No eggs and no butter, but lots of spice and flavour and a soft and chewy texture. Maltese Kwareżimal are an almost guilt-free pleasure that tastes so good, that I ask myself why I didn’t bake them earlier.
This ancient treat dates back to the medieval times, when the Knights in the Mediterranean traditionally baked Kwareżimal during Lent. The little dark brown loaves are made without dairy products, just ground almonds (or hazelnuts in my recipe), spices, and honey create a beautifully fragrant cakey sweet. Sugar was allowed, as it was seen as a spice in those days. It’s not a healthy bar after all.
The name derives from the Latin word quaresima, the 40 days of the Lenten season. Although you can find Kwareżimal in some confectionaries on the Maltese islands throughout the whole year, my favourite bakery for sweet treats, Busy Bee, only pulls them out of the oven as Easter is nearing. The problem was that I have never been to Malta around this time, so I had no idea how good Kwareżimal tastes. I knew that I wanted to try them at Busy Bee first and thanks to Jessica and Luke this day has finally come. Our friends visited us a couple weeks ago and gave me – besides many other goods – this plain looking miniature cake as a present. It only took me 12 years to have my first bite of Kwareżimal and it was pure enjoyment. I didn’t share a piece with anyone.
So I finally knew what I was aiming for, I felt ready to give it a go. My Kwareżimal are made with ground hazelnuts, as my Maltese man doesn’t like almonds, but feel free to use whatever nut you prefer. I mixed in some white spelt flour (plain flour woks just as well) to lighten up the texture. But don’t worry, it’s still as soft and chewy as it should be thanks to the juice of half an orange.
The texture is divine, almost moist, it reminds a bit of rough marzipan. And it tastes so rich, nutty, and citrusy, with strong tones of rather Christmassy spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, citrus zest, and flowery orange blossom water. I went for a crunchy pistachio topping, bedded on sticky honey running down the sites of my little Kwareżimal. You can also chop almonds or hazelnuts. When you buy this sweet from a shop, you get a single bar, not more than 12cm / 5″ long, that was my measure. To serve, I cut it in thick slices – it’s a bit like a cookie with a chewy feel.
Makes 2 small bars (serves 2-4)
finely ground hazelnuts (or almonds) 120g / 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons
plain flour (I used white spelt flour / type 630) 100g / 3/4 cup
granulated sugar 100g / 1/2 cup
cocoa powder 1 teaspoon
baking powder 1/8 teaspoon
fine sea salt 1/8 teaspoon
ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon
freshly grated nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon
cloves, finely ground in a mortar, 1/2 teaspoon
vanilla bean, scraped, 1/4
freshly grated orange zest 2 generous teaspoons
freshly grated lemon zest 2 generous teaspoons
freshly squeezed orange juice 60ml / 1/4 cup
honey 1 tablespoon
high quality orange blossom water (preferably organic) 2 tablespoons
candied orange peel, finely chopped, 1 tablespoon
For the topping
honey 2 tablespoons
freshly squeezed orange juice 1 teaspoon
shelled unsalted pistachios, roughly chopped, a small handful
freshly grated orange zest 1/2 – 1 teaspoon
Preheat the oven to 180°C / 350°F (preferably convection setting) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk together the ground hazelnuts, flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla seeds, orange zest, and lemon zest.
In a small saucepan, heat the orange juice and honey over low heat and whisk until the honey has melted. Take off the heat and whisk in the orange blossom water. Let it cool for a couple minutes, then stir into the dry mixture. Add the candied orange peel and stir until well combined. The dough will be soft, but you should be able to form a bar; if it’s too soft, add a little more ground hazelnuts.
Wet your hands lightly, divide the dough in half, and form 2 bars, about 5cm / 2″ wide and 2cm / 3/4″ tall. Mind that they aren’t too flat or they will dry out in the oven. Bake for about 15 minutes, the top of the loaves should still be soft and just slightly baked.
While the Kwareżimal are baking, prepare the topping: in a small saucepan, heat the honey and orange juice over medium heat and whisk until combined. Take the pan off the heat.
Brush the warm Kwareżimal with the warm honey and sprinkle with the pistachios and a little orange zest. To serve, cut into thick slices. Wrapped in cling film, it stays fresh for days.