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Growing up in the Levant, mamool—a semolina shortbread cookie filled with dates or nuts, like pistachios or walnuts—were always tied to religious festivals. What I love about mamool is that they're not specific to any religion: Around Easter or Lent, you'd visit with Christian friends and they'd serve them dusted with powdered sugar alongside coffee or tea. You may visit with Muslim friends for Eid and they'd have mamool to celebrate the end of Ramadan or pilgrimage months. And if you visit with Arab-Jewish friends, they'll serve them filled with nuts for Purim.
The cookies are made in special mamool molds (aalib mamool): They're sturdy and rustic—and for those from the region, are immediately recognizable as the mold for one of the tastiest sweets in the cuisine. Different mold designs correspond to different mamool fillings so that they're easily identifiable by eaters.
The traditional mamool mold is carved into wood. It's very ornate and aesthetically beautiful while being highly functional: The wood makes for a non-stick material, while the design creates a consistent batch of cookies. My molds were passed down to me by my mom, and to her by her mother.
My favorite memories from childhood are of mamool parties hosted either by my mom or the neighboring aunties a few days before one of these religious holidays. And it didn't matter if this was a holiday you celebrated or not—everybody came together to make cookies. It was usually a big social event where people caught up, gossiped, discussed politics, and just enjoyed each other's company.
Most importantly, everybody had a role. The elders and most experienced would be responsible for mixing the dough and making the various fillings, usually according to recipes passed on across generations. The slightly less experienced were responsible for forming the cookie around the filling. And then the youngsters were responsible for placing the cookie dough along with the filling inside a mamool mold, tapping the mold ever so slightly so that the decorated cookie drops right into the palm of the hand and then is placed in a pan, ready for baking. Finally, there was a group responsible for the baking. At the end, the cookies would be placed into boxes to be taken by the various people present to share with their own families. How amazing this experience was, where one cookie was touched and prepared by so many hands.
And now that I'm older, living in San Francisco, I refuse to have it any other way. My molds never leave the drawer they're stored in unless there's a mamool-making party bringing people together.
- 3 cups fine semolina
- 1/2 cup flour
- 250 to 300 grams butter or soft ghee; exact amount depends on the the how well the semolina absorbs it
- 4 tablespoons milk
- 2 teaspoons mahlab (a spice that can be obtained from any Middle Eastern specialty shop)
- 1/2 teaspoon mastic
- 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
- 1 cup warm water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- Date Filling
- 1/2 cup pitted dates, puréed
- 1 teaspoon mahlab
- 2 teaspoons mamool specialty spices (1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon, 1 tablespoon ground anise seeds, 1/2 tablespoon mahlab)
- 50 grams butter
- Pistachio or Walnut Filling
- 1/2 cup pistachios or walnuts, well crushed
- 3/4 cup confectioners sugar
- 2 tablespoons orange or rose blossom water