When I was little my great aunt Edna used to send us a tin of cookies every Christmas. They weren’t really kid cookies – no icing, no chocolate chips, no sprinkles, no real fun. I always thought of them as adult cookies. Not too sweet, made from a grainy semolina, covered with a fluff of confectioners sugar, and filled with dates. Not exactly Oreos.
For most of the year the Christmas-colored tin languished on top of the refrigerator, forgotten and untouched by most of us. I am pretty sure the only one who occasionally snuck a crumbly, date filled cookie from that tin was me, and I was always surprised when the next year’s gift arrived, to find out I’d pretty much polished off the previous year’s. Eventually I became quite fond of the cookies and looked forward to their arrival. I am sorry to say that when Great Aunt Edna, who I had never actually met, died, she was mourned by me chiefly for the loss of pastry.
I didn’t know then that the cookies I had come to love were called ma’amoul, kind of a less-buttery-than-Scottish middle-eastern shortbread rolled around the rich sweetness of dates or nuts. Aunt Edna’s cookies as I recall were pretty much rounded balls, but some ma’amoul are beautiful creations, with floral or, geometric patterns pushed into the dough.
Not being much of a pastry chef I have never even tried to make them, a fact that seems to me now a real pity. But traveling the Middle East I have found a short-cut to the deliciousness of ma’amoul, which is just to eat dates. In the parts of the Arab world I visited they are everywhere. A welcoming greeting when you arrive, a sweet bite with tea, an after dinner mouthful of sugary delight.
In Dubai we passed a shop called Bateel that overflowed with high-end date products (including intricately molded ma’amoul.) But it was the dates themselves that got me. Stuffed with everything you can think of – candied orange peel, pecans, pistachios – or dipped in chocolate, they were a date-lover’s dream.
I carefully selected an assortment and it has been traveling with us, providing a regular, much-loved bed time treat.
Having fallen newly back in love with these sweet, sweet, sweetmeats, I think it’s time to dig out Grandma’s Lebanese cookbook and start working on ma’amoul. (And definitely to remember to think kindly of Great Aunt Edna at Christmas. 🎄)