From Beirut-born fine art collector and advisor to London-based cookbook author, teacher and chef, Anissa Helou, is an expert in the cultures and cuisines of the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa. Her latest book, Sweet Middle East: Classic Recipes, from Baklava to Fig Ice Cream, delves into this part of the world to discover even the lesser known regional delights.
Anissa shares a recipe for Ma’Mul Bi-Fistuq, which are semolina pastries filled with pistachios. In Damascus, Syria, you can also find ma’mul filled with walnuts and dates, shaped into various forms using geometric patterned molds. Don’t worry if you don’t have a proper mold to shape yours, though. You can always make these by hand and use tweezers to pinch patterns on the surface.
She serves these with a Sweet Soapwort Dip that adds creaminess and sweetness to these ma-mul. If you serve them together, there’s no need to sprinkle the cookies with confectioners’ sugar. This dip can also be served with any other cookies that take your fancy, so long as they’re not too sweet.
Ma’Mul Bi-Fistuq (Pistachio-Filled Semolina Pastries)
Yield: Makes about 15 pastries
Ma’Mul Pastry Dough Ingredients
1 cup (175 g) semolina flour (regular, not fine)
2 tbsp unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 tbsp superfine sugar
1/8 tsp fast-acting (instant) yeast
5 tbsp (75 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1½ tbsp orange blossom water
1½ tbsp rose water
Pistachio Filling Ingredients
¾ cup (100 g) pistachios, hulled and unsalted
2 tbsp superfine sugar
¾ tsp orange blossom water
¾ tsp rose water
Confectioners’ sugar or Sweet Soapwort Dip (see recipe below)
To make the pastry: Mix the semolina, flour, sugar and yeast in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and, with the tips of your fingers, work it in until fully incorporated. Add the orange blossom water and rose water and knead until the pastry is smooth and elastic. (Add a drop more rose water if you find the pastry a little dry.) Place in a lightly floured bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest in a cool place for 1½ hours.
To make the filling: Using a spice grinder or small food processor, grind the pistachios to a medium-fine texture. Mix the ground pistachios and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the orange blossom water and rose water and mix well.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
Pinch off a small piece of pastry and roll it into a ball the size of a walnut. Place it in your palm and flatten it with your fingers, until you have an oval about 3” [7.5 cm] long, about 2” [5 cm] wide in the middle, and about ¼” [6 mm] thick. Place 1 teaspoon of pistachio filling in a line down the middle lengthwise and pinch the dough together to close it over the filling.
Carefully mold the filled pastry into the shape of a finger with a fat middle and if you have a tabe’, lightly press the pastry into it, leaving the pinched side on the outside (so that when you invert the molded pastry, it is on the bottom). Place the fingers of your other hand under a work surface with your palm protruding. Invert the mold over your hand and tap the mold lightly against the work surface to release the pastry into your palm. Slide the pastry onto the prepared baking sheet. Fill and shape the remaining pastry in the same way. You may have to scrape the inside of the mold every now and then, in case some pastry sticks to it. If you don’t have a tabe’, gently shape the pastry between the palms of your hands to create a flat oval bottom, mounding the ma’mul into a rounded sloping shape. You should end up with about 15 pastries, each measuring about 3” [7.5 cm] long, 1” [2.5 cm] wide in the middle, and 1¼” [3 cm] high.
Bake the pastries until cooked and barely colored, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack. Let cool and then sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar before serving.
Natef (Sweet Soapwort Dip)
Yield: Makes 2 cups (480 ml)
The dried roots of soapwort (Saponaria officinalis and Gypsophila struthium) are known as shirsh al-halawa in Arabic. The roots are boiled in water and strained before the water is whisked into a stiff white foam—it’s an extraordinary transformation, thanks to the roots’ saponin (soap) content. The foam is then whisked with sugar syrup to make natef, a soft, meringue-like dip.
2 oz (55 g) soapwort root, rinsed well under cold water
2½ cups (600 ml) water
1½ cups (360 ml) Fragrant Sugar Syrup (see recipe below)
In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the soapwort and water to a boil. Monitor it closely, as it will foam up and can easily boil over. Simmer until the liquid is reduced to ½ cup plus 2 tbsp (150 ml)—by this time, it can easily have turned brown so watch carefully.
Strain the soapwort liquid into a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a strand mixer, and using an electric beater or a whisk attachment, beat until the water has turned into a white, shiny foam.
Gradually whisk the sugar syrup into the foam by hand until you have a fluffy, stretchy meringue-like mixture. The more powerful your whisking, the better the natef will be, and the longer it will last without separating.
You can store it covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. If you find that mixture has separated, whisk again to recombine.
Fragrant Sugar Syrup
Yield: Makes about 1½ cups (360 ml)
2 cups (400 g) superfine sugar
½ cup (120 ml) water
1½ tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tbsp rose water
1 tbsp orange blossom water
Put the sugar, lemon juice and water in a saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to help the sugar dissolve. Boil for 3 minutes, then add the rose and orange blossom water. Mix well and remove from the heat. Bring to room temperature before using.
You can store this syrup in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.