Making ma’amoul, a Syrian recipe for semolina and date cookies

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Do you have a Christmas tradition (or traditions for other religious or secular holidays)? Would you like to have celebrations that involve little crumbly, buttery semolina cookies filled with date butter, or sugared walnuts or pistachios, and scented with orange blossom water?

Yep, me too.

We made ma’amoul (also spelled mamool, mamoul or maamoul) in a cooking class in the Almond Bar, Sydney. I had heard about these cookies being made for Easter celebrations in Lebanon, and remembered eating them in Syria. Chef Sharon Salloum (whose family is from Syria) said her mum made lots of these cookies for Christmas too – I guess these are celebratory kinda cookies. Once you’ve had one, you’d be looking for more reasons to celebrate too.

The recipe we used comes from the new Almond Bar cookbook. The pastry starts with a mix of semolina, ghee (clarified butter) and sugar, rested, then kneaded with orange blossom water, milk, mahlab and yeast. Then, balls of dough are wrapped around balls of date filling, shaped in a specially made wooden mould, and baked until light brown. Other common fillings are walnuts, or pistachios, chopped finely and mixed with sugar. Be still my beating heart.

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The resulting cookies are melt-on-the-tongue soft, yet crumbly. After the richness of the ghee, comes the fragrance of orange blossom water and the hint of something from the mahlab. Then, the more intense hit of fruity sweetness from the date filling. Then, it’s gone and you find yourself reaching for another one.

This is quite easy, but it takes some time and a degree of trust that the impossibly crumbly semolina dough is meant to be like that. This dough is barely held together with ghee and milk. Kneading seems to make it a little bit more manageable, but it still threatened to crumble when I was wrapping it around the filling. A practised ma’amoul maker can produce cookies with more filling, thinner pastry, and still avoid having the filling burst out of the pastry. Mine had a higher pastry-to-filling ratio, but they were still delicious.

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A few notes on the ingredients and tools:

Semolina: I think we used fine semolina in the pastry. I’ve also seen recipes that use different proportions of coarse and fine semolina for different levels of graininess.

Ghee: you can buy ghee from good supermarkets or specialist Indian or middle eastern grocers. You can also make your own by slowly melting butter, and separating the white bits from the clear liquid bit. The clear liquid bit is ghee (the white bits are butterfat, they produce the brown colour and smell of browned butter). I’ve seen recipes that use butter, too.

Mahlab (mahlepi): Ground cherry stones, from a particular species of sour cherry tree. It adds a touch of sweetness and something else (and made me think of the French clafoutis which was traditionally made with whole cherries, stones and all). I don’t know of substitutes, but other maamoul recipes ask for a splash of rosewater, or orange blossom water, or even more exotic things like mastic or acacia incense (!). 

Mould: We each got a ma’amoul mould as part of the cooking class (see photo above). I’m pretty excited about this mould – pretty, seems to be handmade, and looks like the real deal. I’m also thinking it could become a Chinese mooncake mould, a multi-taking kitchen gadget!  

While we laboured over our ma’amouls, Sharon Salloum jokingly asked if anyone wanted to help her mum make these cookies at Christmas, so she and her sister could have a break. A few hands went up. Sharon, I’m up for ma’amoul and the rest of your Christmas cooking too!

At the end of the class, we couldn’t resist buying jars of seasoned almonds – my favourite part of any visit to Almond Bar. This time, I chose a mixture of cinnamon almonds, and sweet chilli and sesame almonds – the latter unusual, but so, very, addictively good. I wonder if I can recreate it at home?

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Ma’amoul

(from Almond Bar: 100 Delicious Syrian Recipes by Sharon Salloum)

Ingredients

Pastry
220 grams fine semolina
85 grams ghee
1 tsp white sugar
1/2 tsp mahlab
1/2 tsp dried yeast
1 tbsp orange blossom water
2 tbsp milk

Filling
100 grams pitted dates

Note: here is a recipe for ma’amoul with pistachio and walnut filling

Method

1. For pastry: Place semolina, ghee and sugar in a bowl, rub together with fingertips until the mixture is clumpy and crumbly (you could probably do this in a food processor, or with a pastry cutter). Cover and let rest for an hour.

2. Add mahlab, yeast, orange blossom water and milk. With one hand, mix together to form a dough (you could probably do this in a food processor too). Really knead the dough for a bit, it should be just pliable, but still with a hint of crumbliness. Cover and leave for at least 30 minutes (Sharon said they let the dough rest for up to 6 hours, which apparently results in a crumblier pastry).

3. For filling: roughly chop the pitted dates. Place in a small saucepan with a tablespoon of water. Cook down a bit and mash with a fork into a thick paste (or puree in a food processor). Let cool and shape into little balls of about one tsp each.

4. For cookies: Pre-heat the oven to 200C / 390F (fan forced).

5. Take 2 tbsp of semolina dough, shape it into a ball using the palms and balls of your hands. Make a hole in the centre so the dough now looks like a bowl, place one ball of date filling in the hole. Seal the hole by wrapping the dough completely around the filling.

6. Flatten the ball slightly, and press it firmly into a mould and spread it to fill the mould. (Or push it into a well greased mini muffin pan or mini tart case.) Tap the mould lightly on the bench, with either a tea towel or your hand underneath to catch the ma’amoul as they fall out of the mould. Set to one side and repeat.

7. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until lightly brown. If using a fan forced oven, the raised pattern on the moulded ma’amoul will brown a bit more than the rest of the pastry.

8. Optional: sprinkle with icing sugar when the cookies come out of the oven. Serve, warm or cool.

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34 thoughts on “Making ma’amoul, a Syrian recipe for semolina and date cookies

  1. Darya 13 October 2013 at 11:49 pm Reply

    Wow, those are perfect-looking maamoul! How lucky to have been able to take that class, and getting the lovely maamoul mould as a bonus! I love the specific taste of mahlab, it is reminiscent of the cherry stones in clafoutis! If I didn’t have it on hand, I would probably use a little almond extract as a substitute.

    • saucygander 14 October 2013 at 8:31 am Reply

      Yes, I was immediately reminded of clafoutis! And thanks for the tip about using almond extract as substitute.

      I didn’t realise we’d get to keep the maamoul mould so it was such a good surprise! 🙂

  2. leggypeggy 14 October 2013 at 8:01 am Reply

    This is perfect. I have lots of mahlab in the cupboard. Thanks.

    • saucygander 14 October 2013 at 8:33 am Reply

      Lucky you to have mahlab in your cupboard! I will have to find the nearest middle eastern grocery store, otherwise mahlab costs a small fortune in specialist baking stores. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Gather and Graze 14 October 2013 at 8:23 am Reply

    What gorgeous looking cookies! Love that they’re shaped in that fabulous mould. Must have been a fun and interesting class to attend!

    • saucygander 14 October 2013 at 8:35 am Reply

      The class was a really good one, very hands on. We also made an amazing salad with Syrian country cheese and seven spice mix, and a baked dish of kefte. We had a really good dinner on Saturday night with the food! 😀

  4. Cucina Amore 14 October 2013 at 10:24 am Reply

    oh wow! these look great, better yet i’m sure they taste great. will try to get my hands on a mould.

    • saucygander 14 October 2013 at 11:21 pm Reply

      They were very tasty! Even if you can’t find a mould, I think they would still be great made in mini muffin tins. 🙂

  5. laurasmess 14 October 2013 at 10:30 am Reply

    These look ridiculously good. I read about these biscuits online a few months ago and started dreaming about trying one. Still unsuccessful on that count… but now I can make my own! Woooop. Love that biscuit mould. So pretty.

    • saucygander 14 October 2013 at 11:25 pm Reply

      I’ve been reading about them for a while too! It was fun making these with Sharon’s mum watching over us, as I knew I couldn’t go wrong under her guidance. The mould just made the whole thing better! They are definitely worth trying, either from a middle eastern bakery or at home. Now I want to make some with a pistachio filling, the bright green would be so pretty!

  6. Johnnysenough Hepburn 14 October 2013 at 11:27 am Reply

    Really curious about this mahlab as I’ve been looking for sour cherries for my polenta bread, with no luck. Will have to have a look at the International store on Tuesday when I’m up that way. And orange blossom water, too 🙂

    • saucygander 14 October 2013 at 11:28 pm Reply

      Sour cherries in polenta bread sound really good. It is one of those ingredients I hear about, but don’t find good varieties of. Maybe I should move to Iran for a while and eat my fill of those cherries.

      Maybe you could also use some orange blossom water in the polenta bread? Or is that too ‘out there’?

      • Johnnysenough Hepburn 15 October 2013 at 12:10 am

        Orange blossom water might be too sweet for the bread, which is why I’d hoped to sour it slightly. It’s already close to a cake like crumb. Black olives and orange blossom water? Anyone?!

  7. Liz 14 October 2013 at 2:50 pm Reply

    ooo ooo ooo!!!! This is what I mean when I say you are Ambitious in the kitchen! (even if it’s not your own this time) Those look lovely–like they would fall apart and crumble at the first bite. Will you please bring those when we have that cocktail party? 😉

    • saucygander 14 October 2013 at 11:31 pm Reply

      The cookies do crumble – but in a ghee-rich kinda way and only to reveal the date filling – so it’s all good. Definitely will bring some to our cocktail party!! 😀

      • Liz 14 October 2013 at 11:37 pm

        Oh, I meant the “crumble” in a “melt in your mouth” swoony kind of way!

  8. Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella 14 October 2013 at 9:31 pm Reply

    What gorgeous mouthfuls of cookie! I love Middle Eastern sweets 😀

    • saucygander 14 October 2013 at 11:32 pm Reply

      These cookies have me wanting to go to Granville or Lakemba four the real thing! Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Marios 15 October 2013 at 11:11 am Reply

    I love these. I’ve been meaning to make the recipe for them from Jerusalem: The Cookbook, but I haven’t gotten around to it. You’ve inspired me to make them.

    • saucygander 22 October 2013 at 6:02 pm Reply

      Great to hear! these cookies take a bit of time but are well worth the effort. Hope the recipe turns out well if you do make it!

  10. Jody and Ken 15 October 2013 at 1:46 pm Reply

    One week it’s tonka beans (illegal in the US), the next it’s mahlab–have you no mercy? 🙂 These are great cookies–I used to buy them from a Middle Eastern bakery in my old neighborhood. Really lovely. Ken

    • saucygander 22 October 2013 at 6:00 pm Reply

      I didn’t know tonka beans are illegal in the US? These cookies were delicious, and now I want to try to make other middle eastern pastries too – more mahlab no doubt! 😉

      • Jody and Ken 22 October 2013 at 9:30 pm

        Tonka beans contain coumarin, a chemical compound related to coumadin, a blood thinner. They were banned in the mistaken belief that coumarin was also an anti-clotting agent–it’s not. People do use tonka beans, but if you make too much of deal about you risk running afoul of the Food and Drug Administration, which WILL show up at your door. Ken

  11. Anne ~ Uni Homemaker 15 October 2013 at 6:53 pm Reply

    These look yummy! I love the mold, really makes the cookie extra special. Delish!

  12. nadel&gabel 16 October 2013 at 4:18 pm Reply

    Oh, these look so good! And I am so jealous about this beautiful mould!

  13. Sarah | The Sugar Hit 16 October 2013 at 11:55 pm Reply

    WOW – these look amazing. Perfect with a black coffee, I bet. Or a mint tea maybe?

    • saucygander 22 October 2013 at 5:58 pm Reply

      Yes to both coffee and mint tea! I found myself nibbling on them before dinner too, oops! 🙂

  14. yummychunklet 17 October 2013 at 9:53 am Reply

    I love the pattern! So pretty!

  15. lovinghomemade 20 October 2013 at 7:22 pm Reply

    Have never heard of these – what an amazing recipe, they sound really good. Love the mould you get to use too!

    • saucygander 22 October 2013 at 5:57 pm Reply

      These are unusual cookies, and I was wondering what they would taste like, and we loved them! Even without the mould, it would be worth trying for the flavours and textures.
      Thanks for the visit!

  16. garethhevans 21 October 2013 at 9:46 pm Reply

    Perfect.

  17. Habiba 21 October 2013 at 10:26 pm Reply

    My mother’s favourite! Pinned this to make for her next time I visit her 🙂

    • saucygander 22 October 2013 at 5:53 pm Reply

      That’s great to hear, I hope the recipe turns out well when you make them for your mother! 🙂

  18. confusedbawarchis 18 March 2014 at 4:52 am Reply

    Those are some beautiful cookies! Haven’t heard of or used mahlab before but this sure looks like a very interesting and different recipe. Love the mould too.

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