|Remembrances of Cookies Past|
Mar 29th, 2006
For a brief time after college graduation I worked as a waitress at a cafe called Caprice in the southern California town of Redlands. The owners of the cafe were Lebanese by way of France and the wife, Layla, cooked the most wonderful food - shish tawook, shawarma, vegetarian and lamb kibbeh, and dinner specials that were more classically French influenced. But Layla's true genius lay in her baking. She made a chocolate pecan pie that was to die for and her cookies were truly addictive. She baked two kinds of cookies, one filled with dates and the other with nuts, both delicately scented with orange flower and rose water. Layla called the date filled cookie a mamoul and the nut filled cookie a tamir. I'm not sure of the spelling for the last one as I haven't been able to find a reference to these online or in a cookbook. It seems that most people call both cookies mamoul, which basically means filled or stuffed cookie.
I think I ate one of these cookies every day I worked at Caprice. I wasn't knocked out by the first taste as they're pretty subtle, but something about that elusive orange flower fragrance kept teasing at me, demanding that I try another cookie. And another. "Put them in the microwave for about ten seconds before you eat them," Layla would always tell the customers who ordered them to-go. And that is the best way to do it, the date filling gets just a little warm and it seems to wake up the flavors.
I've been thinking about trying my hand at making mamouls for several years now. I've collected different recipes and I even wrote in this blog way back at the beginning about purchasing rose water in preparation for making these cookies some day. Well the some day ended up being today as my work was holding its annual Cookie Fest. Last year I brought Cardamom Cookies, and I wanted to bring another slightly offbeat or exotic cookie this year, mamouls being the obvious choice.
I ended up using a recipe from Recipes and Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen: A Culinary Journey through Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan by Sonia Uvezian. If you're at all interested in the history or food of this region I highly recommend this book. It's a good read and the recipes are presented in a way that seems approachable yet authentic in spirit. That said, most mamoul recipes seem to call for semolina flour, or a blend of semolina and all purpose. This recipe just calls for regular ol' all purpose flour, so I wonder if the author has dumbed it down a little bit for a western audience, or maybe that's just the variation she prefers. Because there are plenty of variations, I've looked at ten or fifteen recipes and they're all different - some use yeast, some use sugar in the dough, some specify no sugar in the dough, some use molasses, some even use eggs. So who knows what is truly authentic.
Making the cookies is pretty straightforward, if messy, although I did have some trouble following her instructions for stuffing the cookie. She said to make a walnut sized ball of dough and poke a little hole it in with your index finger, then add a bit of filling and pinch the sides up around the dough to seal. I could never get the sides to fit back around the filling, so a little bit of date was alway peeking out the top. After looking through various online resources I think that either using a mamoul mold or flattening the dough out and then curling it into a ball around the filling would be the way to go. By the way check out the fabulous mamoul post over at Mahanandi for good pictures on how the cookies look if you use a mold (and know what you're doing).
Biting into one of the finished cookies was a truly Proustian moment. I was immediately back at the cafe sneaking just one more cookie before the dinner rush. One thing I know for sure, I may look at and try other recipes for the dough, but I don't think I need look any further for the date paste. This date paste is exquisite - and I don't even like dates! Butter and cinammon really bring out the richness in the fruit. The amounts called for do produce about two to three times the amount of filling necessary for the cookies, so I'm already dreaming up ways to use the leftovers. I'm thinking a cornmeal or semolina based cake with orange flower water split and filled with the date paste.....
Oh, and just because he's so cute. Here's Ian going incognito next to the cookies.
Stuffed Cookies (Ma mul)Makes about 363 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tbsp superfine sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tbsp orange flower water
1 tbsp rose water
1 - 5 tbsp milk (as needed)
3/4 pound pitted soft dates, chopped
2 tbsp water
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp orange flower water
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
First make the filling by cooking the dates, butter, and water in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir until a paste forms then add the orange flower water and cinnamon. Set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 350°. In a large bowl stir together the flour and sugar and then add the butter and use your hands to rub it all together. Add the orange flower and rose waters and enough milk to make a soft dough. Don't be scared to add more milk, my dough was crumbly until I got up to 5 tbsp even though the original recipe suggests you'll need only 1 tbsp.
To make the cookies, take walnut-sized balls of dough and flatten them out into a small round. Put a dab of filling in the middle (I used a 1/2 teaspoon as a scoop) and then fold the edges up into a ball. Flatten the cookies a bit between your hands and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Press the tines of a fork over the top of each cookie to help the powdered sugar stay on later.
Cook for about 20 minutes until pale gold on the bottom. Don't let the cookies brown. Remove cookies to a cooling rack. After they cool down, dust the cookies with powdered sugar using a sieve. Don't be shy with the powdered sugar as the cookies are not super sweet.
-adapted from Recipes & Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen