UPDATE: I updated the post photos with recent ones (2017) with the new branding.
After posting about Kaak Asfar, I promised to share another Easter speciality, and since i am a man of my word, here it is: Maamoul. This is an annual recipe we enjoy making, or try to stay away from as much as possible, but we fail. The process is as good as the final product. For those who are not familiar with Maamoul, it is fragrant semolina cookie shells stuffed with slightly sweetened ground dates, pistachios or walnuts with aromas of rose water and orange blossom water.
Maamoul is only made as an Easter delicacy by Middle Eastern Christians. Taking into consideration the Lebanese sweets shops and brands war over who ruled the billboards, maamoul has got good exposure in the past couple of years. Still, maamoul is scary for all those health freaks and those with health issues: dietitians warning you how much calories one cookie has, your trainer informing you about how many hours on the treadmill you need to burn one cookie, or your cholesterol-filled heart and arteries scream from the fat you eat all year long at the sight of a maamoul cookie. It is so desired yet very much hated. Have you given its feelings a thought? Have you? HAVE YOU? Is that how you treat the guest that only comes once a year?
You only think about yourselves, you selfish fatties!
EAT THOSE COOKIES. I know you want to.
We still have some (a month after easter) if you want, and they are still as good as when sealed in an airtight container.
There was a time when everyone used to make their own maamoul. Those who didn’t know how, used to pay someone to make them a batch. Nowadays, most people prefer to buy a kilogram “mshakkal” (assorted) and avoid the lovely hassle around making maamoul and the aromas that fill the house and the neighborhood as you walk in the streets.
In the old days, the whole week before Easter was reserved for Maamoul making. Each day, a group of neighbors and friends gather at the house of one of them to help. The next day they help another. By the end of the week, each one of them gets a good fun and company for a week and a big batch of maamoul. This is what our old neighbor Zakiyé tells us. Zakiyé used to work as a cook for a wealthy family in Beirut. Despite leaving them a long time ago because of her age, they still call her to check up on her and ask her to help them with Maamoul.
For the past couple of years, Zakiyé has been mom’s partner in the Easter Maamoul fiesta. Mom is never left alone on this day. It is always a gathering; a few years ago, mom was overwhelmed when her brother and 2 sisters were helping her and the next day they all moved to her sister’s house to make her a batch. This is how it used to be done back in the old days. Sadly, few families are keeping this tradition alive.
With Zakiyé helping mom with the maamoul, she convinced her into decorating them by hand instead of the classical wood molds used everywhere. The molds give these cookies a nice uniform finish while pinching them by hand gives them this random homey finish with no two cookies looking alike. Our molds, and so is the identifiable shapes of the cookies, are round with a star in the middle for dates, oval with stripes going down the center for pistachios and dome shaped with stripes for the walnuts. Mom and Zakiyé used the same shapes for their own but they used small serrated pinchers to pinch patterns on the filled and shaped cookies.
Let me talk about the dough for a bit. Even though I haven’t made the dough myself yet, I have witnessed and helped numerous times, I have consumed maamoul for… let’s say ever since I had teeth. Good maamoul, and I am describing homemade ones here, are those with a generous filling that is sweet yet not overpowering the flavor of the thick-enough dough shell holding everything together. The dough should be crumbly to the bite but holds itself if you wish to take it slow with 3 or more bites. Precise butter/ghee measurements with the well-studied proportions of fine and coarse semolina will neither give you I-have-a-whole-crumbled-maamoul-cookie-on-my-lap after the first bite, nor I-broke-a-tooth maamoul. It all depends on the perfect proportions. Don’t get me started on the fragrances added. You’ve got the miské (mastica), rose and orange blossom water and mom’s special maamoul incense. They all bond together in the dough that is left to rest and infuse overnight to give the cookies this aromatic flavor. The same goes for the filling.
Zakiyé is our old neighbor who never got married. She worked her entire life and helped her close family and relatives and now she is living by herself in a small house. Mom is like the daughter she never had. Zakiyé is a good cook. I have taken a few cooking tips from her. I love how she loves food and enjoys big fatty recipes like Moghrabieh cooked with lamb bones. She also loves peanut butter, which is somehow unusual for an old lady who doesn’t go out much considering how relatively new peanut butter in our middle eastern market. As a part of generation recipe exchange, I will try to get some authentic old recipes she used to cook or got from her family.
For the dough
- 750g fine semolina (farkha)
- 250g coarse semolina
- 450g butter (1 pack)
- 3 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp mahlab
- 1/2 cup rose water
- 1/2 cup orange blossom water
- 1/2 tsp yeast
- Rose incense special for maamoul
- And mom’s secret ingredient (which she refused to tell me about)
For the filling
Dates (for 1kg combined semolina dough):
- 1 kg Dates paste, or
- 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/8 tsp ground cloves
- 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp mahlab
Pistachio (for 500g combined semolina dough):
- 500g pistachios (finely ground)
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- 1/2 tbsp mahlab
- 1/4 cup rose water
- Mom’s secret ingredient
Walnuts (for 500g combined semolina dough):
- 500g walnuts (finely ground)
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- 1/2 mahlab
- 1/4 tbsp cinnamon
- 1/4 cup rose water
- Mom’s secret ingredient
- Rub the butter, 1/4 cup rose water, 1/4 cup orange blossom water, sugar, mahlab and both of the semolina between both hands until all of it is covered in butter
- Leave it covered with plastic wrap for 10 hours or overnight
- The next day, add the yeast, and the rest of the rose and orange blossom water and mix well and knead with your hands until it forms a dough
- Light a coal, put it in an incense burner or coffee plate and put a piece of the incense. Place on top of the dough and cover with a piece of cloth for around 15 minutes, or until the incense stops burning
- Mix the filling by adding all the ingredients of each filling in a separate bowl
- For the dates filling, ball the dates mix and set aside
- Prepare the dough by balling the dough into pingpong ball size and setting aside
- Poke the dough to form a hole in it
- For the dates filling, place the dates mix ball in the dough and close firmly, press to form a thick disk then with the small round end of a wooden spoon press the center of the disk all the way till it forms a mini bagel-shaped cookie
- For the other fillings, scoop a teaspoon of the dough and close the dough firmly
- If you’re using a mold, fit the mold in clean stockings and push the dough in the mold. Smack the edge on the table with your hand under it to catch it as it fall
- If pinching by hand, pinch a pattern on the cookies as shown in the pictures
- Set directly in a baking tray and bake in a 200 degree oven for 15 minutes until the top and bottom and golden
- Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired
Replace sugar in the filling with ground raisins or dried apricots for a natural sweetener
Some stuff these cookies with almonds instead of walnuts.