Weekend: Space: Food:

Weekend: Space: Food: SWEET TEMPTATION: Trays of sticky Middle Eastern
pastries will not only infuse your kitchen with the sweet aromas of
the Levant, but they will also offer an exotic alternative to the
usual Easter parade of cakes and chocolate, says NAYLA AUDI

The Guardian – United Kingdom

Apr 03, 2004 NAYLA AUDI

I’ve always been in the enviable position of coming from two religions
– at least, when it came to the delicious world of Lebanese sweets. As
a child, I longed for the Muslim Eid (festivities) to begin. I’d wait
impatiently for my paternal grandparents to bring two huge, flat trays
from the sweet shop. One tray would be filled with a dizzying array of
baklava, all drenched with sticky syrup made from sugar, water and
orange blossom, and sweets cooked with a heavy ashta (clotted)
cream. The other would hold several kilos of maamoul – traditional
semolina-based pastries – all of them individually wrapped. The
baklavas would be reserved for the family, but the dozens of maamoul
were duly handed out, along with a steaming cup of Arabic coffee, to
the many visitors who would come over the Eid to wish us good
fortune. (According to Lebanese tradition, guests should be served a
meal before the maamoul are passed around, but these days they only
get the biscuits.)

Our guests would either eat the maamoul there and then, or take some
home. Either way, I’d always manage to hide a few of these delicious
little pastries for myself, and would later munch them in my room,
savouring the crumbling, shortbread-style pastry filled with either
crushed walnuts, almonds and pistachios or crushed dates, and then
covered with powdered sugar.

No sooner is the Eid over than the Christian festival of Easter
begins. As tradition dictates, women in my mother’s family gathered a
few days earlier and began the ritual of making the Christian version
of maamoul. These are similar to the Muslim kind, just smaller. Once
the semolina and butter was mixed, my strict Armenian Orthodox
grandmother would then pass the dough through incense, to “purify it
against the evil spirits”. The dough was then shaped – either with
old-fashioned wooden moulds or by hand – and stuffed with crushed
dates or nuts. The walnut, almond and pistachio-stuffed maamoul were
formed into oval, egg-like shapes; the date variety were more circular
and doughnut-like. The shape was important: the round maamoul
signified the crown worn by Jesus as he was led to be crucified, while
the egg-shaped one symbolised the sponge he was given to quench his
thirst. Each woman would then be handed a small pair of tweezers and,
with meticulous care, we’d pinch the surface of the maamoul, the
resulting effect symbolising the thorns on Jesus’s crown. The dozens
of maamoul were stored away and taken out to offer to well-wishers.

Unlike the Muslim version, however, the Christian maamoul are not
wrapped. They are eaten on Easter day itself – as a way to break the
40-day Lent. Real eastern Christian fasting requires abstention from
animal products, including butter, eggs and milk, so the maamoul
pastry made with butter was a perfect way to break the fast. Modern
women, however, see Lent as a way to abstain from sweets altogether
(as a great weight-loss technique) and use the maamoul to ease
themselves back into the world of desserts.

Today, such traditions remain relatively unchanged. As Easter
approaches, the main question among Christian women is still, “Have
you made the maamoul yet?” (I must add that sampling each other’s work
, and seeing whose are best, is a great source of gossip.) Sweet shops
do a roaring trade to those who didn’t perform the Easter ritual.

Lebanese sweets have earned a distinct reputation worldwide. One
well-known Beirut pastry shop, Bohsali, receives emails from all over
the globe asking for its sweets to be shipped over to ex-pats and
non-Lebanese alike (abohsali.com.lb). It was the same Bohsali family
who, in the middle of the 19th century, first “Lebanised” Turkish and
Greek sweets. Back then, they had a little shop near the port, and the
owner, Salim, came across baklava in shipments from Turkey and
Greece. The sweets were a big hit among Beirutis and, in time, Salim
learned to make his own. Soon, he and his son had expanded their
repertoire, and the store’s reputation began to spread. (In 1914,
while Lebanon was still under Ottoman rule, it was officially
appointed supplier to the king.) The sweets began to grab the
attention of the Lebanese bourgeoisie, who had until then ordered
their baked goods from swinging Cairo, thus establishing Lebanese
sweets as a favourite delicacy.

Last December, the Bohsalis won first prize at the Academie Lebanese
de la Gastronomie (a branch of the international Academie de la
Gastronomie). Today, there are dozens of Lebanese sweet shops
throughout the country and their pastries are distributed worldwide.

Another Lebanese sweet offered regularly is ghoraybeh, an off-white,
crumbly biscuit made with butter and flour. Whether bought in or
homemade, the pastry can either be large or small – the small ones are
only slightly bigger than a nut. Again, it was the Bohsali family who
were behind both the size and initial popularity of ghoraybeh.

Whichever sweet is offered, however, no visit to a Lebanese home is
complete without a cup of hot Arabic coffee. It’s usually made in a
special kettle, or raghweh, which you can buy in most Middle Eastern


Makes 40 biscuits.

200g butter or lard

100g icing sugar

300g fine semolina

100g shelled pistachio nuts

Work the butter until soft, ideally by hand. Blend in the sugar, then
add the semolina making sure you get a homogenous mixture. Shape the
dough into small round biscuits or into half-moons, sticking the edges
together. Decorate each biscuit with a pistachio nut.

Bake at medium heat (180C/350F/ gas mark 4) for 10 to 15 minutes. The
biscuits should not be allowed to brown – a proper ghoraybeh retains
the initial off-white colour of the dough.


Traditionally, these pastries are filled with a mixture of almond,
pistachio and walnut or with dates. These days, orange blossom water
and rosewater are sold as a matter of course in most major
supermarkets; failing that, try a Middle Eastern store or
delicatessen. These quantities are enough to make 80 pastries – that
may sound a lot, but once you’ve tried one, you’ll get through them in
no time at all.

For the pastry

500g butter, melted

1kg fine semolina

250ml rosewater

250ml orange blossom water

Pour the melted butter over the semolina, mix well, cover, and leave
the mixture at room temperature overnight. The next day, add the
rosewater and the orange water and blend well. The resulting dough is
the basis for the biscuits.

Now make the stuffing of your choice:

Almond, pistachio and walnut stuffing

200g crushed almond, pistachio and walnut

2 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp orange blossom water

1 tbsp rosewater

Combine the ingredients in a bowl, then stuff the mixture into the
prepared dough either by hand, or with a traditional wooden maamoul
mould. Shape into round or oval biscuits. Bake on medium heat for 10
to 15 minutes.

Crushed date stuffing

200g crushed dates (called tamer, sold ready-crushed in Middle Eastern
stores )

50g butter

1 tbsp orange blossom water

1 tbsp rosewater

Mix the dates, butter, orange blossom water and rosewater, then stuff
and bake as with the nut stuffing above.

Lebanese coffee

You can find this in Middle Eastern stores where it is sold plain or
flavoured with cardamom. Use a small kettle, or buy a raghweh. Use
small coffee cups, one of which should be used to measure out the
correct amount of water. Makes four cups.

6 coffee cups water

7 full tsp Lebanese coffee

6 tsp sugar (optional)

Place the ingredients in a small kettle or pan, then bring to a boil
and take off the heat. Bring the resulting liquid to the boil a
further two times, then begin by transferring the coffee-infused foam
from the top of the pot in to each of the cups. Now pour in the
coffee, leave for several moments, in order to allow the grounds to
settle, and serve piping hot