Mediterranean Cooking from the Garden with Linda Dalal Sawaya—Easter celebrations with traditional Mamoul cookies
mamouls—totally fabulous Easter cookies © linda dalal sawaya 2016
These traditional Easter cookies are made in Lebanon and other parts of the Levant in press molds called ‘aalib. My beloved mother, Alice, and grandmother (sitto or teta in Arabic) preferred to devise their own method of decorating these scrumptious walnut-filled cookies—Mother says it was out of love to make them more beautiful! It could be because their own molds were lost in their trunk on the big ship to America in 1926 when they first arrived here. That story of the lost trunk leaves me wondering what beloved treasures they lost on that journey.
my beloved mother Alice making totally fabulous Easter cookies © linda dalal sawaya 2016
‘aalib— commercial molds for mamoul cookies © linda dalal sawaya 2016
Mama commissioned a sheet metal worker to cut out and form several pincers (malqat) to use for decorating mamouls and date-filled cookies.
malqat for pinching mamouls on a gorgeous plate by artist Reem Hammad © linda dalal sawaya 2016
On one of my trips to Lebanon and Syria, I found a small brass one that I bought and added to my collection. It is very thin, so I prefer to use mama’s tools.
malqat for pinching mamouls found in Lebanon on Reem’s plate © linda dalal sawaya 2016
And this is how I learned to make mamouls just like hers.
Mamouls are not difficult to make, but like all good things, they take time, so invite some friends over or bring your children ’round you and have fun filling, pinching, and decorating together! A couple of interesting dough ingredients that you may have to search out are semolina and mahlab—Cornell cherry kernal which is ground with sugar and gives a lovely flavor that complements the may zahar (orange flower water) that fragrances the dough and nuts.
walnuts on my tree and mahlab for mamoul dough© linda dalal sawaya 2016
walnut, orange blossom water, and sugar mixture for mamouls © linda dalal sawaya 2016
The first step of dough is done five hours ahead. Once they are baked, eating them will be as pleasing as making them, only much faster! The special ingredient, Cornell cherry kernal (mahlab) is available from Middle Eastern stores or online, as is a mamoul mold.
If you are using a commercial mold, a ball of dough is pressed into a thin round and placed into the mold. Walnut filling is added, and the bottom sealed up. Alternatively, the dough ball is flattened, stuffed with filling, closed up and then pressed into the mold. A sharp rap on the table or baking tray releases the buttery dough from the mold with a design in place on top. To be honest, I’ve never used a mold, only my mother’s tried and true process of hand decorating. I have read that the design on the top represents Jesus’ crown of thorns making these very special cookies for Easter season.
In my mother and grandmother’s method, a ball is rolled in the palm of your hand; your finger creates a hollow in the ball of dough into which the walnut mixture is placed, and then the bottom is pinched closed. Roll the mamoul over and pinch the top in a spiraling design. Place on cookie sheet and bake.
my mother forming mamouls © linda dalal sawaya 2016
my mamouls my mama would be proud of © linda dalal sawaya 2016
Once the cookies are baked and cooled, powdered sugar is sprinkled over the top. These cookies are not too sweet and are irresistible. The recipe is found, of course, in Alice’s Kitchen: Traditional Lebanese Cooking. Happy cooking, Happy Easter, and sahtein!
Remember, as my mother Alice said, “If you make it with love, it will be delicious!”
story and all photos © linda dalal sawaya 2016