Friday, October 31, 2008
There are some culinary pleasures we just never forget. A few years ago I had the distinct enjoyment of tasting an incredible cookie called Ma'amoul. I’d never heard of this pastry before and it was so delicious I knew I had to learn more about it. We’ve all experienced how powerful food sense memories can be and this is one of mine.
There was something so simple yet so different about this cookie. As I researched lots of different recipes, I learned that it’s basically a combination of a very tender and crumbly cookie stuffed with chopped walnuts, a hint of spice and the exotic perfume of orange blossom water. It’s also commonly filled simply with dates or pistachios and rose water. Some versions of this cookie dough include semolina. I’ll be experimenting soon with that, too, as I love the texture it brings to pastry doughs.
The discovery of how to extract essential oil from flowers was made some time around the 10th century. Today hydrosols for culinary use are common. Orange blossom water is distilled from the fragrant blossoms of Seville oranges. If you use flower waters sparingly, they offer a hint of intrigue.
As you have probably guessed from the ingredients, Ma'amoul is a cookie that originated in the Middle East, specifically Syria and Lebanon. These little bundles of deliciousness are ordinarily shaped in a decorative wooden mold. I shaped mine by hand. If you have a favorite cookie stamp, you may want to use it here.
My riff on Ma'amoul starts with a recipe for a dough from Nick Malgieri that I altered with sugar, vanilla and salt. Then I worked from my sense memory of that Ma'amoul from all those years ago. If you love walnuts and the lightness of a tender melt-in-your mouth texture, this cookie is incredibly simple and unusually irresistible.
- This dough is very easy to work with. Even as it warms, it still has great flexibility.
- I use a small ice cream scoop #40 (the #40 refers to 40 scoops per quart) to portion the dough. This makes the job very quick and easy.
- Since cinnamon and orange blossom water quality varies, taste the filling for flavor adjustments.
1 3/4 C flour
3 T sugar
1/4 t salt
6 oz (12 T) cold butter
2 T milk
1 t vanilla
3/4 C walnuts
1/4 C + 1 t sugar
heaping 1/4 t cinnamon
zest of 1/2 orange
2 - 3 t orange flower water, to taste
Cut the cold butter into small cubes.
Place flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and mix. Add butter and pulse until the butter is in pieces the size of small grain rice. Combine milk and vanilla and add to the flour butter mixture. Pulse just until the mixture starts to clump. Remove and place the dough on a piece of plastic wrap. Pull it together to finish blending and smoothing out. Pat it into a circle about 1” thick, wrap and refrigerate to rest for a couple of hours or overnight.
Place the walnuts, sugar, cinnamon and orange zest in the bowl of a processor and pulse just a few times to chop the walnuts into smallish pieces. Don’t over process. You want small pieces but not paste. Pour into a bowl and add orange flower water. Stir to combine. Taste for flavor adjustments.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature.
To shape the Ma'amoul, portion the dough into 18 pieces and shape each into a ball. Take each portion and push your thumb in to form a cup for the filling. Continue to press it out with your thumbs to form a somewhat flattened pocket. Place about a good half-teaspoon of filling in the center. Gather the ends and press them together to seal the cookie. Roll gently in your palms to even out the shape and place seam side down on a parchment lined tray. Press the top of the cookie gently to flatten slightly. Decorate with the tines of a fork or a decorative stamp if you wish. Wrap with plastic and refrigerate until completely chilled.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Place 12 cookies on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or a silpat. Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes. The cookies should not take on any color but the bottoms will brown a bit. Cool on a wire rack. Dust lightly with powdered sugar and savor with your favorite spot of tea.