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.
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.
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?
(from Almond Bar: 100 Delicious Syrian Recipes by Sharon Salloum)
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
100 grams pitted dates
Note: here is a recipe for ma’amoul with pistachio and walnut filling
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.