Happy Easter! It’s really great to be able to share this recipe with you, and maybe from the photo above, you too will feel there are things worth coming back to this world for. This is my tray of maamoul, a traditional Lebanese sweet that is made especially for Easter. Maamoul is a semolina shortbread bound with butter, orange blossom water and rose water which on the inside holds a sweet filling. The filling is either buttery dates, or a concoction of walnuts or pistachios with sugar, more orange blossom water and rosewater. Now consider that for a minute. Imagine biting through that buttery, crumbly crust and getting the faint hint of roses and orange blossoms, followed by the chewiness of pistachios, nutty and sweet. Delicious opulence and comfortable luxury. Maamoul works on so many levels.
If you look through the photo series, you will get a basic understanding of how these Easter cakes are made. You can see the beautiful pattern that is formed when the filled dough is pressed into a traditional wooden mold. There is a shape for every flavour and that makes it easy to know which is which. According to Ludwig’s sister, who’s a real wiz with computers, there’s anecdotal evidence pointing to the tradition of making maamoul on Easter. Apparently the wooden mold symbolises Jesus’ cross, the mold’s pattern resembles the shape of the sponge with which Jesus was given vinegar to drink, the crust contains no sugar in reference to Christ’s death containing no happiness, and the inside is sweet and joyful to symbolise the resurrection. I’m not sure how steeped in tradition all this symbolism is, but at the least, it’s a nice story.
It’s been nine years since I’ve taken part in a maamoul making session, and this is actually my first attempt at it, as it was usually my mother who took care of the whole mission. Long distance phone calls with mom, mirrored by similar efforts from Ludwig resulted in the recipe we used. Just like we used to do, the dough was prepared on Good Friday and the maamoul was baked on Easter Saturday. But unlike being under the strict, observing eyes of our parents, this time we allowed ourselves to indulge in trying the maamoul as it was warm, instead of having to wait for Sunday as tradition requires. I am now convinced that eating maamoul warm is the only way to do it with the filling still gooey and slightly runny. The flavour warms my heart and the scent takes me back to my childhood, and the result is a maamoul I know even mom would be proud of!
Fillings are tricky to give amounts with, because it depends on how many types you want to make. Use these ratios as a guideline, and make less/more depending on how much you want to make
It’s a big claim, isn’t it? The best chicken kebab ever? If you are doubtful, you possibly haven’t tried this Lebanese specialty as many times as I have during my teen age years. You see, back in 1996 (the post war years), McDonalds and Burger King hadn’t yet entered the Lebanese market, and Lebanon was full of non-franchised eateries that served good quality fast food. The choice wasn’t restricted between a Big Mac and a Double Whopper, but instead we had a vast array of what you could call street food. This is food that is traditional and regional to our culture, food that we know and love and that is ingrained in our cuisine. Think crisp falafel bursting out of fresh Lebanese bread drizzled with lemony tahini and packed with pickles and parsley, or a moist chicken shawarma traditionally carved by a master craftsman, charred and full-flavoured, sitting on clouds of white garlic sauce. Manakish, kafta, lahm mishwi (barbeque beef or lamb), and the list goes on.
When McDonalds (now lovingly reffered to as MacDo by dolled up French-accented Lebanese girls oblivous to the giant’s impact on our local culture) opened in Lebanon, we rushed and queued to get a taste of what was on offer. In retrospect, had I known then what I know now, I would have started my own Slow Food movement, but in our ignorance, as if in a bout of mass hysteria, McDonalds was accepted, and though we knew deep down that the food did not even compare to our local oldies, we embraced the terrible new. I personally haven’t eaten McDonalds for around six years now, and prefer to eat food prepared by individuals who are passionate about what they do. I also hope that my efforts here on my blog can help preserve the enthusiasm people have for regional specialties. One of these specialties is shish tawook.
What I love about shish tawook is that it is so popular all over Lebanon and that there isn’t a single recipe that is used by everyone to reproduce these skewered beauties, but that every home has its own recipe. I also love that though it seems so engrained in our culture, hardly any of us know what the word tawook means. Well, let me tell you. Tawook is a variant on the Turkish word tavuk, meaning chicken. So shish tawook means chicken skewers. The reason for this popular Turkish dish to be on our menu is because the Ottoman Empire ruled Lebanon between the years 1516 and 1920. Today, our generation can not easily identify the mark of the Turks on our history, mainly because the Turks goverened Lebanon through local leaders. But in reality, our love of backgammon and much of our food has been influenced by the Turks, and if we were try to get a positive out of every negative situation, I’d say shish tawook is certainly one positive to add to the list.
The shish tawook recipe below is one of many that you would find out there, but I think it’s the closest in flavour to my favourite version that I used to have in Lebanon. Eat it with plenty of toum and some pickled cucumber with Lebanese bread, and then tell me if it’s not the best chicken kebab ever.
Queensland Blue Pumpkins
I have noticed that lately my blog has focused on Lebanese food. I don’t know why especially. The fact that I am Lebanese might have something to do with it, but I live in bicultural home were we live on a multicultural diet, as is befitting for a Sydney lifestyle. In my little corner of the world I can eat anything from ayam goreng to zabaglione, and I do. But lately, I often think of home. I miss my little village, our olive trees anxious for the summer time, and my parents who are waiting for that weekly phone call from their three boys who are scattered around the world. I find some solace in that phone call, and I spend hours talking to my mom, discussing day-to-day life, sharing worries and triumphs and swapping recipes. Easter is near, and normally I would have felt it approaching. You see, though Sydney has given me so much, it has also made me a stranger to traditions I used to identify with. That’s what nine years does to a migrant. In the period of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday, I would have been more aware of the approach of Easter, possibly because I usually would have had a lot of kibbet la’teen.
Kibbet La’teen – Pumpkin Kibbeh with Labneh
The days of Lent traditionally meant abstinence from meat. This has now changed, but in keeping with tradition, I wanted to make kibbet la’teen, or pumpkin kibbeh. Kibbeh is the national dish of Lebanon and we have so many variations on the theme. The most famous is the torpedo shaped balls filled with minced meat and pine nuts. Any decent or even terrible Lebanese restaurant would have kibbeh on the menu. But pumpkin kibbeh is the only kibbeh to have during Lent. I love the regional name kibbet heeleh. This names translates to “trick kibbeh”, the trick is, of course, the sneaky substitution of meat with pumpkin. The filling varies, and you can use anything. You would normally fill the little kibbeh balls with silver beet or spinach, fennel, raisins, chickpeas and onions. Another filling would be labneh (a creamy spread made by straining yoghurt) with onions and dried mint. I decided to go with the labneh filling and I also made a filling with fetta and walnuts, which turned out great. I got this recipe from yet another weekly phone call to the folks back home. Mom emphasised that I MUST squeeze the pumpkin after boiling. So please, do as Mom says.
A visual guide to making kibbeh
For the kibbeh dough
Labneh Filling (adjust quantities to suit)
Fetta Filling (adjust quantities to suit)
If you have been to Lebanon or the Middle East, you may have tasted the different cheeses on offer. From stretchy, salty akkawi to mild, creamy baladiyeh to riccotta-like qareesheh, cheese is a central and well loved part of our diet. However, you may be lead to believe that our repertoire does not extend past fresh, white cheese. That’s where you’re wrong, sucker!
Enter shankleesh. You have possibly seen the vacuum-wrapped herb-covered ball-shaped curiosities at Middle-Eastern shops and you may have thought, what the? You may have walked by too scared to try something that strange. Allow me to demystify. Shankleesh is the only mold ripened cheese native to the Middle East. It is thought to have originated from Kurdistan, but is now mainly found in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Shankleesh is a compound word derived from the Kurdish ‘shan’, denoting a small terracotta pot; and ‘qareesh’, a Bedouin term for fermented milk.
It is said that you can find the best shankleesh in Rahbeh, Akkar (Lebanon’s most water-rich village- personal joke), but it’s mostly excellent anywhere where they use good milk. To make shankleesh, low fat yoghurt is strained until dry, then salted and strained again overnight. Afterwards the dry yoghurt is shaped into balls that are dried in the sun for a couple of days. Left to mature in air tight containers for a month, the shankleesh allows for the growth of Debaryomyces hanseni and Penicillium mold. This mold is rinsed and then the balls are covered with herbs and spices, mainly thyme and Aleppo pepper. Along with salt, these help inhibit bacterial growth. The result is a pungent, dry, crumbly cheese, full-flavoured and redolent with herbs and spices.
A great website with information on shankleesh is Slow Food Beirut. For some reason their shankleesh page is down, so I’ve found a link to Google’s cache. Have a read for much more in-depth information.
Shankleesh is eaten with diced vegetables and loads of olive oil to balance the pungency and flavour onslaught. Traditionally one adds diced tomatoes, green capsicum and finely diced onions. I’ve added avocado to mine to give it a bit of creaminess. Simply crumble the shankleesh into a bowl, top with diced veggies of choice, add loads of olive oil and enjoy with Lebanese bread, or on top of toasted sourdough.
ghraybeh with dulce de leche
Before Lili (Pikelet and Pie) packed up and embarked on an adventure in the exotic land of Vietnam, I paid her a visit and became the official custodian of her collection of cook books. Lili also went through her pantry and fridge, and I was given a box of smoked Maldon sea salt, pomegranate molasses that I had convinced her to buy, and a large tin of homemade dulce de leche. Dulce de leche is sweetened milk that has been heated to induce caramelisation. Lili simmered cans of condensed milk for two and a half hours and the result was a buttery sweet caramel, intense in colour and flavour. I try not to make overly sweet indulgences at home, in an effort to avoid type II diabetes and Lainy’s scornful looks, and so the can of dulce de leche sat in my fridge collecting rust as days turned into months.
A few weeks back, I noticed that the coffee shop next door was selling alfajores filled with dulce de leche and I mentioned them to my Brazilian friend Priscila. I often joke around with Priscila about how much Brazilian culture and much of Latin America has borrowed from the Lebanese and the Arabs (in the style of My Big Fat Greek Wedding), especially in the realm of culinary exploits. I scored another win in that department when Priscila researched alfajores, which turned out to be a Spanish specialty of Arab origin, originally named alfakher in Arabic meaning “the grand” or “the luxurious”. This reinforced my opinion that Spanish words beginning with “AL” are originally Arabic.
lili’s dulce de leche
I thought I would deviate a little bit from the modern version of alfajores and attempt to recreate what the Arabs would have invented. The alfajores I’ve tried have a texture and flavour akin to shortbread. So my mind went to ghraybeh, the Middle-Eastern shortbread. Ghraybeh is very simple cookie, containing only 3 ingredients, but as with many Middle-Eastern pastries, the recipe is almost always poorly documented and frustratingly vague. Chef Ramzi uses cups for measure, which is terrible when used with non-liquid ingredients. I encountered complete failure on the first attempt, but have since been able to perfect the recipe. Ghraybeh can be eaten alone, or used to sandwich dulce de leche as I have done here. For the recipe of dulce de leche, please view Lili’s blog here.
300 g cups white, all purpose flour
150 g ghee (dairy, not the vegetable based one)/clarified butter
150 g icing sugar (not the icing mixture, which contains cornflour)
Nuts for decoration such as peeled dry pistachio, almonds or pine nuts
Lebanese style dandelion leaves
Before I begin this entry, I want to direct your attention to the ceramic bowl above which I made in December. This one is my pride and joy.
OK. Let’s start.
Talk to any real food lover out there and they will sing the praise of simple, honest, traditional food. One might be seduced by the luxury of foie gras, the aromatic intensity of truffles or mesmerising power of silky wagyu beef, but it’s easy to get something ethereal out of ingredients that are so good (and expensive) to start off with. But in my opinion, real ingenuity comes from creating flavour out of ingredients that are undervalued, humble, or even down right met with disdain. Having gone through several famines, my Lebanese ancestors have had to put their devious talents where their mouth is and derive their nutrition from the least likely of plants and cuts of meat. One example is akkoob (gundelia tournefortii, ????), a thorn that grows in the high mountains of Lebanon and in Syria and Jordan. This thorn is notoriously difficult and painful to harvest and its preparation is equally hazardous. But what you are left with, apart from green-hued bleeding fingers is a stem that works culinary wonders in stews, stir fries and with eggs. What drove someone to identify this wicked thorn as a potential source of food is beyond me. My guess is nothing short of extreme hunger.
Another such example of unlikely food is the dandelion (??????). In Australia, dandelion is mostly considered a lawn weed suitable only to feed guinea pigs, yet it is widely loved in Lebanon and is the main ingredient and namesake of the popular dish hindbeh. Dandelion gets its name from the French dent de lion, meaning lion’s tooth, in reference to the serrated shape of the leaf. Dandelions might be commercially grown in Lebanon, but most families I know gather their supplies from the wild, or buy it from the forager. So while Lebanese children are picking the dandelion flowers and making a wish before blowing on the parachute-like seeds (the wish comes true if the seeds fly in the direction you chose earlier), the savvy, cost-conscience mothers are busy harvesting.
The dandelion could be mistaken for other weeds with similar but hairy/thorny leaves (ones whose name I do not know, so avoid hairy leaves please). The smooth dandelion leaf is best harvested in early spring if intended to be eaten raw in salads, as its bitter flavour has not fully developed. As the leaf matures, it grows larger, thicker and more bitter. This bitterness can be minimised by blanching or by washing thoroughly and then squeezing out the liquid. However, bitterness is not a bad thing, as most naturopaths will tell you. It is usually an indicator of a plant’s ability to detoxify the body and the liver (or that the plant is poisonous!). Dandelions are high in protein, naturally diuretic and anti-inflammatory and are rich in potassium and beta-carotene and many other highly beneficial minerals, which is why this humble plant has been very popular in herbal medicine.
This time of year sees a proliferation of dandelions in New South Wales, and since I am a lover of wild/foraged food, I did not want to miss the opportunity to feast on dandelions this year. A brief half hour walk down the road in Earlwood resulted in 400 grams of fresh dandelion leaf. Sure, the neighbours looked on suspiciously, the dogs barked madly and the joggers gazed in distrust. But don’t let that stop you. The sunshine and the buzz you get out of collecting your own food is alone worth it. But to make things even better, this is a recipe for hindbeh, our favourite way of cooking dandelion. The idea is to fry the leaf with garlic and onions in olive oil until it is almost dry, and then it would be ready to absorb the lemon juice you add. It is then topped with caramelized onions and eaten cold. To make mine a bit more of a proper meal, I added chickpeas, toasted pine nuts and a nice dollop of yoghurt on top. Such classic Lebanese flavours. It’s too cheap to be true.
NOTE: If dandelions are not available, you can substitute them with endive (available at supermarkets)
Hindbeh – Dandelion Recipe
Preparing the Dandelions
Cooking the Dandelions (Hindbeh)
500 g dandelion leaf, prepared as above (weighed before blanching)
4 large onions, cut in thin wings (halved, then diced vertically)
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
½ cup olive oil
½ cup lemon juice
2 tsp salt
1 cup boiled chickpeas (optional)
½ cup Greek style yoghurt (optional)
2 tbsp toasted pine nuts (optional)
View of the Mediterranean from Byblos, with Roman ruins in the forefront, followed by the recognisable heritage Lebanese home overlooking the water (source, The New York Times)
Though this entry is somewhat unrelated to food, it does not stray far from the general theme of this blog, which revolves around my Lebanon. As a phoenix is reborn from the ashes of its monumental fire, my Lebanon is getting its own rebirth. In 2009, The New York Times deservedly voted Beirut as the number one tourist destination in the world. The article mentioned the Four Seasons Hotel Beirut, Le Gray as the forces of change in Lebanon’s culinary scene. For traditional Lebanese, the mention went to Al Ajami restaurant and Hussein Hadid’s Kitchen.
More recently, Jbeil (Byblos) was the subject matter in an article in The New York Times as being the Cannes of the Middle East, in contrast to the saying Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East. I really enjoyed that article not the least because I actually grew up in Jbeil (and went to school in Monsif, if you must know), despite the focus being on one of my least favourite Lebanese trait, which is the exorbitant show of wealth. Having just returned from Lebanon this year, I can confirm the Jbeil is the place to be. The council has done wonders in creating a tasteful city, and the beaches are fantastic, though mostly privatised and almost unaffordable to locals. Jbeil imparts the visitor with a great sense of history and coupled with a unique tidy, civilised laid-backedness. It has everything Beirut doesn’t, and more. By more I mean a chicken shawarma from el Rock followed by a fruit cocktail from el Addoom. Oh my God!
The Jbeil article mentions the following restaurants:
Bab El Mina
Pierre & Friends
Locanda a la Granda (mentioned as the best restaurant in town)
Zaatar Ice Cream (melting in the Sydney heat)
While in France last year, Lainy and I made our way down from Paris, through Orleans and to Provence and then ended up in the enchanting Cote d’Azur, better known in English as the French Riviera. We settled for a week in the seaside city of Nice, taking indulgent day trips to Italy to have a bowl of pasta, and then heading back for a stroll and a glass of wine in the city. It was here where I met my childhood friend Grandizer, strolling on the pebble beach, and it was also where I saw the different flavours of ice cream on display. The French seemed adventurous with the flavours on offer and they seemed to look at local flavours for inspiration. Lavender ice cream was an obvious one, but coquelicots (corn poppy) ice cream, though relevant, was a bit more abstract.
This got me thinking, and I decided that a zaatar (thyme) ice cream is in order. At first this might not seem like a match made in heaven, right? Zaatar for the Lebanese is a savoury herb, and we eat it every day mixed with sumac, toasted sesame seeds and olive oil, and it forms our very basic breakfast. We also use it to marinate meats and sprinkle it in salads. Zaatar is not exactly a herb that you would say, put in a cake. You would probably not find Coca Cola rushing to make a special edition Zaatar Coke for that ultimate manakish experience. Zaatar chewing gum? Refreshing…
But hold on. The French are making coquelicots ice cream for God’s sake! Have you ever nibbled into a coquelicot, and tasted that red bitterness. Or have you ever smelled the grassy green aroma it gives out? If you have, you might agree with me that with all things being equal, zaatar ice cream might not be such a bad idea. And indeed, if you taste my ice cream, you might even agree that it’s actually a great idea. The lingering aroma of thyme infuses beautifully in the custard, and marries with its luxurious creaminess like, well, a match made in heaven!
To make this ice cream, I followed a basic vanilla ice cream recipe, and instead of infusing vanilla beans in the milk and cream, I infused the zaatar. I used dry, Lebanese zaatar, because it has a completely different flavour to fresh thyme. And to complete the flavour profile and the play on the zaatar theme, I threw in some toasted sesame seeds. It is worth mentioning that this ice cream usually comes out milky white. The color you see in the photos is purely because I used raw cane sugar (because it is low GI). I actually prefer white sugar in this recipe because I find the treacly sweetness of raw cane sugar slightly overpowers the aroma of the zaatar. You must try this recipe because you will love it, but please, don’t eat it wrapped in Lebanese bread with cucumbers and olive oil!
Zaatar Ice Cream Recipe