Bread rings with sesame seeds and mahlab (ka’ak)

November 1, 2009  •  Category: ,


These bread rings are as ubiquitous in the Lebanese food  landscape as chips in the American one. They are dry and crisp, perfect for a little pick-me-up on the go.  If you belong to the category of people who like to crunchcrunchcrunch when eating, then this is for you! What makes them so appealing to me is the mahlab spice in them, from which spell I am not immune! While they are baking, the fragrance of mahlab wafts through the kitchen and their call is irresistible.

But what exactly is mahlab?

Mahlab is a spice that comes from the kernels inside the pits of black cherries. You can buy it whole (the grains look like coriander seeds, but lighter in color) and grind it at home, or already ground. It keeps its fragrance for a long long time, at least one year and even longer. It is very fragrant and distinct. It is used in small rolls, cookies and pastries. For example, there is a sweet roll offered in Lebanon in churches after the service which is flavored with mahlab. Personally, I find the fragrance of this spice so enticing that I am willing to forego sweetness for it. Any bread with mahlab is a sweet bread in my book!

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I have consulted two cookbooks for this; Savory Baking from the mediterranean by Anissa Helou (for the technique) and The Culinary Heritage of Lebanon by Chef Ramzi (for the ingredients)


3 1/3 cups of unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup  of olive oil

1/2 cup of milk

1/2 cup of water

2  teaspoons  of yeast

2 teaspoons of sugar

1 1/2 teaspoon of salt

1/2 teaspoon of mahlab (optional) Note below on substitutes






























  1. Place the flour and salt and mahlab in a mixing bowl. Combine the dry ingredients for a few seconds.
  2. Proof the yeast with 1/2 cup of warm water and the sugar for a few minutes.
  3. Add the oil to the flour mixture and combine well until the flour particles are moistened.
  4. Add the yeast mixture, add the warm milk, mix with the dough hook or by hand until you get a firm ball.
  5. Let it rest covered for 15 minutes. Knead again 2 minutes then let it rise in a bowl that has been covered with a thin film of oil; cover the dough with a film of oil as well. Set it in a warm place to rise for at least one hour, until doubled in size.
  6. Remove the dough from the bowl, fold it like an envelope and let it rise again, covering it with a towel.
  7. When the dough has doubled in volume, form into 20 balls. Cover with a damp towel and let them rise.
  8. Form each ball into a long rope. Cut into smaller ropes and press the ends to form a ring. Brush some egg on each ring and sprinkle sesame seeds on the rings. Cover with a wet (but squeezed dry) towel and let them rest and rise for 45 minutes.
  9. Bake in a 375F oven for about 15 minutes till golden. Then reduce the oven to 175F and let them dry out for another 30 minutes or until they sound hollow when tapped with a knife.


You can order mahlab online through a number of purveyors, including penzey’s.

Mahlab can be found in Greek stores. You can substitute one of these: ground fennel seeds, ground cardamom, or ground Chinese almonds. OR, grind one 2-inch cinnamon stick with three cloves and one bay leaf .


I wanted to make mini-breads; it is available in Lebanon in big bags. If you find them in the US, they are, more often than not, a bit stale. So, I just made one long rope and cut it with  kitchen scissors, let the mini bread rest 45 minutes, touch them up a bit with an egg wash and sprinkle some sesame seeds on them. Bake 10 minutes and dry them 30.



37 Comments  •  Comments Feed

  1. Murasaki Shikibu says:

    How delicious these look. Not sure where I can get the spice though. 🙁

    • Joumana says:

      HI Murasaki, you can bake them without the spice. The spice is available in any ethnic store, as I believe it is used by the Greeks and Turks as well.

  2. Ivy says:

    I was just about to tell you that we also use mahlab and just saw your reply to the first comment. I have not used this spice alone, only use it with a combination of other spices but the bread rings look delicious.

  3. nora@ffr says:

    Mmmm, tummies are rumbling for these! They sound addictive

  4. Arlette says:

    Marhaba Joumana

    Gorgeous kaak, and step by step details…
    Made some last month and added black sesame seeds as well, didnt have time to post it yet.

    Yummy any time..

  5. Juliana says:

    Oh! These little bread are so cute, look like small bite of bagels 🙂

  6. Angie@Angie's Recipes says:

    I am a huge fan of bread…all kinds of bread…your bagels look so lovely!

  7. diala says:

    They look delicious and beautiful!
    But i was wondering if these cookies are also called kaak zahlawi which am dying to find the recipe!!! They are soooooooo yummi, soft and taste to milk! 🙂
    Thanks in advance xxx

    • Joumana says:

      Hi diala
      These are hard and crunchy. I have a bunch of recipes for ka’ak and I will see if I can find the one you are referring to. There is one called ka’ak bel-haleeb. Is that it?

  8. diala says:

    Hi Joumana,

    I believe so, they are famous in zahlé but couldn’t find the time to catch someone to give me the recipe :o)
    And thank you so much for the effort!!
    Have a wonderful evening! Greets

  9. Afaf says:

    Hi Joumana,

    These look so tempting and since you said they are the crunchy kind, these are what i’m looking for, but can you tell me the dough ingredients of the street kaak with sesame seed and do you let the peices rise too ?
    another recepie i need is the white and brown nugate with pistachios i love these so much, i cant find fresh ones where i live ,its always hard like its been stored for decades, thank you so much for making our lives easier with the food we grew up eating , it is always my comfort food. may be another recipie you would like to tell us about is stuffed carrots my friend from tripolli wants to know it ,
    thanx so much.

  10. Nadia says:

    I bought from Dearbourn, Michigan ka’ak al Abbas, they are flat & big circles. Does anyone have the recipe for it, they are so good.I like a recipe for ka’ak bil halib too. I greatly appreciate it. Thanks

  11. Nadia says:

    Oh my god,stuffed Purple carrots. I thought about making it last year but i couldn’t find the purple ones here in Chicago. My mom used to cook it for us when we were young. I thought to use the same hashwee you use for other vegetables. If you have a special recipe i would like to have it too. Thank you

  12. Adelina says:

    My mother in law is famous for these crackers… She always saves us a batch… They are addicting and scary to have on hand. I wonder if the recipes are similar.

  13. Adelina says:

    As I am reviewing this again… are these supposed to be more on the salty side? My mom makes really good salty versions that I love and my mother in law makes the sweeter versions that I love again. It looks like your recipe is the salty one too. If so, I will see how my mom makes it and share the recipe… but I think hers is basic too. She makes them looking like sticks instead of round. I got confused since my mother in law’s sweet version is round just like your picture here. I am rambling too much… I will find out.

  14. Bill says:

    My Aunt had a wonderful recipe for Ka’ak that did not use milk, only olive oil, flour, sugar, and yeast. I see some recipes on the net that use baking powder, and eggs as well. They really do not look authentic.

  15. Mary Kourieh says:

    Thank you so much for the delicious recipes!
    Just a quick question please. Do you use fresh milk or powder milk for this recipe?

  16. Jo says:

    Can bagels with sesame seeds be used as a substitute for ka’ak? I have to so a social studies project with my friend and I am worried about the ingredients and the time.

  17. Angie says:

    I am looking for the recipe for the soft Kaak often served with cheese after funerals. Does anyone have that recipe? Thanks.

  18. Davemx says:

    I wanted to try this recipe since I first read this post some years ago, but I couldn’t find mahlab here in Mexico, even with Lebanese vendors. They as well as the Syrian Jews established here, sell delicious versions of this type of Ka’ak, often flavored with thyme or za’atar, but I’d never tried with any with mahlab.
    I finally found it at an Irainian owned market in San Diego. The owner made it clear it was an Arab spice, that they didn’t use it and he didn’t know what it tasted like, but I didn’t hesitate and bought a small jar.
    I made a first batch some weeks ago and yes, they’re addictive and deliciously different thanks to mahlab, which gives them a subtle, almond-like flavor.
    I made a second batch today, substituting the milk with yoghurt whey I had left in the fridge, then sprinkled some with za’atar and the rest with sesame seeds.
    They came out incredibly good!
    Give it a try if you can’t eat milk or want some more fermented/umami flavor in them.

  19. Tina says:

    When I was a child in Brooklyn there was a Lebanese bake shop where we would get Zahtar Bread for my Mom and Simpson Rings every weekend. The Simpson Rings were a long never ending ring in a spiral. The bread was not fluffy at all. it was delicious we would eat all of it by the time we drove home. I have been looking for it for years and I can’t seem to find a recipe for it either. Has anyone ever had it or know where I can find it? These look like fluffy bread and I do not remember it being fluffy it was almost as if they used the pita bread dough. Any info would be greatly appreciated.

    • Joumana says:

      @Tina: I am wondering if these were not what is called in lebanese semsum rings, as in sesame seeds coated rings? sounds like a very traditional and popular cookie that was kept in a tin box in most households to offer guests. There are many many recipes for these, and I can include one post I published years ago
      I have since done others, with grape molasses in lieu of sugar, also found on this blog

  20. Jessy says:

    Hi Joumana! Thank you for all the wonderful recipes!
    I wanted to ask you if we can freeze the Kaak or the dough?

    Thank you!

    • Joumana says:

      @Jessy: Definitely! I would freeze the dough, and bake them as needed. If freezing the dough, no need to let it rise all the way, just let it rise partially, say half the time. When ready to bake them, let it come back to room temp, set it near a source of heat and let it rise all the way then.

  21. ME says:

    Fantastic recipe. I’ve made it a dozen times now and each time the results are faboulas. Very exact measures. My family baggs me to make more each time we start to run low. Not having Mahlab I use ground anise seeds or cardmom and the tadte is great. I did rduce the sugar to 1/2 tsp and increased the salt to 2 tsp, as we all prefer it more salty. Thank you!

  22. Jessy says:

    Hi Joumana!!
    I have been looking for this recipe thank you! One question though…I made the dough and it’s rising now but need to step out for the night…can I let the dough rise for longer than the time you require?

    Thank you 😊!!

  23. David Asarnow says:

    are the flour/liquid proportions correct?

  24. Lara says:

    Hi Joumana!
    Thanks for the recipe.
    Can tou substitute the milk with a non dairy milk? Or maybe add more water instead?

    • JOUMANA ACCAD says:

      @Lara Hello Lara, yes, of course, you can make them with only water or experiment with a non dairy milk. This is a basic recipe and there are lots of possible variations.

  25. Christina says:

    Hi Joumana, can we substitute the milk in this recipe for anything else for dairy intolerance? I can’t believe I finally found the recipe, been looking for an authentic one for a while but I can’t use milk. Thank you for your advice 🙂

    • Joumana Accad says:

      @Christina I am guessing that you can easily switch to any other milk such as almond milk, rice milk or oat milk or just use plain water. After all, these are simply a version of bread, and most bread is just made with flour, yeast and water. The milk is only there to add richness of taste.

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