(Image credit: Veliavik/Getty Images)
By Tessa Fox14th April 2022
Maamoul is made at the end of both Lent and Ramadan, leading up to Easter and Eid al Fitr. But this year, the biscuit is extra sweet as both religions celebrate it at the same time.
This spring, along the ancient streets of the holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a sweet smell wafts through the air. Inside, people’s homes are hives of activity as extended family members and neighbours come together to make a biscuit-like treat that’s very special to both Muslims and Christians.
“You can’t have Easter without maamoul because it brings the happiness,” said Rawan Ghattas, a Christian from Bethlehem, who works with famed local chef Fadi Kattan.
Like Ghattas, Rawan Bazbazat, a Muslim art teacher and jewellery maker from Jerusalem, has been baking the sweet since she was a child with her mother. “On Eid al Fitr, we always have to make maamoul. We can’t celebrate this holiday without it,” Bazbazat said.
Maamoul is made from a dough of semolina and ghee (though butter can be used as a substitute) and flavoured with mahlab (crushed cherry seeds, which are found inside the pits) and mastic (also known as Arabic Gum), which is the resin from the acacia tree.
While the delicate shortcrust-style sweet melts in your mouth, its design adds even more decadence. Before baking, the dough is either stuffed with pistachios drizzled with rosewater, walnuts mixed with sugar and cinnamon, or dates that have been ground to a paste with a little oil or butter. As Anissa Helou, author of Feast Food of the Islamic World described it to me, “The date maamoul is like having a cream-filled biscuit, but less fluffy.”
Each of the three flavours is then placed into its own specific wooden mould called a qalab, or formed by hand using a spiked tong called a malqat. The date maamoul traditionally has a circular shape with a flat top; the pistachio version is more like a pointy ellipse; while the walnut-flavoured biscuit is a smaller circle with a domed top.
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Some maamoul are formed into a domed shape (Credit: Veliavik/Getty Images)
Each year, Christian and Muslim families across the Palestinian Territories and the greater Middle East make maamoul, as well as its simpler cousin ka’ak – a flat, round biscuit made from the same dough – in the days leading up to Easter and Eid al Fitr.
The Christian holiday of Easter, observed this year on 17 April, follows Lent – an observance recognising the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting – when believers traditionally abstain from animal products and alcohol for the same number of days. Eid al Fitr, meaning “the feast of breaking the fast”, which starts on 2 May this year, is an Islamic celebration signifying the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting from dawn to sunset.
You go to the Old City [of Jerusalem] and you find both the Christians and Muslims fasting – it’s special
“This year, both Ramadan and Lent are together which is nice; you go to the Old City [of Jerusalem] and you find both the Christians and Muslims fasting – it’s special,” said Bazbazat.
With extended family all together in one house, the jobs for making the maamoul are divided between groups. Some make the dough (which is left for one day in the refrigerator before being formed), some make the designs, and some are experts at knowing the right time to pull the sweet out of the oven.
For many who celebrate Easter or Eid al Fitr, maamoul creates beautiful memories.
“We are three families plus all the neighbours; each day, we make the maamoul in one of the houses,” Ghattas said, expressing what she views as a time of happiness and communal celebration.
In Bazbazat’s family home, she and her five sisters, aunt, cousin, mother and grandmother make maamoul in the lead up to Eid al Fitr. “Sometimes you feel very hungry when you’re making it – you want to taste everything – but no one can touch it until the first day of Eid, then you can eat anything you want,” she said.
Muslin families welcome guests into their homes, offering coffee along with maamoul (Credit: Dieddin Alsoub/Alamy)
Ghattas remembers trying to shape the dough into flowers when she was young, inspired by her mum who makes perfect decorations. At midnight, marking the end of 40 days of fasting, she and her family raise coloured hard-boiled eggs and knock them together (with the goal of being the last person left with an unbroken egg), and then rejoice in eating them as well as the long-awaited maamoul.
Muslim families generally spend the first day of Eid together, and as is custom, send plates of ka’ak and maamoul dusted with powdered sugar to their neighbours – including Christians, who also send the biscuits to their neighbours at Easter. The next day, they welcome guests into their homes and offer coffee along with the delicious sweet.
“The Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem have a lot to share. They live in the same houses, they’re in the same city. We are like one,” Bazbazat said.
In the Palestinian Territories, some of the main ingredients of maamoul, namely dates and walnuts, are grown locally. The dates, the best type being Mejdool, come from Jericho and the farms in the Jordan Valley, in the east of the West Bank. While most people have walnut trees In their gardens, they also grow abundantly on the region’s hilltops – from Al-Khalil (also known as Hebron) in the south to Jenin in the north.
Fadi Kattan, an internationally known chef and founder of Fawda Restaurant & Café in Bethlehem – which showcases traditional recipes and local ingredients with a modern twist – links the smell of maamoul to the memory of his grandmother making it when he was young.
Extended family members and neighbors gather together to make maamoul (Credit: AFP Contributor/Getty Images)
“Every attempt I made to try and decorate ka’ak and maamoul would ruin whatever she and her neighbours were doing, so I was nicely told to sit away and enjoy the smell,” Kattan remembered, adding he was allowed to crush the walnuts.
He says the smell, which occurs as the ghee cooks with the mastic and mahlab, is “like something being caramelised, but there’s nothing being caramelised”. There’s really no replacement for mastic’s flavour in baking, and as Kattan said, it’s “an uncompromising one”. “You can use orange blossom or rose petal water, but it’s not the same thing. Mastic has a sweet, earthy flavour – I cannot describe it,” he said. “If you played with pine trees when you were younger, that little sap that would seep out when it’s cut, that’s what it tastes like.”
Nevertheless, Helou, who grew up in Lebanon, flavours her dough with orange blossom and rose waters (instead of mastic), and only puts mahlab in ka’ak, showing how the recipes can vary by baker and regions. “[Mahlab] has a very strong taste. If you use it in the dough for maamoul, it interferes with the flavour of the cinnamon, fragrant waters and the walnut stuffing,” she said.
According to Charles Perry, food writer and expert on medieval Arabic cuisine, “maamoul is descended from a Persian stuffed cookie called kulachag, which appears in medieval Arabic cookbooks as kulayja.” They were made from a dough with added butter or another fat like lard then rolled out to be moulded into elaborate designs of fish, birds, gazelles and geometrical patterns.
Maamoul is typically made from a dough of semolina and is flavoured with mahlab and mastic (Credit: Dieddin Alsoub/Alamy)
As culinary influences spread due to trade at the time, it’s possible that maamoul has other relatives or ancestors. For example, when Egypt was ruled by the Mamluks, an army of slave soldiers, from 1250-1517, a book titled Zahr al-hadiqa fi ‘ l-at’ima al-aniqa’ (flowers in the garden of elegant foods) – written by Ibn Mubarak Shah, which was later translated into English by Professor Daniel Newman and published as The Sultan’s Feast in 2020 – details a recipe of a medieval Egyptian date-filled biscuit flavoured with aromatics like rose water, saffron and spices.
According to historian Charles al Hayek, who runs a YouTube channel and Instagram account dedicated to Middle Eastern culture, the tradition of handing out sweets for Eid al Fitr began during the Fatimid Caliphate in the 10th to 12th Centuries, when the Caliph, or state, would gift them to everyone including servants following Eid morning prayers. As Sawsan (no surname) from the Chef in Disguise website wrote, the sweets were decorated with phrases like kol o oshkor (eat and be thankful) and bel shukr tadoom al neam (with gratitude blessings are preserved). However, when the Ottoman Empire ended in 1922 and there was no longer an Islamic caliph, the tradition shifted from being a royal custom to one among private households
Many, including Kattan, say that the patterns on the different maamoul moulds – such as the date mould’s burning sun, or star, depending on your interpretation – were originally affiliated with ancient religions that worshipped nature. However, in Christian tradition, the date-stuffed maamoul (which has a circular shape) came to represent the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head, while the pistachio maamoul is said to resemble the temple where Jesus was laid to rest.
There isn’t any particular symbolism in Islam relating to the design but the shape of the maamoul is still very special to those like Bazbazat. “When I finish one of the pieces of maamoul and I look at it, I think ‘wow, I’m an artist’,” she said.
Maamoul shapes are often made by a wooden mould called a qalab (Credit: Aydan Ustkanat/Getty Images)
While many families make maamoul at home, the biscuit is also available in most Arabic sweet shops during Easter or Eid al Fitr, often sold by the kilo.
In the Palestinian city of Ramallah, Eiffel Sweets is one of the oldest sweet shops making maamoul and is highly recommend by many residents. Aker Sweets, another well-known shop in town, has multiple locations. In Jerusalem, the oldest shop, Zalatimo, was established in 1860 and now has shops in Jordan (and also delivers to the United States via Amazon). Those living outside the region, however, can head to their local Middle Eastern bakery or try making the holiday biscuits themselves.
In fact, many professional bakers such as Ahmad Shaqier from Eiffel Sweets believes that homemade maamoul has an intangible quality unmatched by those made at the shops. “It’s a tradition found within the Palestinian families,” he said.
As a kid, Shaqier used to carry the trays of maamoul made by his mum on top of his head to the nearby Furn al Arabi, a traditional bakery that uses wood ovens, for them to be baked. “I always ate a couple of fresh ones before I took it all home. The memories to maamoul are imprinted in a person’s mind.”
In the Middle East, both Muslims and Christians celebrate with maamoul (Credit: Tessa Fox)
Maamoul recipe (yields 20 walnut and 20 date biscuits)
By Fadi Kattan of Fawda Restaurant & Café
Time required: overnight plus three hours of making
For the dough:
1.5 cups coarse semolina
1.5 cups fine semolina
2 tbsp sugar
¼ tbsp ground Arabic gum (mastic)
½ ground mahlab (cherry seeds)
1 cup melted ghee
1½ tsp yeast
½ tsp sugar
½ cup warm water
For the walnut stuffing:
3oz chopped walnuts
1 tsp sugar
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
For the date stuffing:
4oz date paste
1 tbsp olive oil
For the dough:
- Mix the sugar, mahlab (cherry seeds), mastic (Arabic gum) and semolinas in a large bowl. Add the melted ghee and mix well to have the ghee absorbed by the semolina.
- Leave overnight, covered to infuse.
- The next day, mix the warm water, yeast and sugar in a small bowl. After 15 minutes, add the yeast mixture to the semolina mix and knead well.
- Cover and leave to rest for an hour.
- Separate the dough into roughly two halves, one for the date stuffing and one for the walnut stuffing.
For the date filling:
- Mix the date paste and olive oil, and then form into 20 small identical balls.
- Separate the dough into 20 identical-sized balls.
- Take a ball of dough in your palm and flatten it into a circle, and then place the date ball in the middle and fold the dough around it.
- Use the mould to create a design or spiked tongs to decorate the top of the cookie in symmetrical shapes.
- Space evenly on an oven tray lined with baking paper.
For the walnut filling:
- Add the sugar and cinnamon to chopped walnuts, and reserve in a bowl.
- Separate the dough into 20 identical-sized balls.
- Take a ball of the dough in your hand and cup around it while using your finger from the other hand to hollow its centre. With a spoon, fill that cavity with the walnut mixture and then seal the bottom with the dough. You will end up with a dome on one side and a flat surface on the other side.
- Place into the wooden mould or use the spiked tongs to decorate the side of the dome and then arrange it on an over tray lined with baking paper.
Baking and serving:
- Leave [both oven trays] to rest for 45 minutes while you preheat oven to 430°F (about 220°C).
- Bake for 12 minutes or until the top colour is slightly golden and the bottom is golden.
- Leave to cool before conserving in an airtight container.
- Dust with powdered sugar to garnish.
(Recipe adapted for BBC Travel)
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