Baobab & Rosewater Christmas Cookies

The baobab tree, with its ancient skin and root-like limbs, levitates above our landscape. To me it’s the n’anga of trees. The magical medicine man. The traditional healer.

In the Kalahari Desert I used to work near Chapman’s Baobab, which is said to be the third largest tree in Africa. Its time-worn canopy not only provided shelter for 19th century explorers like David Livingstone, its 25-meter-round trunk was used as a post office and depot for traders and travelers moving in and out of the interior.

The baobab is sacrosanct to the people of the Savannah. It is treasured for its longevity and its ability to survive long periods without water. The tree is also prized for its usefulness: its hollowed trunk is used for shelter and a sacred burial chamber; its fibrous bark used for cords, cloth and fishnets; its leaves eaten as a vegetable relish; its seeds a source for vegetable oil.

Chapman's baobab in the Kalahari desert.
Chapman’s baobab in the Kalahari desert.

And then there’s the baobab fruit. Contained in a velvet-skinned pod the size of a lady’s clutch bag, powder-dusted seeds are held together like pieces of a puzzle in a netting of coral pink fibre. The fruit’s fragrant powder has the texture of sherbet and is tart, like a lemon. I recently read that it has six times the amount of antioxidants found in blueberries, six times the amount of Vitamin C in an orange, and six times the amount of potassium in a banana. Its status as a “super fruit” has grown in recent years, especially in Europe after it was approved as a food ingredient in 2008, and then in the United States the following year.

It’s long been thought that baobab fruit powder is cream of tartar. It is, in fact, a substitute for cream of tartar, which is a by-product of wine-making.

The guts of the baobab fruit.
The bounty of the baobab fruit.

I’ve been longing to experiment with baobab fruit, and have waited all year to harvest from a tree growing near the turn-off to our farm. Harvesting them is no easy feat. The tree is huge, and most of the low-hanging fruit have already been eaten by elephants. Still, Adelina, through her network of helpers, brought me seven ripe fruit the other morning, and shortly after, our R&D department (recipe development) got to work.

Crushing the baobab fruit for its powder.
Crushing the baobab fruit for its powder.

Traditionally, baobab fruit powder hasn’t really been used in anything other than drinks or porridge. But right from the start I had in mind to bake with the fruit powder: petit fours, a cake, cookies, a cream pie with a pecan nut crust. I also planned to use it together with rosewater, a gift from a friend, because I felt sure the rosewater’s fragrance and flavor would offset the baobab fruit’s jarring acidity.

While perusing ideas on the internet, an email from Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks dropped into my inbox with a recipe for Rosewater Shortbread. I saw this as a sign, and looked no further. I adapted Heidi’s Rosewater Shortbread recipe, adding the baobab powder, and replacing the pecan nuts with pistachio nuts. I don’t grow roses here, so I was unable to add any dried rose petals to the dough. Instead I increased the amount of rosewater, but wished I’d had the petals. They would have added much-needed Christmas color to the cookies. As it was, I had to settle with using fresh violet-colored borage flowers as a garnish instead.

The cookies, just before baking.
The cookies, just before baking.

*Note  my recipe below includes dried rose petals because, having subsequently made the cookies with them, I concluded they are a much-needed ingredient.

Baobab & Rosewater Christmas Cookies

Yield: Between 20-30 cookies, depending on the shape and size.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup stoneground wholewheat flour
  • 1 cup household flour
  • 1/4 cup baobab fruit powder
  • 1/2 cup pistachio nuts, roughly chopped and dry-roasted
  • 1/4 cup dried rose petals + 1 tablespoon for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds + 1 tablespoon for garnish
  • 1/2 pound/ 250g butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons rosewater
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar for garnish

 

Pod to Plate.
Pod to plate.

 Method:

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the wholewheat flour, household flour, baobab powder, pistachio nuts, rose petals, and sesame seeds. Set aside.
  2. In a separate bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, salt and rosewater until pale and smooth.
  3. Add the flour mixture, and gently combine until it turns into the consistency of dough. Scrape the dough into a ball in the bowl — it will feel a little sticky to the touch but should be manageable — and then flatten it with the back of your mixing spoon. Remove from the bowl into an airtight container, or cling wrap. Refrigerate for a couple of hours, or leave overnight (I chose the latter.)
  4. Preheat the oven to 180/350 degrees, and line your baking trays (I used a silplat brushed with a little vegetable oil).
  5. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Dust a surface with a sprinkling of wholewheat flour, roll out the dough to your desired thickness, and cut into shapes. Collect up the leftover scraps of dough, shape into a patty, and roll out again until it’s all used up.
  6. Combine the sesame seeds and granulated sugar, and then sprinkle on top of each cookie.
  7. Chill the cookies one last time in the freezer for 10 minutes.
  8. Bake on the middle tray in the oven until golden, about 12 minutes. (The edges will color first, so watch them carefully.)
  9. Remove from the oven, transfer to a baking rack, and cool completely.

 

Baobab & Rose Water Cookies.
Baobab & Rosewater Christmas Cookies.

Postscript:

On our recent holiday in Australia, I not only bought some dried rose petals, but also a cookie cutter in the shape of an elephant. I made another batch of cookies a couple of weeks ago, and wanted to share a photograph of the result. My original thought that the cookies would look and taste better with rose petals was correct.
March 31, 2015.

Baobab & Rosewater Elephant Cookies.
Baobab & Rosewater Elephant Cookies: a recipe later republished in the U.K. Guardian’s Witness section.

Annabel Hughes Aston is a writer and an award-winning chef in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of "bush gourmet" cuisine.

24 Comments

  • Annabel,
    I love the fact that you creatively came up with another use for the Baobab fruit. I look forward to baking those cookies especially since I recently discovered the joys of using the Silplat. I also enjoyed reading the background information, I had no idea that the Baobab powder can be used as a substitute for the cream of tartar.
    Thanks,
    Mundia

    Reply
    • Thank you for your kind comment, Mundia. Coming from a Zambian living away from home, it makes me happy knowing you plan to use my recipes from time to time. I love, love, love working with wild food. Hopefully there will be many more baobab recipes in time. All the best to you … and happy holidays! Annabel

      Reply
      • Happy Holidays to you too Annabel. I look forward to trying those cookies, I am certain I will find some baobab powder either in a West African or Caribbean store.

        Reply
        • Thank you, Mundia … and you should be able to find dried rose petals, too. Lucky you! They will make a difference in presentation and flavor, so try and include them. Best of luck!

          Reply
  • I’ve learnt another new thing from you 🙂 From when we used to suck baobab fruit as children, (because it tasted like sherbet), I always assumed it WAS cream of tartar. What is sherbet made of?
    Beautiful photos again Bella, and yummy looking cookies! xox

    Reply
    • Thank you for your interest, Bridgey, and your kind comment. Chris also thought baobab fruit powder was cream of tartar, so it must have been a Karoi thing! 🙂 Sherbet, according to Wikipedia, is “a fizzy powder containing sugar and flavouring, and an edible acid and base. The acid may be tartaric, citric or malic acid, and the base may be sodium bicarbonate, sodium carbonate, magnesium carbonate, or a mixture of these and/or other similar carbonates. …”

      Reply
  • Wonderful post Annabel, you are so creative! I hope you have a beautiful Christmas holiday. I hope to come see you someday, I’m fascinated by your new life!

    Love,
    Sandi

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Reply
    • Thank you so much, Sandi! Lovely to hear from you, and I hope you also have a terrific holiday season. We look forward to your visit! Lots of love to you … Annabel xo

      Reply
  • Does this mean you can substitute baobab powder for cream of tartar? I also thought they were one and the same…

    Reply
    • You sure can, Stuart … but they are not the same.

      Reply
  • I also thought that it was the real Cream of Tartar….. and now I learn it is a by product of wine…. now there is a thing! Delicious looking biscuits and so pretty with the borage flowers – much better than roses from your part of the world…. Another lovely post Annabel xx

    Reply
    • Thank you, Louise! I am beginning to think that Zimbabweans who grew up under restrictions during the civil war were told baobab powder was cream of tartar. It is a substitute, to be sure, but as far as I know, it isn’t the real thing.

      Reply
  • Hi Annabel – a query – love the idea but what did they taste like?

    Reply
    • Georgie, according to Chris the initial sensation was of shortbread … followed by a sweet tartness redolent of baobab fruit … with undertones of rose and pistachio, the latter of which added a textural surprise. 🙂 There you have it, in a rather large nutshell! Haha … !

      Reply
  • What a magnificent fruit! And tree! Oh, and the cookies look grand.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Michelle. It IS a magnificent tree … and the fruit, it appears, is very versatile. The R&D continues!

      Reply
  • Baobab powder is readily available in shops in Zimbabwe these days. A very high quality, organic certified powder is available in SA from Eco Products. Owner, Sarah Venter, did her .phD on baobab morphology and sustainable use…check out her website for more amazing baobab recipes!

    Reply
    • Okay! I look forward to reading up all about Sarah and her recipes … and about the baobab powder! We extract it by hand here, a far slower but quite therapeutic exercise in the pestle and mortar! Thanks for stopping by my blog, Vanessa. All the best to you … Annabel

      Reply
  • […] Baobab & Rosewater Elephant Cookies. […]

    Reply
  • […] I forage from the wild are also much loved by elephants: mongongo nuts, marulas, wild sourplums, baobab and muchingachinga fruit. I’ll be developing more and more recipes with these wild edibles as […]

    Reply
  • Dear Annabel, thank you so much for the post. My husband and I, we are trying to get more information about the baobab fruit. We don’t live in Africa, but in Brazil, in a city called Recife which, surprisingly, has many baobab trees. There is no baobab powder for sale though… If you don’t mind would you please explain in more details how you make the powder from the fruit? You crush the fruit as soon as you open it? Or is it necessary to let it dry? Do you crush the seeds too? They are pretty hard. Well, many thanks in advance for any info you may give. And congratulations for the blog! Luciana

    Reply
    • Hi Luciana … thank you for your interest in my blogpost. The baobab fruit, if you open it when dry, has a pale pink powder coating all the seeds, as you can see in the photograph. We transfer all the seeds from the pod into a pestle and mortar and break away the powder that surrounds them. It’s very simple! I hope this helps you. All the best to you, Annabel

      Reply
  • Dear Annabel, thank you very much for your answer. We have one dry fruit here. I can wait to try!
    All the best
    Luciana

    Reply

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