Special Ingredients: Mahlab

Mahlab was another one of those purchases I made because I was very intrigued yet knew nothing little about when I purchased a bag of this spice.  However, after my first experience with mahlab, I was determined to learn more about this wonderful new addition to my spice repitoire.   I love being pleasantly surprised by my impulse spice purchases, because I usually give myself a 50/50 chance at achieving a happy outcome with this approach, and have suffered my share of disappointments.  This experiment was definitely a highlight in my ongoing games of chance.

Foods Containing Mahlab

whole mahlab  - photo from chow.com

whole mahlab - photo from chow.com

Mahlab is the pit of the sour cherry, and has been popular in Middle East cooking; specifically in Turkey and Syria for centuries.  The pit of the mahaleb cherry, thin-fleshed and tiny (~ 1 cm), yield this unusual spice with both a delicate fragrance, and pronounced bitterness.  It is primarily found in sweet breads and candies.  In Greece, the kernels are loved in specialties like tsoureki, a brioche-type braided sweet bread, traditionally baked for Easter.  Mahaleb is also used in Greece for yeast cakes or cookies (vasilopita [βασιλόπιτα]) and for a special type of Easter cheese pie or cheese cake on Cyprus (flaounes).  In West Asia, mahaleb kernels are best known in the cooking styles of Armenia and of the Levant. Armenian chorak is a sweet bread, similar to Greek tsoureki. An Arabic example is the crumbly shortbread pastry ma’amul (recipe below) popular in Lebanon and Syria, which is usually stuffed with a ground nuts or date paste.  Turkish rice takes on some floral notes with the addition of these beauties, and it transforms the taste of simple milk puddings.

mahlab cherries (photo from http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer)

mahlab cherries (photo from http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer)

In all these recipes, the mahaleb cherry kernels are used finely ground. Nevertheless, the spice should always be bought as whole kernels, because the powder spoils quickly due to its high lipid content.  You can buy this spice ground, but unless you intend to use it immediately, you’ve wasted your money, and even the whole kernels goes rancid in a a few years.  They’re easy to grind with a mortal and pestle or coffee grinder.

Like saffron, it is a spice that achieves the desired results when used sparingly.  The website, Epicentre suggests a ½ to 1 tsp of mahlab to 2 cups of flour ratio, as a rule of thumb.

Texture and Taste

The embryo, or interior of the pit, is soft-textured and tastes bitter and aromatic. After some chewing, a subtle flavor described as bouquet of tastes, including: tonka beans, cherry and bitter almond develops. Having been unpleasantly reminded how hard the cherry pits are that we are accustomed to here in the states, I am pleased to report, mahlab are nowhere near as tough, and the seeds become increasingly tender as they are exposed to the heat from baking. The closest I can describe the raw mahlab to, in terms of texture, is to an unpopped kernel of popcorn.

Possible Sources

Mahaleb may be tough to obtain outside of the regions where it is grown.  Look for it in Eastern Mediterranean specialty shops and sometimes from Greek, Turkish or Arabic vendors.  I found my batch at Penzey’s, which also allows you to order on line.   One person familiar with mahleb suggested substituting a mixture of tonka beans with some bitter almonds.  This might prove challenging because tonka beans are also tough to acquire, but if you can find them, I suggest giving this idea a try.

Origin

mahlab tree (photo from http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/)

mahlab tree (photo from http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/)

Mahlab cherry grows abundantly in the Mediterranean, Southeast Europe and West Asia; where it is partial to the warm dry climate of these regions.  It can sometimes be found in Central Europe.  Its culinary use is restricted to the South Eastern part of Europe (Greece, Armenia) and West Asia (Turkey, Lebanon, Syria).  Iran and Syria are major producers of this spice, followed by Turkey.  It can be found in other parts of Europe, including Britain, so if you have an inkling it looks familiar your eyes are not deceiving you, but in these locations, it is typically used as an ornamental tree.

Mahlab cherry trees, being rather robust and resistent to diseases, are commonly used as stock in grafting cherries, especially in the US.

Etymology

In Turkish, the final consonant is silent, yielding mahlep or mahalep. The Greek name μαχλέπι is variously transcribed into Latin letters as mahlepi, machlepi or makhlepi.  Identical names in Arabic (al-mahlab [المحلب]) and Hebrew (mahaleb [מהלב]) hint at a common origin, with both words thought to derive from a common Semitic root ḥlb (milk).

Other Names
Mahalabi, Mahaleb(i), Mahlab, Mahiepi, Marlev, St Lucie’s Cherry
French: mahaleb
German: Mahaleb
Italian: mahaleb
Spanish: mahaleb

ma’amul

This pastry lends itself to filling experimentation, for example pistachio is a great substitute for the date filling.

Makes 16-20 cookies

photo from egullet.org

photo from egullet.org

Ingredients for Pastry crust:

1 c unsalted butter, room temperature
1 ½ c granulated sugar
1 ½ tsp brandy
1 ½ tsp orange-blossom water ( or rosewater)
1 egg
½ tsp ground mahlab
3 c flour
1 c fine-grade semolina (not durum flour)
dash of salt
Powdered sugar for sprinkling

Ingredients for Date Filling

½ # pitted dates
1 T butter, room temperature
1 tsp orange-blossom water (or rosewater)

Directions for filling

Dice dates into small pieces. Cook down the dates, with butter, on very low heat, and mash them until they are completely pureed.  Do not overcook, this takes ~ 10 minutes.  If overcooked, they’ll turn into a toffee-like substance, which is not the desired consistency.

Optional Ingredients for Nut Filling

1 ½ c walnuts or pistachios
¼ tsp cinnamon ( or cardamom)
¼ c sugar
2 T either rosewater, or orange flower water

With a food processor, grind to a paste

For either filling shape into balls prior to shaping the dough – makes for a more efficient effort

Directions for the pastry shells

Preheat oven to 330F.  Prepare the baking sheets by either buttering them, or using sheets of parchment paper on the bottom..

Combine butter and sugar in a large bowl.  Cream until light and fluffy, stir in brandy and orange-blossom water.  Beat in egg, and add mahlab.  Gradually add semolina and salt until dough pulls away from side of bowl.  Knead until smooth, about 5 minutes. Pinch off pieces of dough 1-1 ½ inches in diameter. Shape into balls. Pat into 3″ circles. Place 1T of the date mixture in center of each circle. Pull edges of circle over filling and pinch together to enclose filling. Place cookie in decorative mold, or “tabi“. Pat down gently in mold.  Knock the molded cookie out of mold dome-side up onto greased baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough circles and filling. Bake about 15-20 minutes or until bottom of cookies are pale golden. Do not let the cookies brown, remember they are still cooking. Cool on a rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar while still warm.

Mahlab on Foodista

I’ll confess that my first use of mahlab was not very authentic. I wanted to make scones, and was well into preparations, when I realized I was out of currents, and while rummaging through in my cubbard decided to substitute the mahlab.  I did not grind the spice, as suggested, but left them whole when I folded them into my batter.  When baked they softened up, and gave a nice contrasting crunchy/chewy texture to the scones.  The flavor was unexpected and very pleasant.  A welcome surprise all around!  You can bet, I’ll be finding plenty of more reasons to cook with mahlab again.

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27 comments for “Special Ingredients: Mahlab

  1. August 8, 2009 at 8:52 AM

    This is definitely a new one for me – I’ll have to look out for it. I had my first brush with tonka beans earlier this year when I tried some artisan chocolate flavoured with same and loved it. I get the feeling I would love mahlab too.

  2. August 8, 2009 at 10:44 AM

    I learn something new every day! By the way, if you like spices, you should buy Spice Market by Jane Lawson. I’m reviewing it in a few months, but I’ve already looked through it and it’s full of information on spices, with recipes! I can’t wait to go through it in more detail…

  3. admin
    August 8, 2009 at 11:01 AM

    Spud – I think you’ll like it, and hopefully you’ll be able to find it without too much difficulty.

    Helen – Actually ahead of you on this one – I have the book, at least I believe its the same, the cover photo is, but in the US, its called Spice Bible not Spice Market. Hmm, wonder why they felt the need for a different title. Definitely same author. I have not tried any of the yummy looking recipes yet, but since you were so nice to remind me, I see no reason to hesitate. =)

  4. August 8, 2009 at 11:31 AM

    What a great site! This is the first time I read about this and Im grateful for all the info you have here.I followed you from the foodieblogroll and I’d love to guide our readers to your site if you won’t mind.Just add your choice of foodista widget to this post and it’s all set to go, Thanks!

  5. August 8, 2009 at 12:16 PM

    I love reading your posts. I always learn something new. I’ve heard of sumac before (which brings a sour note) but never from the pit of cherries. Very interesting. What does it taste like?

  6. August 8, 2009 at 12:40 PM

    Interesting. This is a new one for me, too. I”m sure I’ve probably tasted it before, I like to eat Mediterranean food. just don’t know the name of it until now.

  7. August 8, 2009 at 1:11 PM

    I love learning of spices and ingredients that are new to me! Thanks for the introduction. Great info as always!

  8. admin
    August 8, 2009 at 2:28 PM

    Alisa – thanks!

    Jackie – its a bitter sweet type of flavor a bit of bitter almonds, tonka bean, and cherry thrown in for good measure

    Jenn – you may well have, and now you know!

    Lisa – Thanks!

  9. August 8, 2009 at 4:58 PM

    I hate to be a parrot, but also new to me! I am going to have to go back and reread. With a note pad this time. GREG

  10. August 8, 2009 at 11:28 PM

    You learn something new every day — especially when I read your blog. Have never ever heard of this spice. Will have to look for it at my Middle Eastern grocery store. You have me greatly intrigued!

  11. August 9, 2009 at 4:50 AM

    How interesting! I also have never heard of Mahlab before. Thanks for letting us know about it!

  12. August 9, 2009 at 5:20 PM

    LouAnn, I’m learning a lot from you about our (Turkish and Middle Eastern) ingredients. Yes, we often use mahlep in pastries, but I didn’t know all these about it. I was planning to make something with mahlep some time later, now it will be in very near future.

  13. admin
    August 9, 2009 at 6:53 PM

    Sippity – No parrot here. Its such a nice spice, I wanted to spread the word, and as I know so many amazingly creative cooks, I’m looking forward to seeing what they can come up with as they discover it!

    Carolyn – You should be very intrigue it is just a really nice addition.

    Natasha – my pleasure!

    Zerrin – ah, thanks so much – I look forward to seeing what wonderful recipes you share with the mahlep

  14. August 9, 2009 at 7:18 PM

    I love how adventurous you are in your cooking. Thanks for sharing this with us! I never would have even thought of trying a lot of things if it weren’t for you!

  15. August 11, 2009 at 4:51 AM

    Cool ingredient – never even heard of mahlab before! I really appreciate that you actually chewed on something as hard as a unpopped kernel of popcorn in order to describe the flavor in such depth for us (I probably would have broken some teeth in the process!) When you mentioned the flavor of bitter almond, it automatically made me think of how apricot kernels are ground up and used to make Italian amaretti cookies.

  16. August 11, 2009 at 5:57 PM

    This is new for me too!!!! Thanks for sharing all this wonderful info. I love to learn about new ingredients.

  17. admin
    August 12, 2009 at 1:28 PM

    Sophia – ah, thanks – its my insatiable curiosity that leads me to trouble as well as mighty tasty stuff! -=)

    Phyllis – I make the hard sacrifices so you don’t have too =) Agreed, I was thinking of that “secret” ingredient as well. It always amazes me how creative people can be with ingredients.

    Erica – me too! happy to share.

  18. August 12, 2009 at 2:32 PM

    Another exotic ingredient I have never heard of! So intriguing. The pastries sound so delicious – love the date filling.

  19. August 14, 2009 at 9:26 AM

    What a coincidence! This is a lovely, well-researched post. The ma’amul sounds delicious, as do the improvised scones – I’ll have to try those. Glad to have found your site.

  20. August 16, 2009 at 5:37 AM

    Learned something new from you again. :)
    I love ma’amul cookies so much but have never tried to make them. Would love to try this recipe as soon as I am reunited with my oven.

  21. admin
    August 16, 2009 at 6:48 PM

    Reeni – Its very tasty and I urge you to try it if you get the opportunity.

    5 O’clock – your article was stupendous and I loved your writing and photos. I can vouch for the ma’amul and the scones, a tasty treat to be sure

    SheSimmers – look forward to what you come up with when you are reintroduced!

  22. August 19, 2009 at 8:01 AM

    I have seen this in the specialty market, and did not know what it was and like you have not gotten to using something and wasted it, so I try to be more cautious now…I am glad you did this post, now I might think of something to use it for…

  23. August 25, 2009 at 11:20 PM

    Thanks for sharing such a nice post.
    Fruit Juice Concentrate

  24. August 30, 2009 at 12:18 PM

    the pastry looks like mooncakes i ate in hong kong ….n that mahlab sounds lik the pit of the peach…just last weeks i toasted and cracked open a few peach seeds i had saved coz they looked cute…n found this tiny thin almond like thing within…was extremely bitter but worked beautifully in my biscotti,…would be posting it soon :)

    thanks for sharing this wonderful info.

  25. admin
    August 30, 2009 at 1:38 PM

    Chef E – I think you’ll really like it, I be you’ll come up with some very creative uses

    FJC – thanks!

    Navita -they reminded me of moon cakes too, but different. I’ve not yet made amaretti cookies, which contain portions of apricot pits, so I bet the peach pit bits in your biscotti were very tasty. What a wonderfully creative use.

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