Two signs herald the start of Eid Al Fitr in the Arab world: The crescent moon and sugar-dusted ma’amoul.
Ma’amoul – or kleicha in Iraq – is a Levantine cookie stuffed with fudgy date paste or chopped nuts, usually walnuts or pistachios. About four days before Eid, my neighbourhood Palestinian restaurant boasts tiered stacks of ma’amoul that fly off their trays to be wrapped, sealed and bagged by the kilo. But ma’amoul is by no means an exclusively Muslim cookie. It appears during Christian Easter and Christmas and Jewish Purim. Iraqi food historian Nawal Nasrallah traces the cookie’s origins to ancient Babylonia, where these pastries were baked as a New Year’s offering to Ishtar, the Akkadian goddess of ‘love, war, sexuality and fertility.’
Growing up as third-culture child in Dubai, I have memories of samosas and baklava flourishing side-by-side on our Eid tables. But ma’amoul memories I do not have. In fact, I must have tasted my first ma’amoul less than a decade ago. This late realization was not particularly life-changing because crumbly, often dry ma’amoul could not stand up to my preferred cookie criteria: warm, moist and chewy.
Those who have grown up in ma’amoul-making households may scoff at my superficial criteria. To fully appreciate this stuffed cookie, they might argue, one needs to chew on the nostalgia baked into them first.
A few days before Eid, mothers and grandmothers of the Levant will prepare shortbread dough with generous amounts of butter, samna (clarified butter or ghee), oil or sometimes all three. An assembly line is set up. You could be assigned to rolling balls of crumbly batter, filling them with date paste or crushed nuts, pressing them into patterned wooden qaleb (molds), or manning the ovens until the delicately stamped cookies are baked. I have read many a poetic account where the writer reminisces of how the aromas of freshly baking ma’amoul would wash over her childhood home during Eid. How would I even begin to understand this sentiment when I had never played a part in the hyper-sensory, intoxicating love story behind this festive cookie? In comparison, my interaction has been the emotionless Cliff notes version where the cashier rings up a tray of mixed cookies, all to be consumed in a home where the oven slept all day.
This Eid, I resolved to give ma’amoul a fair chance. I could only write my own ma’amoul love story if I took the traditional route and baked them at home.
I hunted down ma’amoul moulds at a speciality Arabic store called Douri Mart and in my infinite enthusiasm, purchased all three kinds available – the traditional single-cookie wooden qaleb, the cream-coloured four-in-one plastic mold, and the flimsy push-lever plastic ones. As a novice ma’amoul maker, I wasn’t leaving anything to chance.
My ma’amoul debut began in moments of hungry turmoil before iftar. The process was not torturous at all. To the contrary, as I sifted the fine grains of semolina through my fingers, brushing them through the melted butter, watching the granules clump and darken a shade with the liquid fat, I felt a therapeutic calm. It was the sort of calm you feel when you run your fingers through wet sand on a warm beach. And the breeze on the beach smells of a sea of aromas – orange blossom, rosewater, cardamom, mastic resin and the perfumed seeds of the St Lucie Cherry, or mahlab.
In an attempt to capture the communal spirit of the cookie, I recruited my husband into a two-person assembly line. Shaping ma’amoul was a challenge – arguably the necessary complication of any love story worth its happy ending. We argued over technique, switched roles in the assembly line, theorized interventions, ferreted out more tools and nearly resigned midway, our fingers cramped with effort. It was well past midnight when the ma’amoul emerged, bruised but triumphant.
I crouched transfixed by the hot oven, inhaling gusts of melted butter, monitoring the ma’amoul as their intricately tattooed bodies tanned from cream to golden brown. But something was not right. My cookies left the oven looking parched, haggard, as though they were about to crumble with the sheer exhaustion of baking.
But I wasn’t complaining. There is something endearing about even the most mangled cookie when it emerges out of your own oven, warm and vulnerable. This was not failure, but a tasteless tragic twist in a story whose narrator needs more practice. I will revisit ma’amoul next Eid: more butter here, less water there, another hour of resting the dough. The saga will continue, even if it didn’t start with love at first sight.