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The Middle-Eastern Cookie That Caused a Panic in Pennsylvania

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This Monday morning, a customer at a Gulf gas station in Marshalls Creek, PA panicked after spotting an unattended box with Arabic lettering at a gas pump. After all, it was just hours after the tristate area went on high alert for signs of Ahmad Khan Rahami, the now-apprehended man thought to be responsible for bombings in New York and New Jersey over the weekend.

Said customer called the state police, alarmed by the box's Arabic lettering, fearing it contained a bomb. That Monday morning became a real scene, involving three police cars and the arrival of the Hazardous Devices and Explosives Unit, also resulting in the premature closure of a nearby daycare that day. The situation was diffused by noon, because they realized it wasn't a bomb after all, but something much more innocuous: A box of ma'amoul, shortbread cookies stuffed with dates.

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Ma'amoul (sometimes stylized as maamul, mamool, or mamoul) are semolina shortbread cookies native to the Near East. Their dough is often soaked in orange blossom or rosewater before being stuffed with dates, pistachios, or walnuts—these ingredients are ground into a paste along with spices like cinnamon and star anise. The cookies are molded into various shapes using intricate wooden instruments (see below), and different fillings call for different shapes. Date fillings call for flat tops, while pistachio-filled ma'amoul are oblong; if they're filled with walnuts, the cookies are shaped like domes with rounded tops.

Ma'amoul are woven deeply into the cultural fabric of the Near East and its diaspora. As Azhar Hashem explained in this beautiful piece for us in July, ma'amoul are consumed widely in the region year-round, but consumption spikes during holidays, from Easter or Lent for Christians to Eid for Muslims to Purim for Jewish. They're a food everyone eats, and therefore something of a cultural neutralizer.

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Mamool

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Makes many!

Mamool Dough

  • 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

Filling

  • 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
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There's a whiff of irony in here for a cookie that's something of a cultural leveler to inspire such anxiety. Sadly, local coverage of this Monday's incident hasn't even deigned to mention the fact that this box of cookies was ma'amoul. Peep the descriptors used for ma'amoul: "A box of Arabic cookies," scribes Carmella Mataloni of the local ABC affiliate. PennLive's John Luciew, bless his heart, is a bit more suspicious of that signifier, saying they're "so-called 'Arabic cookies'" while referring to Mataloni's coverage. "A box of cookies with Arabic writing," writes Kevin Kunzmann of the Pocono Record. All of these avoid naming ma'amoul at all, let alone doing the harder work of educating those whose fears are activated at the the sight of big, scary Arabic lettering on a box of shortbread cookies.

Ever had ma'amoul? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: mamoul, mamool, middle east, arabic, pennsylvania