Just try to think of Purim without thinking about hamantaschen. It’s impossible, right? The association this triangular cookie has with Purim is equivalent to that of matzah to Passover or latkes to Hanukkah. You simply can’t think of one without thinking of the other. Jews all over the world make this same association. However, in parts of the Middle East, there is another cookie strongly associated with Purim. That cookie is a ma’amoul, sometimes called meneina.
Among the Jews of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, and Greece, ma’amoul is traditionally served at the se’udat Purim, the festive Purim meal. The beautiful cookie reminds us of the beautiful Queen Esther, its rich filling (ma’amoul in Arabic means “filled”) symbolic of the secret she kept from the king, namely, that she was Jewish. Unlike most traditional Jewish holiday foods, however, ma’amoul is a shared cultural treat. Christians in that part of the world celebrate Easter with ma’amoul, and the cookie is a beloved part of the feast marking the end of Ramadan for Muslims.
Each ma’amoul is a work of art. It is individually formed and intricately decorated using a wooden mold called a tabi or a special tweezers called maa’laat. The shortbread-like dough, which can be made using all-purpose flour or a mix of all-purpose flour and semolina flour, is rich with butter and flavored with orange blossom or rose water, which are potent perfume-like distillates of bitter orange blossoms or rose petals. Both waters are used in Mediterranean cuisines to flavor other cookies, cakes, and pastries, including baklava and madeleines.
While the ma’amoul tradition is virtually unknown to American-born Jews, Jews of Middle-Eastern heritage know it well. Rachel Persellin-Armoza, a local caterer and mother of two sons, was born to an Israeli mother. She and her family lived in Israel until her late teens. Her Aunt Clara, who is Sephardic, makes ma’amoul for Purim.
“Her ma’amoul are beautiful,” Persellin-Armoza said. “Rather than using a mold, she decorates each cookie with the tines of a fork. She fills the round ma’amoul with dates, and the oblong ones with chopped nuts, usually peanuts. Just after the cookies come out of the oven, she dusts them with powdered sugar, which melts into the engraved pattern.”
Persellin-Armoza said that her aunt always bakes enough for her family and for their Shalach Manot, which are the Purim baskets of food and drink traditionally given to friends and those in need.
Persellin-Armoza’s husband, Meir Armoza, is also Israeli. His aunt Mazal not only makes ma’amoul for Purim, but also for Shabbat every week.
Over at Simon Kohn’s Kosher Deli and Market, I spoke with brothers Menashe and Asher Gibli. They were born in Israel and recall having ma’amoul on Purim, as well as on Tu B’Shvat and Rosh Hashanah.
“We had a neighbor who made the best ma’amoul,” Asher Gibli said. “She made them by hand and decorated each one with the tines of a fork.”
My cousin Vered Guttman, a native of Israel and a caterer in Washington D. C., was delighted to learn that I was writing about ma’amoul. She told me that I had inspired her to dig out the ma’amoul mold that she had bought in the Old City in Jerusalem.
“I’ll make them next week,” she told me. “I love them when my Polish mother makes them, especially when they’re filled with dates, and I love the Palestinian versions too.”
Peoples of other faiths share this enthusiasm for ma’amoul. Akram Ali-Hassan, a Palestinian and cook at Simon Kohn’s, remembers having ma’amoul on holidays.
“My family made the cookies with a wooden mold,” Ali-Hassan said, “and always filled them with chopped walnuts. They were delicious.”
Over at International Food and Bakery in St. Ann, where I went to purchase my maa’laat, the Lebanese owner makes and sells ma’amoul. Though “Eid,” the Feast of Ramadan, is not until August 7 this year, she carries the cookies year-round. We sampled one another’s version of the cookie. This was my first taste of an authentic ma’amoul, i.e., one prepared by someone from the Middle East. Though different, hers were quite good. And mine? She was very complimentary, and asked for my recipe. I was so flattered!
This multi-cultural enthusiasm for ma’amoul is contagious. The dough is easy to make by hand or in an electric mixer. It can be formed and baked immediately. Alternatively, you can store the dough in the refrigerator for up to two days (in a covered dish or plastic storage bag) before you form, fill and bake the cookies.
Ma’amoul are unique, delicious, fun to make, and impressive. They are a great alternative or addition to the Ashkenazic hamentaschen. Think about inviting friends or family to join in the baking process. It is a great group activity, and more hands will help speed up the making, shaping, and baking.
From Crunchy, by Alice Medrich. The recipe originated in Alexandria, Egypt.)
Dough: 3 cups all-purpose flour (You could substitute a scant 1 cup of semolina flour for 1 cup of all-purpose flour)
2 tsp. baking powder
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tbsp. granulated sugar
2 tbsp. milk
1 tbsp. orange flower water or rose water*
Filling Option 1
2 cups chopped moist dates
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tsp. finely grated orange zest
Pinch of salt
1-2 tsp. orange flower water or rose water, orange juice, or water as needed to moisten.
Filling Option 2
2 cups finely ground toasted walnuts
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. orange flower water or rose water, or more
1 tsp. finely grated orange zest
1 tsp. water, or more, as needed
Powdered sugar, for coating cookies
Dough: Whisk together flour and baking powder in a medium bowl. Set aside.
In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a mixer, beat softened butter for about 1 minute, or until the consistency of mayonnaise. Add sugar and beat well to combine. Add milk and flower water and beat until thoroughly absorbed. Cover bowl and set aside while you make the filling.
Filling - Option 1: Combine dates, butter, orange zest, and a pinch of salt in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Using a fork or potato masher, mash into a paste. Remove pot from heat and stir in nuts. If paste is dry, add a teaspoon of flower water, orange juice, or water to moisten. Place a sheet of wax paper on a plate and roll paste into 1-inch balls. Set aside.
Filling - Option 2: Combine walnuts, granulated sugar, floral water, and orange zest. Mix well. Set aside.
To assemble: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Arrange baking racks in the upper third and lower third of oven. Line a large baking sheet (or 2 smaller ones) with parchment paper. Fill a small bowl halfway with powdered sugar (adding more later as needed). Set aside.
Lightly flour counter top. Gather dough together in your hands and form into a ball. Roll out dough into a circle or rectangle about 1/8” thick. Using a floured 2 ½” cookie cutter or the top edge of a drinking glass, cut out as many circles as you can.
If forming ma’amoul with a tabi** lightly spray or oil the mold. Set one circle into the bottom of the mold, pressing gently. Place a ball of date filling or a teaspoon of walnut filling into center of dough and cover with another circle, pressing dough gently around the edges to seal both pieces of dough together. Turn tabi upside down and slam it onto the prepared baking pan. Use your hands to gently push down the sides to accentuate the traditional beehive shape.
If forming ma’amoul by hand, place one circle of dough in the palm of your hand and form a shallow well in the center of the dough, making sure that the dough does not tear. Place a ball of date filling or a teaspoon of walnut filling into the well. Cover with another circle of dough, pressing outer edges of dough together to seal. Set onto prepared baking pan and gently push down on the sides to create a beehive shape. Decorate dough with a maa’laat or the tines of a fork.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, rotating pans from one rack to the other halfway through, for even baking. Do not let cookies brown!
Let cookies cool on pans for 3 minutes, then gently turn them, one at a time, upside down into the bowl of powdered sugar. Transfer to cooling racks and let cool completely before serving. When completely cool, the cookies may be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for 1 week. Makes 30-36 cookies.