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A plate of Mahmoul showing the fillings inside

How a cake or a biscuit or a loaf looks is important to me. Maybe not as important as how it tastes, but almost. So if I see a recipe that requires a special mould or tin or contraption to make it I find it very hard to resist the temptation to rush out and buy it. This is all too clear from my collection of madeleine and friand trays, biscuit and moon cake presses, and tins for bundts, pandoro, angel cake, milk loaf, and more. At present I am trying very hard not to buy a set of copper cannelé moulds. I might succeed. I might not. Watch this space.

Anyway, when I saw David Lebovitz’s post about the glorious pastries on offer at Al Bohsali in Lebanon, I knew I just had to buy a Maamoul mould. That, as it turned out, was quite a challenge in the UK. Using the thing was quite a challenge too. But more of that later.

These fragrant little pastries are found in Lebanon and several other countries of the Middle East and beyond. A filling of nuts, dates or figs is enclosed in a beautifully sculpted case of crumbly semolina pastry. I won’t lie; they are not the easiest or quickest things to make. But they are definitely rather special, and well worth the effort.

Ingredients

Maamoul 14 08 02 (5)

Makes up to 60 (depending on size)

For the Pastry (Stage 1)

  • 450g Semolina
  • 50g plain flour
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mahlab (can be omitted)
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground mastika (can be omitted)
  • A generous pinch of fine sea salt
  • 250g unsalted butter
  • 40ml (3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon) rose water
  • 20ml (1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) orange flower water

For the Pastry (Stage 2)

  • 30ml warm water
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon easy blend yeast or 3g fresh yeast

See Below for the Fillings

You will also Need

  • 2 30 x 30cm baking trays lined with baking parchment
  • Maamoul mould(s) or Mahmoul pincers or Icing Crimpers or a fork (!)
  • Vegetable oil for the Maamoul mould (if using)

Making the Pastry

The pastry needs to be started off 12-14 hours before you plan to bake.

Combine the semolina, flour, sugar, salt, mahlab and mastika in a bowl. Melt the butter and pour into the bowl along with the rose and orange flower waters. Mix well, cover and leave at room temperature overnight.

In the morning, mix the yeast and sugar with the water in a small ball. Leave for 10 minutes or so.

The pastry will almost certainly have set overnight. Break it up and crumble it with your fingers. Sprinkle the yeast mixture over the top and incorporate with your hands. Add more water if necessary so you get a soft and sticky dough. It should be moister than a normal pastry but firm enough that you can form it into little balls and mould them into a bowl shape.

Cover again and leave to rest for 1 hour. Meanwhile make the fillings (see below).

Forming the Maamoul with a Mould

This is a forgiving dough which will be none the worse for all the manipulation it gets in forming the Maamoul. You should find that it is easy to stretch it to enclose the filling and that you just need to press any joins together to seal them.

If you are using a mould there are two methods for forming the maamoul, but for either you might want to take the precaution of brushing the inside of the mould with a light coating of vegetable oil to be sure that the pastry will not stick to it. Repeat frequently as you go.

The first method is to take a ball of the pasty – the exact size will depend on the size of the mould, but you’ll soon work it out – and press it into and up the sides of the mould so that is slightly overlaps the top edge. Then put a little ball or sausage of the filling inside (you always need less than you think) and fold the edges of the dough over the top. Finish off if necessary with a little flattened piece of dough. Press to seal.

Moulding the dough into a bowl shapeThe alternative is to cup a ball of dough in your hand and press it down and out with your fingers to form a round or oval bowl shape (see the picture). Pop the filling in, seal the edges at the top then press the ball into the mould.

Either way, you need to get the maamoul out of the mould. This is done by turning the mould over and tapping its end on the side of the worktop while holding your other hand underneath to catch the maamoul. That’s the theory at any rate. In practise it’s not so easy. I find it takes quite a few taps to get the maamoul to come out and it sometimes leaves some of itself behind, even after oiling the mould beforehand.  What’s more, it’s easy to catch the maamoul itself on the side of the worktop, particularly if your mould, like mine, has very little space between the recess and the end of the mould.

Place the maamoul on the baking sheet, spacing them about 2cm apart.

Forming the Maamoul by Hand

Mahmoul hand-formed and decorated with pincers
Given the challenges of using a mould, you may decide it’s easier to go “free form”. This is also an authentic approach, the maamoul usually being decorated with pincers. I used icing crimpers (shown below), which I got for about £2 from my local kitchenware shop.  I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the results, particularly from the curved crimpers.

Take a ball of pastry about the size of a walnut in its shell and cup it in one hand while pressing down and out with the fingers of the other hand to form a round or oval bowl (see the picture above). Pop a small ball or sausage of filling inside (you always need less than you think) and stretch the dough over the top and press to seal. Roll gently to even up the shape and place seam side down on the baking sheet, spacing about 2cm apart.

P1060547Use the pincers (or icing crimpers) to form patterns of your choice. It seems to be common practise to pinch quite deeply so that the filling shows through a little.

If you don’t have any pincers, you can use a fork to decorate the maamoul, either by pressing down with the flat of the tines or pricking with their points.

Baking

Before baking, chill the maamoul on their tray for 1 hour in the fridge. This will rest the pastry and also help to preserve the patterns you have worked so hard to achieve.

Preheat the oven to 190C (170C fan). Bake for 12-15 minutes until lightly browned on the edges and highlights. Turn the trays after about 8 minutes and swap between shelves. Cool on the tray for 10 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. Dust with icing sugar before serving, if liked. A plate with half dusted and half not looks rather pretty.

Mahmoul formed and ready to banke

Making the Fillings

Each of the fillings described below is enough for one third of the pastry. So you could make some of each kind or you could triple up one of the fillings.

I believe that walnut maamoul are traditionally made in a small round domed mould, pistachio ones in an oval one, and date ones in a flat and round one.

Walnut, pistachio and date are the commonest fillings, but figs and almonds are sometimes also used, so I decided to use figs instead of dates, and also to include some almonds in my walnut filling (as suggested by Dima Sharif).

Walnut Filling

  • 75g walnuts
  • 25g blanched almonds
  • 25g caster sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons rosewater
  • 1/2 teaspoon orange flower water
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon runny honey

First toast the walnuts and almonds. Put them on a baking tray and bake for 5-10 minutes until the almonds are lightly browned. Keep a close eye on them as they can turn quickly! Allow to cool.

Grind the nuts with the sugar in a coffee grinder or the like. You’ll probably need to do this in in a couple of batches. Ideally they should have a texture like coarse sand, with some little bits of nut still visible.

Transfer to a small bowl and mix in the cinnamon, followed by the rose and orange waters and honey. The mixture should be moist but quite stiff. Depending on how finely you ground the nuts you may need to add some water or more honey if you prefer.

Pistachio Filling

  • 125g Pistachios
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons rosewater
  • 1/2 teaspoon orange flower water

Grind the nuts with the sugar in a coffee grinder or the like. You’ll probably need to do this in in a couple of batches. Ideally they should have a texture like coarse sand, with some little bits of nut still visible. (I got this right for my first batch but didn’t get a photograph. For the ones shown here I accidentally ground them much finer so the result was more like marzipan. Not a disaster though!)

Transfer to a small bowl and stir in the rose and orange waters. The mixture should be moist but quite stiff. Depending on how finely you ground the nuts you may need to add some water, or runny honey if you prefer.

Date/Fig Filling

  • 100g dried dates or figs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons rosewater
  • 1/2 teaspoon orange flower water
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Put the figs or dates, cinnamon and flower waters in a mini-chopper and blend. Aim for a slightly uneven texture rather than a puree. Transfer to a small bowl. You may want to add a little water or runny honey if the mixture seems unduly dry.

Notes

Just baked Mahmoul

One of the attractions of making Maamoul was the idea of biting into one to reveal the hidden jewel-green pistachio filling. For that though you need really green pistachios, something you won’t find in the average UK store. So I bought some Turkish pistachios from whynut. They are beautifully and uniformly green, both outside and in, and have a far superior flavour. They are not cheap, but are no more expensive than a superior box of chocolates or a nice bottle of wine.

(As it happens I think the best green – a vibrant emerald – is to be found on some supermarket pistachios, but on only a small percentage in any packet and only in patches on the outside).

The semolina I used was the one sold for making puddings in the UK. I think this is called semolina flour in the US. Some recipes I consulted recommended using fine semolina, which I presume corresponds to semola rimacinata or durum flour. Since some recipes also suggest using a mixture of the two kinds, or even only ordinary flour, I don’t think you need to worry too much.

Some recipes were adamant that the maamoul should not colour on the top, but since the ones at Al Bohsali were clearly quite brown, I let mine brown a little. And yes, they really were as yellow as some of the photos indicate.

Mahlab (or Mahlep) and Mastika are two very distinctive Mediterranean flavourings. Mahlab is the tiny stone of a wild cherry, with a flavour reminiscent of bitter almonds, cherries and rose water. You can buy it ready ground, but it is easy to grind yourself. Mastika usually comes as little chunks of resin. Grind it in a mortar and pestle with a little of the sugar from the recipe. If you grind it on its own it will simply stick to the bowl.

I sourced my Mahlab and Mastika from The Spicery, which I was very pleased to discover just recently. This on-line store has a very large range of individual spices and herbs. Their prices are very reasonable, they don’t charge for standard postage in the UK, and they will sell you a teaspoon of anything.

Links

The David Lebovitz post that started it all: Al Bohsali: Middle Eastern Pastries.

Papo Sheik also has some lovely pictures of the delights on offer at Al Bohsali.

Sadly, Al Bohsali’s own site http://www.albohsali.com/ seems to be off-line.

Once I started researching recipes for Maamoul (also spelt Ma’amoul or Maamool) I realised there was a great deal of variation between them, as I suppose is only to be expected from a delicacy that is popular in so many countries. I have listed my main sources below, but I decided to pick and choose elements from several of them, hopefully without introducing anything out of keeping with the tradition.

Dima Sharif’s Best Ever Maamool. Dima also has a lovely video of a family making Maamool together (although one of their fillings is a bit surprising!).

Fouad’s post at the food blog has some great pictures of the method and the finished product.

Mama’s Lebanese Kitchen has a very useful recipe and describes various ways of making the Maamoul.

The Chef in Disguise is great on free-forming and the use of pincers.

On Dirty Kitchen Secrets you’ll find a very good step-by-step guide.

Marlene Matar on Cook and Eat Lebanese has a lovely picture of pincer decorated Mahmoul where the filling shows through.

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