The word of the night is syrup! To be fair, these desserts are made in a hot climate and sugar helps to retard the staling process. Middle Eastern desserts vary across cultures, but they also share similarities. The same dessert can be known by a different name across borders or ethnic or religious groups. Ingredients are shared across cultures as well. As different groups moved across the region they introduced ingredients and dishes. Over time they have been adopted and adapted. Historically desserts from the Middle Eastern region were strongly perfumed with ingredients like rosewater, orange blossom and orange flower water.
Ma’amoul are filled cookies. The dough is not sweet at all, just a hint of orange blossom water. The filling is lightly sweet. Traditional fillings include date, walnuts, pistachios and almond. Dates are chopped and mixed with orange flower water. Walnuts are chopped with sugar, cinnamon and orange blossom water. These are made in beautiful wooden molds. The design of each mold matches the filling inside. The cookie is stuffed and then placed into the mold. A good whack on the baking sheet releases the cookie and it is ready for the oven. The cookies do not brown in the oven and are dusted lightly with powdered sugar before serving.
Melomakarona are Greek – a dry cookie dipped into a warm honey syrup. These cookies are made with a fragrant combination of orange juice, brandy, orange zest, cinnamon and cloves. The dry texture is achieved with a combination of AP flour, semolina and ground walnuts.
The syrup packs quite a sweet punch here – 2 cups of sugar, 2 cups of honey, and 2 cups of water. The cookies take on the wonderful honey flavor and are quite addicting.
The ravani, or basbousa, is a Greek semolina cake generously doused in lemon soaking syrup. Ravani is made with yogurt which gives it a pleasant tang along with the lemon syrup. The yogurt and baking soda provide the leavening for the cake. The recipe instructs, “when the cake can no longer absorb the syrup, stop adding it.” This is how I feel about the class – I’ve hit my sugar absorption limit! The weight of this pan was incredible after we soaked it. Thankfully this is cut into small pieces – remember the importance of matching the sweetness of the dessert with the serving size. Although most American desserts are usually ‘bigger is better.’
Even though these were all so different, you can see the similarities in technique and ingredients across the recipes. What a delicious and fragrant part of the world!
Do you have a favorite Middle Eastern dessert? Favorite local shop for them? I love Sofra bakery in Cambridge and Seta’s Café in Belmont.