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These beautiful cookies are perfect for any special occasion. While they are a bit time-consuming to make, if you have an afternoon free they’re definitely worth the effort. Ma’amoul means “stuffed” and these cookies can be stuffed with a number of different fillings; date filling is traditional for holidays, but walnut and pistachio are common too. My Syrian mother-in-law taught me this recipe and it’s found in my cookbook.
1. Mix together the spices for the cake spice mix. You will only need 1 ½ teaspoons of the spice mix for recipe; store the remaining spice mix in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 6 months.
2. To make the date ﬁlling, grind the dates and oil in a stand mixer ﬁtted with a food grinding attachment (ﬁne grind) or in a heavy-duty food processor. If using a stand mixer, alternate between adding the dates and oil. If you’re using a food processor, before you add any dates, rub oil on the blade and inside of the bowl. Once processed, oil your hands and knead the cake spice mix into the dates.
3. To make the dough, combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a full, rolling boil (occasionally giving the pan a swirl); boil 1 minute and then turn off the heat. Cool 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Combine the oil and clariﬁed butter in a separate small saucepan and cook over medium heat until the butter is just melted, about 2 minutes; cool slightly.
5. Put the ﬂour in a large bowl and whisk in the yeast. Use a wooden spoon to gradually incorporate the oil mixture, then gradually incorporate the sugar syrup. Knead the dough until it comes together nicely into a shaggy dough, adding up to 4 tablespoons more ﬂour as needed (when done, the dough will be soft and should look smooth, shiny, and slightly oily). Cover the dough, put it in the freezer to stiffen slightly, about 5 to 10 minutes, and then knead it again for a couple minutes.
6. Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C); line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat liners.
7. To shape the cookies with a ma’amoul mold (see note below), measure 1 slightly scant tablespoon of dough and roll it into a ball; slightly ﬂatten it with your hands, then press it into the bottom and up the sides of the mold. Measure 1 teaspoon of the date mixture and roll it into a ball; slightly ﬂatten it and gently press it into the dough in the mold. Measure 1 slightly scant teaspoon of dough, roll it into a ball, slightly ﬂatten it, then put it on top of the date mixture in the mold; use your ﬁngers to press the dough on the top into the dough on the sides. To remove the cookie from the mold, hold the mold by the handle and tap the flat rim on a secure surface; the cookie will drop right out.
8. Arrange the cookies on the baking sheets about ½ to 1 inch (1 ¼ to 2 ½ cm) apart (if you use 2 half-sheet pans, the cookies should all ﬁt on 2 pans; if you use smaller pans you will need to cook them in 2 batches). Bake until light golden brown on the bottom, about 20 to 25 minutes, rotating the trays once.
9. Cool completely, and then dust with the powdered sugar. To store the cookies, package them layered between parchment paper in an airtight container.
Ma’amoul mold: In this recipe I give directions for how to shape these cookies with a ma’amoul mold, which can be purchased at Middle Eastern grocery stores or online. However, these cookies can also be shaped by hand. To do so, measure 1 slightly scant tablespoon of dough and roll it into a ball; slightly ﬂatten it with your hands, then hold it in the palm of 1 hand. Measure 1 teaspoon of the date mixture and roll it into a ball; slightly ﬂatten it and gently press it into the dough in your hand. Measure 1 slightly scant teaspoon of dough, roll it into a ball, slightly ﬂatten it, then put it on top of the date mixture; use your ﬁngers to press the dough on the top into the dough on the sides. Use your hands to gently shape it into a circle, and then use a fork to make a decorative cross-hatch pattern on the top.
Mahlab: This spice is the seed kernel that comes from the center of St. Lucie Cherry pits; it has a lovely aroma and tastes like a cross between almonds and cherries. You can usually find mahlab at specialty spice stores or Middle Eastern grocery stores. If you can’t find it, although the flavor won’t be quite the same, for a similar flavor you could add a couple drops of pure almond extract.
Extra date filling: If you have extra date filling, wrap it well and freeze for up to 6 months. When you’re ready to use it, let it thaw in the fridge overnight, then knead a little bit of canola oil into it until smooth.
Clarified butter (ghee): I don’t recommend replacing the ghee in this recipe with regular butter because of the different water content. Clarified butter can commonly be found at regular grocery stores or easily made at home.
Recipe reprinted with permission from An Edible Mosaic: Middle Eastern Fare with Extraordinary Flair by Faith Gorsky; Tuttle Publishing (2012).
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