Behind the Recipes

Many Hands Shape Ma’amoul

Buttery semolina cookies perfumed with floral extracts and stuffed with dates, nuts, and warm spices are a testament to community and hospitality.
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Published Feb. 5, 2024.

Years ago, as Laila Daoud recalls, the women in her neighborhood would spend the days leading up to Easter in their salons (the biggest room in the home), immersed in ma’amoul production.

Daoud, a Jordanian home cook, remembers aunts, mothers, and daughters seated on a floor covered with blankets, dividing hills of orange blossom water– and rose water–scented semolina dough into walnut-size pieces.

As the golden portions were passed from one pair of hands to another, they were shaped into disks, wrapped around a spiced date or nut filling, rolled until smooth, and gently pressed into an intricately carved wooden mold called a qalab.

The woman at the end of the line would tap the qalab against a low table, releasing the imprinted treasure into her palm. When there was no more room on the floor for ma’amoul‑filled cookie sheets, the group would summon boys from a nearby bakery to shuttle the trays to its ovens to bake—a common community perk at the time. 

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I met Daoud through her niece, my friend Lisa Beshara Saia, when we sat down with three generations of her female relatives to discuss the special cookie that she said women “make and make and make” during the holiday season. 

Group ma’amoul preparation—a time for conversation, laughter, and connection—is still common across the Levant, where the cookies are a much‑anticipated reward at the end of a fast, though they are also purchased at bakeries and bake sales.

Christians enjoy ma’amoul on Easter, following the Lenten fast; Muslims, on Eid al-Fitr, the three-day finale to the dawn-to-dusk fasts of Ramadan; and Jews, on Purim, the celebration after the Fast of Esther. 

It’s important to amass a stockpile, as family, friends, and neighbors visit one another all day, and the labors of love coated in drifts of powdered sugar are central to the festivities. “You go through boxes of [the] sweets,” said Laila’s niece Suhaila Daoud. 

Golden Opportunity

Ma’amoul dough, which is meant to be short and crumbly, is typically prepared in two stages. In the first, all-purpose or semolina flour—a type that’s coarsely milled from durum wheat and prized for its blond hue and lightly sweet taste—is mixed with lots of smen (fermented clarified butter), oil, or softened butter; flavorings; and sugar.

I opted to make my dough with semolina and butter, along with liberal pours of lightly bitter orange blossom water and fresh, floral rose water. A smidge of mahlab, a spice made of ground cherry kernels, buoyed the dough with hints of almond, and to double down on the flowery extracts, I sweetened the mix with honey instead of sugar. 

The King of Dates

With their luscious, jammy flesh and rich, honey-caramel taste, Medjool dates are befitting of specialty confections such as ma’amoul. Known as “the king of dates,” the dark, purplish-brown fruit grows in large clusters on date palm trees and is typically harvested in the fully ripe “tamar” stage, when some of its moisture has evaporated in the heat of the sun, causing deep wrinkles in its glossy skin. An extremely high sugar content and low moisture level give Medjools an extended shelf life that can be prolonged by refrigerating or freezing. 

I rubbed the ingredients between my fingers until the semolina grains took on the feel of wet sand. At this point, the mixture is given a lengthy rest to allow the semolina to absorb fat and soften, precluding grittiness in the baked cookies. 

After 4 hours, I pinched off a piece of dough, and its supple texture was a cue that it was ready for the next stage. Here, a small amount of yeast (and a touch of salt) dissolved in warm milk is kneaded in, and the dough is allowed to rest for another 30 minutes or so. There’s not enough yeast to cause the dough to rise—just enough to infuse it with a faint maltiness and help it gently puff in the oven. 

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Qalab (Ma’amoul Molds)

Although some bakers pattern ma’amoul by pinching the dough with special tweezers, most use a qalab to imprint an ornamental design—sunbursts, flower petals, and raindrops are common—and indicate the type of filling hidden inside. Qalabs are often handed down as keepsakes to encourage the sweet tradition of ma’amoul.

My first few batches were rich and sweet, with a heady aroma, but the delicate cookie broke into bits when I took a bite. Senior Science Research Editor Paul Adams posited that the size of the semolina was to blame: Although semolina is high in protein (about 13 percent), its grains are so large that they’re unable to develop much gluten. 

When flour is finely milled, much of the protein is exposed and thus able to hydrate and form gluten. But in semolina, the protein is trapped inside big granules.

Even if it eventually gets hydrated, the protein will still be on the interior, unable to link with other gluten strands and strengthen the dough. This is likely why some bakers add all-purpose flour. Sure enough, just a few tablespoons of this finer flour was enough to help hold my cookies together.

Dream Dates

Ma’amoul can be stuffed with walnuts, pistachios, or dates, but to many devotees, the date kind is quintessential. I

’d been making a paste by whizzing sticky-sweet Medjools in the food processor with a few pats of butter, a drizzle of honey, cinnamon, mahlab, anise, and salt. The blend was caramelly and lush, but I couldn’t get pistachios off my mind: Would a handful enhance the silky texture? I proposed my nontraditional hybrid filling idea to Daoud and her relatives, and they fully endorsed it.

In practice, the crunch of the buttery green nuts was delightful with the creamy fruit.

To shape the cookies, I stretched a disk of dough to envelop the filling, rolled the ball in my hands to smooth the surface, and pressing it into a qalab to create a three-dimensional geometric pattern. 

Bake the ma’amoul until their undersides take on a golden hue, and then dust them with plenty of snowy confectioners’ sugar. Then, enjoy your creations the same way that Daoud and her relatives do—with loving company and coffee that’s flavored heavily with cardamom—this season or at any time of year.

Recipe

Ma'amoul

Buttery semolina cookies perfumed with floral extracts and stuffed with dates, nuts, and warm spices are a testament to community and hospitality.
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