I’d never heard of ma’amoul before spice week of the Great British Bake Off. Wikipedia says that they’re ancient Arab pastries or cookies filled with dates, nuts or, sometimes, figs. They’re for celebrating the Eid Festival, and are especially popular in Levant. Funnily enough, I looked up where Levant was a few weeks ago. I was reading the Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning, who I’ve only recently discovered and who is just brilliant. Anyway, Levant refers to the area of the Eastern Mediterranean countries of Syria, the Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Cyprus (thanks again Wikipedia).
So, middle-eastern spiced cookies. They sound delicious.
Here are the first batch of my ma’amoul.
I did make a second batch. I’ll explain why later. They look a lot more appetising than last week’s blancmange which, someone (my husband) kindly told me, looked like raw meat.
As usual, I used the recipe for the ma’amoul from the Great British Bake Off website.
There were a lot of ingredients in the dough that I had to substitute:
- Mastic – I didn’t even bother to look for this. I understand that it’s resin from a Greek shrub, and is common in Eastern Mediterranean cooking. In terms of flavour, I found various descriptions ranging from sweet to bitter. Everyone agreed though, that there was a hint of the pine forest or a herbal edge to mastic. An article from GreekBoston.com suggested that vanilla would be a good substitute. I like vanilla. A dough flavoured with vanilla would be fine. I decided to go with that.
- Mahleb – I didn’t look for mahleb either. It’s made of ground cherry stones. I guessed that it would have an almond flavour – this is how amaretto tastes and it’s made from apricot stones. On this basis, (one fruit stone must taste very much like another), I used almond extract. Oh, and Ottam Ottolenghi says in his book, Sweet, that if you can’t find mahleb, almond extract will do.
- Ghee – I could find ghee, but at over £3 per tin, I decided that butter would be better value. If I bought ghee half of the tin would never be used.
- Rose water – I did look for rose-water, but they didn’t have it in Tesco. I bought a few bars of Fry’s Turkish Delight (I can’t say or write Turkish delight without calling it Fry’s and without playing this classic in my head).
To make the dough, I mixed caster sugar, semolina, plain flour together. Then, I added chilled butter and used my pastry blender to get to breadcrumb stage. Next, I added orange blossom water, some of my Fry’s Turkish Delight that I’d cut the chocolate off and melted slightly in the microwave, some vanilla and almond extracts.
I brought the mixture together into a dough and kneaded it. It came together really easily. I was surprised, until I realised that I’d misread the recipe and added tablespoonfuls instead of teaspoonfuls of the orange blossom water and Fry’s Turkish Delight. The dough didn’t seem too wet though, so I pressed ahead. I wrapped it in clingfilm and put it into the fridge.
The Bake Off contestants were asked to make two different fillings for their ma’amoul. The first was made with dates, and the second with walnuts.
To make the date filling, I whizzed up some stoned medjool dates, a chunk of Fry’s Turkish Delight, some cinnamon and almond extract in my tiny food processor. I tipped the mixture out and rolled it into six balls.
After I’d cleaned the food processor (I don’t think the 45 minutes that the recipe says making the ma’amoul will take includes the time spent digging date paste from around the processor blades), I whizzed up some walnuts, raisins, honey and, finally, some ground cardamom. Again, I made six balls with the paste.
The first step in shaping the ma’amoul was to divide the dough and make twelve small balls. Easy enough. Then you make each ball into a cup shape, put one ball of filling inside, seal the edges and roll the dough into a ball. This wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought it would be. My cups of dough were plenty big enough to seal over the top. It wasn’t until I found I had two extra balls of walnut filling that I realised I hadn’t made enough cups. My ma’amoul were going to be mammoth.
Paul Hollywood wanted the bakers to make differently shaped ma’amoul for each filling. The date-filled ma’amoul he wanted to be shaped using a ma’amoul mould. Well, it’s funny, but I don’t have a ma’amoul mould in my baking drawer. I decided to use a star-shaped cookie cutter instead. I put a ball of filled dough inside it, and pressed it out until I had a star shape.
I’d made several when I realised that I’d used the walnut-filled dough instead of the date-filled. I decided to use the cookie cutter for all of the ma’amoul. The recipe wanted the walnut-filled ma’amoul to be shaped using ma’amoul tongs. The nearest thing I have is a pair of tweezers for taking the bones out of fish. A cookie cutter seemed like a better option.
I put some decorations onto the top of the ma’amoul so that I’d know which ones were date and which ones were walnut. The difference was important, because the walnut ma’amoul require a dusting of icing sugar. Apparently, the date ones would be sweet enough.
Here are the ma’amoul ready for the oven.
I baked them at 180° fan for fourteen minutes. The recipe says that they’re done when they are golden on the bottom but pale, or slightly golden around the edges. Good luck with checking that the bottoms are golden. I tried it and my ma’amoul just crumbled.
When I took them out of the oven, I left them to firm up on the baking tray for a few minutes then put them onto a wire rack. Once they were cool, I dusted the walnut-filled ma’amoul with icing sugar, and here they are.
Were They Worth It?
It’s a strange one this because, to be honest, the ma’amoul didn’t really taste very nice. It was the biscuit. There was something quite bitter about it. The walnut filling also had a bit too much cardamom for me, I felt it tasted quite medicinal. That’s cardamom I suppose.
Anyway, since I’d used a lot of substitute ingredients and because I’d found out that the orange flower water I’d used had a use-by date of sometime in 2017, I decided to have another go. I used proper rose-water this time (and in the proper amount), but unfortunately, I couldn’t find any orange flower water so still had to go with a substitute. Instead, I used a splash Valencia orange extract and water. I made another date filling. This time with rose-water rather than Fry’s Turkish Delight.
The biscuit still tasted funky. There was still that bitter aftertaste. We think it’s the orange flavouring.
Even having said that the ma’amoul didn’t taste good, I’ll still make them again (a first for this series of Bake Off). The dough is simple and it doesn’t make much mess. I hate, hate, hate working with sloppy dough.
The texture of the cooked dough is really good. It’s crumbly and buttery and melt-in-the-mouth. Other than the cardamom in the walnut paste, the fillings were tasty, and you can play around with the fillings as much as you like.
If I could solve the bitterness problem by leaving out the orange flower water and, perhaps, adding something nicer, these would be great. I’ll definitely give them another go.