I have a slight obsession with Middle Eastern food right now, and with good reason. It is a style of eating that is absolutely jam packed with big bold flavours and flavour combinations that are mind-blowing.
One of my most used books is the beautiful Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Ever since I baked the Chocolate Krantz Cake barely a week has gone by when I haven’t pulled this book off my kitchen bookshelf and cooked/adapted a recipe from it. It is a beautiful book indeed filled to the brim with recipes to excite the senses and make the mouth water, stunning photography, snippets of the life and culture of Israel and enchanting stories as Ottolenghi and Tamimi explore the flavours of their childhood.
“The flavours and smells of this city [Jerusalem] are our mother tongue: wild herbs picked on school trips, days in markets, the smell of the dry soil on a summer’s day, goats and sheep roaming the hills, fresh pitas, chopped parsley, chopped liver, black figs, syrupy cakes, crumbly cookies” Ottolenghi & Tamimi.
Ma’amul (or Ma’amoul) the end of Ramadan (Eid al-Fitr) speciality, are probably the mot popular of the Arab cookies, and there are many, many of them.
Ma’amul are crumbly shortbread style biscuits made with semolina and/or flour which are stuffed with nuts or dates and daintily decorated either by use of intricate moulds or by hand painstakingly with tweezers.
According to the book Sami Tamimi clearly remembers a lady whom the children used to refer to as “auntie” who used to visit all the houses in his neighbourhood towards the end of Ramadan to help the housewives make these cookies. The women of the extended family used to work together in groups, gathered around ‘auntie’, chatting whilst making vast quantities of ma’amul to make sure that there were always cookies on hand for passing guests and some for the poor, or those who couldn’t afford to make their own. He also remembers that there would be platters of cookies piled high everywhere, “white with fresh icing sugar, like little snowballs” (Sami Tamimi).
As I’m sure you’ll know I have neither the skill or the patience to start decorating by hand so I bought a nice decorative mould from the Aladdin's cave that is Persepolis. Now, I’ve only shopped online at Persepolis, but if you’re local to Peckham I’d advise you pop in to Sally’s shop as I hear it is an amazing place, plus they also have a small cafe with a divine sounding menu, be aware the menu changes frequently.
Traditionally for ma’amul the date variety is round and flat whilst the nut one is high and domed. According to Ottolenghi & Tamimi this recipe lacks the dainty finish of the traditional version, but they do have the typical short and dry casing with moist and nutty centre and floral aroma. Unusually they mix together the nuts and dates but with great success.
Despite this version being fairy quick and easy to make they taste incredibly special, but then again how could anything heady with rose water, orange blossom and cinnamon not do?
They could, with a little imagination, be likened to the trusty British fig roll; albeit a much fancier more exotic version.
I like to serve my ma’amul with either cardamom tea or strong, black Turkish coffee as an light mid afternoon snack but these beautiful cookies are perfect for any occasion.