Lemon-Tahini Cookies

Last winter I had the good fortune of spending a week traversing the cities, deserts, ports, and verdant fields of Israel in the company of 20-plus fellow food-obsessed chefs and food writers; culinary heavyweights Jonathan Waxman, Ruth Reichl, Jenn Louis, Nancy Silverton, and Marc Murphy were among them. We were on a spiritual pilgrimage of a new kind: to uncover and understand what is arguably the most complex convergence of food cultures in the world. Together we visited farms, home and restaurant kitchens, morning markets, wineries, food incubators, renowned dining rooms, and late-night food stalls. We were eager to taste and to learn how a land so fraught by ages of conflict (yet still so new in its independent history) can preserve its ancient foodways with such passion and purpose.We were a ravenous bunch, consuming, questioning, and squealing with glee at every flavorful find. In fact, our discoveries felt so plentiful that after a while I lost count, even with the pages of notes and flurry of photos I took each day. Despite our feeding frenzy, there were several distinct moments of clarity and revelation, when I tasted something so utterly satisfying that it is now and forever burned into my sense memory. One such instance took place at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, known to the locals as Shuk HaCarmel. We spent the morning guided through stalls and stands by author Adeena Sussman, whose new Israeli cookbook Sababa was inspired by the vendors and foods of the market. Toward the end of the tour we stopped at a beautiful display of molds for halvah, the dense sweet that in the Middle East is often made of pressed sesame paste (tahini) and sugar then swirled or sprinkled with anything from dark chocolate to nuts to rose oil. The shopkeeper placed a piece of his favorite in my hand, and as soon as it dissolved in my mouth I knew it would be my favorite, too.Bright, tart lemon zest (not juice) added the most fragrant, floral note to the otherwise dense, earthy dessert. Dark, just-bitter cacao nibs balanced out what otherwise would have been a cloying sweetness. It was a skillful combination, one I knew I needed to bring back to my kitchen.Of course I bought a large slab and have been nibbling on it ever since (Pro tip: Halvah will keep, well wrapped, in a cool, dark spot in your pantry for over a year!). In addition, the trinity of lemon zest, tahini, and cacao nibs has been making its way into my sweets and baking repertoire ever since, from morning pancakes to the perfect ice cream topping—and these unassuming, irresistible Lemon-Tahini Cookies. They may just be the ideal holiday gift for everyone on your list this year, no matter your culture or creed. After all, deliciousness knows no bounds.

Lemon-Tahini Cookies Recipe
Photo: Gregory DuPree
Active Time:
30 mins
Total Time:
2 hrs 30 mins
30 cookies


  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter (6 ounces), softened

  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar

  • 1/2 cup well-stirred smooth tahini

  • 1 large egg

  • 3 tablespoons lemon zest plus 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (about 8 1/2 ounces)

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1/2 cup cacao nibs (optional)

  • 1/3 cup black sesame seeds

  • 1/3 cup white sesame seeds


  1. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Beat butter, sugar, and tahini in a medium bowl with a hand mixer on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add egg, lemon zest and juice, and vanilla; beat until combined, about 1 minute, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. With mixer running on low speed, gradually add flour and salt; beat until dough comes together. If using, fold in cacao nibs until combined.

  2. Divide dough in half; place each half on a large piece of plastic wrap. Fold plastic wrap over to cover dough, and, using your hands, roll each into a smooth log 1 inch in diameter. Refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour and 30 minutes or up to 8 hours.

  3. Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine sesame seeds on a small sheet pan or flat plate. Remove dough logs from plastic wrap, and roll in sesame seeds, pressing firmly so seeds adhere evenly. Slice dough logs into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Place 1 inch apart on prepared baking sheets.

  4. Bake cookies in preheated oven until golden around edges, 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool on baking sheets 5 minutes; transfer to a wire rack, and let cool completely, about 15 minutes. Store in an airtight container at room temperature up to 5 days.

Make Ahead

Dough can be made and frozen up to 3 weeks ahead. Let thaw 30 minutes before rolling in sesame seeds.

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