location until almost doubled in size, about 1 hour.
To Form and Bake: Meanwhile, in a large shallow tray such as a rimmed quarter sheet pan, stir together the sesame seeds and grape molasses, gradually adding water 1 tablespoon (15ml) at a time until just thinned enough not to cause the seeds to clump (about 2 to 4 tablespoons in total). Set aside.
Gently punch down risen dough, then divide into 6 equal portions and place on a lightly floured work surface. Loosely cover again with the plastic wrap or kitchen towel and let rest 15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 450°F (220°C) and line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Working with one dough portion at a time, roll and stretch dough into logs about 12 inches long (30cm), then pinch the ends together to form rings; arrange formed rings on lightly-floured work surface. Cover once more with plastic wrap or clean kitchen towels and let rest 30 minutes.
Working with one dough ring at a time and continuously holding the pinched ends together, gently stretch the ring between your palms until it forms an elongated oval ring about 8 inches (20cm) long and 5 inches (12cm) wide (measuring from the outer edges). If you struggle getting the ends to remain attached, dampen your hands and sprinkle some flour just near the attached ends as you continue to shape and stretch it.
Press each ring in the sesame mixture, turning to coat both sides, then transfer 3 rings to each baking sheet and let rest for 10 minutes.
Working with one sheet of dough rings at a time, bake until golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Transfer ka'ak to a wire rack to cool slightly. Repeat with remaining baking sheet of dough rings. Serve ka'ak warm.
Stand mixer with dough hook attachment, rimmed baking sheets
These breads are normally dipped in a simple water-and-sesame mixture, which helps the sesame seeds stick to the dough. The high temperature of traditional wood ovens then gives the breads their famous dark golden brown color. The best way to achieve this in a standard home oven is to use a mixture of water, sesame seeds, and some kind of molasses. Grape molasses is the most traditional, but if you do not have it at home, you can easily substitute it with maple syrup or honey.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The baked ka’ak al quds can be frozen in zipper-lock bags for up to 1 month; reheat in a moderate oven before eating.