How to make Ma’amoul Med, a cookie bar filled with dates
For many who celebrate Eid, the holiday isn’t complete without ma’amoul, a tender leavened semolina cookie made with clarified butter and mahlab, a spice made from ground cherry pits. Pastries are often filled with date or peanut paste – usually pistachios or walnuts – and traditionally shaped with complex molds called qalab. Throughout the Middle East, ma’amoul and its many variations, including Egyptian kahk, Iraqi kleicha, and Iranian koloocheh, are prepared and given as gifts by Arab Christians and Muslims.
Chef and cookbook author Reem Assil recalls making ma’amoul with her sisters in Sudbury, Massachusetts, where she grew up. She remembers pushing the dough into the qalab, stuffing the cookies, then smashing the molds on the table to release the dough. “It helps you eliminate a lot of aggression,” she laughs. Between filling and shaping the cookies, Assil played with the greasy, buttery dough. Although she enjoys baking ma’amoul, Assil admits that it’s a time-consuming baking project because you’re not just baking a yeast cookie, but also stuffing and shaping it.
Ma’amoul dough starts with semolina, all-purpose flour, mahlab, salt, sugar, and yeast, with clarified butter mixed in. The mixture sits and hardens for 30 minutes, developing a texture similar to polenta that has been sitting for some time. It is then ground and mixed with whole milk and fragrant orange blossom water. After about another 30 minutes, the dough is divided, stuffed with date paste (Assil adds a splash of espresso and ground cinnamon to the date mixture for a deeper flavor) and ground walnuts. Finally, it is shaped with the qalab molds or pinched with tweezers to form intricate decorative patterns.
“My sisters and I would happily make these labor-intensive cookies,” Assil writes in her new cookbook. Arabiyya. “But my ever-efficient mother would often make a Fig Newton-shaped cookie bar, rolling out two layers of dough to sandwich the date filling.” Although the dough used for the bar and cookie is the same, it is rolled out instead of molded and then portioned after baking. Whenever Assil’s family hosted dinner parties, his mother produced a tray of linens for the guests; his recipe was easily adapted to feed large crowds. This version of ma’amoul, called ma’amoul med, literally translates to “to spread”.
The first time Assil saw ma’amoul med outside of her mother’s kitchen was in Lebanon, when she was an adult. There she saw huge trays, made of two thin layers of semolina dough, with a layer of ashta, clotted cream, between them. The dough was soaked in a syrup of orange blossom water, rose water and lemon juice. It “looks more like a cake,” she explains. “I thought my mom just made it up to make it faster,” she laughs. “But they have huge sheets of it all over Lebanon!”
Although his mother did not make ma’amoul med with ashta, the recipe for ma’amoul med from Assil in Arabiyya offers both a date version and an option filled with ashta cream, inspired by his visit to Lebanon. With these bars, no special equipment is needed, just a little more care when rolling out the soft sheets of yeast dough. “Not everyone will be able to find a ma’amoul mold, so being able to do something so decorative seemed important to me,” says Assil. Each bite is just as sweet and festive as individual shaped cookies, and perfect for breaking your fast.