This week, we are celebrating Lebanon whose National Day falls on Saturday.
On Sunday, our buds vibrated to the rhythm of a succulent lahm bi ajin. Mike is very fond of Lebanese cuisine. Why am I not surprised? Maybe because Mike and I could both be drawn to this region like magnets. Why, you might ask? I would answer with two words: spelling and letters!
It is said that the spelling of a person is his literary fingerprint. It is certainly an unconditional love for cooking that brought the two of us together, but it’s also a passion (some would say a madness) for spelling! We left our mark on the Facebook recipe sharing group where we met and where we were quickly identified as two crazy people… when it comes to spelling that is! Yes, we are a lost cause and it’s not getting better!
This week, we are headed for the region of the world where alphabet was born: Phoenicia!
Phoenicia was an ancient region that was home to a civilization centered on the North of ancient Canaan. It covered an area that today is mostly covered by Lebanon and certain areas of the coast of Syria and Israel.
And it is indeed around 1200 BC, in the city of Byblos, the oldest town in the world (north of Beirut) that the Phoenician alphabet itself appeared. This alphabet is the origin of the alphabets of most languages, ancient and contemporary.
Lebanese cuisine, a very rich and varied cuisine, has the distinction of often featuring recipes that are simple to make yet full of flavor.
I did not choose the simplest recipe. The ingredients and preparation may be elementary, but shaping maamouls is definitely an art.
I always thought that Middle Eastern pastry making was an art. Patience and thoroughness are two qualities you need to master the majority of these tasty treats.
Maamoul is a typical Lebanese shortbread, usually stuffed with dates, but which can also be filled with pistachios, almonds or walnuts. This small pastry that melts in your mouth is very popular in the Middle East. It is often found on holiday tables, including Eid al-Fitr.
Making these little sculpted cakes is long and requires the use of special mold, usually wood or plastic spoons. These pastries can take many shapes as they differ by the impressions left by the molds.
Regarding the dough, as simple as it is, you need to follow specific steps to get a crumbly texture and a beautiful appearance. To obtain this melting effect so specific to maamouls, the composition of the dough should be balanced between the flour, semolina, butter on one side and liquid on the other side. And getting the right balance can only be felt by kneading with your fingers.
So I left my faithful robot for once and went for my most loyal utensils: my 2 hands! Rest assured, it is quite possible to make maamouls withough the moldings. Just make a ball of dough, stuff it and roll it using the palm of your hand. You can then decorate with tongs or a fork.
In Lebanon, the tradition is that women (neighbors, sisters, cousins, etc.) meet and make these biscuits in very large quantities.
At home, it was the success I expected!
- 3-¼ cups extra-fine durum wheat flour (or semolina)
- 2-¼ cups flour
- 1 cup softened butter
- ¾ cup icing sugar + some for dusting
- 1-½ teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ cup milk
- ¼ cup orange blossom water , rose water or a mixture of both
- 8 oz. date paste
- 3 tablespoons toasted walnuts
- 5 tablespoons toasted pistachios
- 3 tablespoons toasted almonds
- Mix all ingredients together or separate all the dried fruits and mix each of them with date paste.
- In a large container, place the extra fine semolina, the flour, icing sugar, softened butter, baking powder. Mix well until reaching a dough that feels like sand.
- Add the milk and then the required amount of orange blossom water and/or rose water. Form a ball of dough. It should be smooth, not sticky.
- Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let stand for 1 hour at room temperature.
- Form balls of about ½ oz.
- Stuff each ball of dough with the date and nuts. Roll the ball so the filling is fully coated with dough.
- Shape the balls using a maamoul mold. Put the dough inside the maamoul mold and pack well, turn the mold over and give a quick tap to unmold.
- Place the maamouls on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and cook in a preheated oven at 350 F for 15-20 minutes. Pastries must remain very white.
- As you take them out of the oven, sprinkle with icing sugar.
- Maamouls can be kept for eight days in an airtight container.