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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Mahalabi, Mahaleb(i), Mahlab, Mahiepi, Marlev, St Lucie’s Cherry
This pastry lends itself to filling experimentation, for example pistachio is a great substitute for the date filling.
Makes 16-20 cookies
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)
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.
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.