The Taste of Holidays

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There is something about festivities that render the air around our household full of joy mixing with the aromas of butter, sugar, rose water and nuts, as the smell dissipates from the kitchen into the rest of the house. Religious traditions and love of family become the essence of the month of March. Ma’amoul are the holiday cookie par excellence in this part of the world; every family has the designated maamoul maker and in mine we luckily have my mother who would make them and decorate them by hand. These light golden crumbly sweets are very popular in the Middle East, and although they are particularly associated with festivals, it is not uncommon to find ma’amoul around the house at other times as well.

They are often offered to visitors and honored guests along with tea, coffee, and other beverages, depending on the region. Ma’amoul is a semolina shortbread bound with butter, orange blossom water and rose water, which on the inside holds a sweet filling. The filling is either buttery dates, or a concoction of walnuts or pistachios with sugar, more orange blossom water and rosewater. Biting through that buttery, crumbly crust and getting the faint hint of roses and orange blossoms, followed by the chewiness of pistachios, nutty and sweet, is a delicious opulence of butter and nutty flavors.

In her cookbook, Recipes and Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen, Sonia Uvezian describes ma’amoul, shortbread cookies stuffed with dates or nuts, as the Middle Eastern equivalent of Marcel Proust’s beloved madeleine: the cookie that eaten years later stirred up long-forgotten memories of self and place.

Ma’amoul which means “filled” in Arabic, according to Middle Eastern food expert Nawal Nasrallah, can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia, a region that included modern-day Iraq and parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran.Muslims eat them at night during Ramadan and on the Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha holidays, and Arabic speaking Christians eat them on the days before Lent, Easter Sunday, and in the fast of Epiphany.

Making maamoul is a communal and celebratory activity, a joyful way of remembering the past and keeping cultural identity alive. I have fond memories of making them with my mum.  Making ma’amoul is usually an event for family and friends to come together, all helping and participating in making the dough, filling the cookies, forming them and baking them. All this happens in a cozy atmosphere filled with chats on the art of maamoul making. Eating maamoul warm is the only way to do it with the filling still gooey and slightly runny. The flavor warms my heart and the scent takes me back to my childhood. Helping deform a few maamoul cookies here and there in the process is my way of eating them fresh out of the oven.

Traditionally, the cookies are made in decorative molds, which stamp distinctive beautiful patterns onto the finished products; certain patterns and shapes are used to indicate specific fillings. The flat round ones are filled with dates, the elongated oval ones and the oval ones are for the nut fillings: pistachios and walnuts. Another way of forming the cookies would be to use special decorating tweezers. The tweezers are used to pinch the dough to form different patterns

There’s anecdotal evidence pointing to the tradition of making maamoul on Easter. Apparently the wooden mold symbolizes Jesus’ cross, the mold’s pattern resembles the shape of the sponge with which Jesus was given vinegar to drink, the crust contains no sugar in reference to Christ’s death containing no happiness, and the inside is sweet and joyful to symbolize the resurrection. I’m not sure how steeped in tradition all this symbolism is, but at the least, it’s a nice story. The dough is usually prepared on Good Friday and the maamoul is baked on Easter Saturday.

As soon as the first baking sheet goes into the oven, a cloud of spice and heavenly smells fills the house and it suddenly feels like the spirit of Easter has settled in our home, with all its loveliness and aromatic splendor.

Biting into one of these cookies, you first get the slightly crumbly crust with a hint of rose water that whiffs into your nostrils. Next comes the chewy and sweet filling. Be it the nutty pistachios or walnuts or my favorite, the dates with hints of cinnamon and cardamom. The whole thing melts in your mouth playing a melody of textures and flavors. One thing I know for sure about Ma’amoul, you can never stop at just one! And the competition about who does the best Maamoul is still on going and will remain as long as ma’amoul is being shared.

My country is a true place of love, sharing food, united families, traditions, culture, and of happiness that perfume our memories with sweet fragrances of rose and orange water memories, akin to the scents of early spring in Lebanon.

 

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