Cherry Pie spiced with Mahleb

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Baking pie from scratch will test your patience. The pie dough is refrigerated overnight, the cherries are halved, pitted and macerated with sugar, the assembled pie is chilled in the fridge then baked for over an hour for an ultra flaky and fantastically browned finished. And finally – just when you thought that you were going to serve it – you will have to let it sit on the counter for a few hours to set the cherry filling completely. I’m not scaring you away, the process is not as challenging as an elaborate pastry project, but it does require prepping ingredients in advance so it’s a good idea to read this recipe carefully before getting started!

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I used sweet dark cherries for this recipe and a hint of mahleb powder which is completely optional but I was looking for something unique to complement the cherry flavor. Other options include a splash of rum, lemon zest, a hint of cinnamon etc. Don’t be afraid to experiment with flavors!

Pie Dough: Recipe from Serious Eats
350g (2½ cups) all-purpose flour, cold
25g (2 Tbsp) granulated sugar
5g (1 tsp) kosher salt
280 grams (2½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
85ml (6 Tbsp) ice cold water

1. Make ice water by combining enough water with ice and have it ready.
2. Cut the butter sticks into cubes and chill if needed.
3. Combine flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine (I usually put it in the fridge at this point to turn it cold).
4. Spread the butter cubes over the flour surface and pulse until the butter is the size of a large pea. Trickle ice water through the tube a tablespoon at a time while pulsing to evenly distribute the water in the mixture until the dough just starts to collect in clumps up the sides of the bowl (the dough will look sandy at this point but holds together when squeezed in the palm of your hands).
5. Tip the dough in a large bowl and get rid of any gooey clumps that usually collect around the blade. Take half of the mixture and wrap in plastic wrap then using a roll pin, roll the plastic packet into a circle about 6″-8″ wide, making sure to roll it very tightly especially around the edges. Repeat with the other half.
6. Chill overnight (8 hours or up to 3 days) or the freezer until later use.

Filling:
925g pitted cherries
100g granulated sugar
2 tsp lemon juice

1 vanilla bean, scrapped
1 tsp lemon zest
2 Tbsp cornstarch flour
1 Tbsp ground mahleb
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
Pinch of salt

Cubes of butter (Roughly ¼ in. or ½ cm)
Egg wash (beat 1 small egg with 1 tsp water and a pinch of salt)
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling

1. Mix the pitted cherries with the granulated sugar and lemon juice in a medium bowl. Cover and let sit overnight in the fridge.
2. The next day, drain the cherries from their juices and set aside. In a small bowl, mix the vanilla bean, lemon zest, cornstarch, ground mahleb, sugar and salt making sure that the vanilla bean paste is evenly distributed. Sprinkle mixture over the strained cherries and toss to combine.
3. Roll out the first disk on a lightly floured surface into a 14″ (35 cm) round for a 9″ (23 cm) pie pan. Wrap dough lightly around a rolling pin and transfer to the pie pan. Gently press dough into the bottom and sides of the pan. Trim the dough to allow a 1″ (2.5 cm) overhang. Pour the cherry filling into the pastry shell. Roll out the second pie crust to top the filling and create small slits to allow venting or create a decorative lattice top.
4. Brush the pie crust with the egg wash, dot with small cubes of butter through the lattice crust, sprinkle generously with turbinado sugar. Refrigerate the pie for at least 30 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375ºF (190ºC) and place a large baking sheet in the middle rack. Place the pie on the baking sheet and bake for 80-90 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling. Remove from the oven and let cool completely at least a couple of hours on a wire rack before serving.

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Ma’amoul Mad bil Tamer

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Ma’amoul mad literally means ma’amoul spread in Arabic. It’s a slightly tweaked version of the regular semolina date cookies I posted in January, where the date filling is spread between two pieces of dough and cut into squares or diamonds before baking. I changed the ratio of the fine to coarse semolina for the dough to hold its shape when sliced. You’ll also notice that I used clarified butter called samneh in Arabic instead of regular unsalted butter for a couple of reasons that I listed below.

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Unlike most types of oils and fats that are composed of 100% fat, butter is an emulsion of roughly 80% butterfat, 15% water and 5% milk proteins. Butter has a low smoking point when melted because the proteins burn quickly, and it’s also prone to turn rancid fast from the high water content (Source: Serious Eats). When butter is clarified (i.e. milk proteins removed and water evaporated to get pure butterfat) the resulting samneh has a high smoking point and a longer shelf life. That’s why it’s so commonly used in Arabic sweets.

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This version of ma’amoul is way faster and easier to make than the individual ones, and it tastes just as good with a crumbly semolina crust filled with melt-in-your-mouth date paste spiced with mahleb and scented with orange blossom and rose water. It goes without saying that the higher the quality the dates the better the end result.

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Clarified butter – Instructions from Serious Eats
You can clarify any quantity of butter for future use. For this recipe, I used 300g of unsalted butter (roughly 2.5 sticks). Store any leftovers in the fridge.

Cut the butter into pieces and melt in a heavy-duty saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil (the milk protein will foam the surface). Once boiling, turn the heat to medium and let the butter simmer for roughly 10 minutes: first, the white foamy surface will break apart then the milk proteins will sink to the bottom and the boiling will begin to slowly cease.

Once the butter stops boiling, remove from the heat and pour through a cheesecloth-lined strainer or a coffee filter into a heatproof container to remove the browned milk solids. Let cool, then transfer to a sealed container and refrigerate until ready to use. Clarified butter should keep for at least 6 months in the refrigerator.

Date Filling
600g high quality soft medjool dates, pitted, peeled and white interior skin removed
1 tsp rose water
1 tsp orange blossom water
½ tsp ground mahleb
50g (2 Tbsp) clarified butter samneh, room temperature

Semolina Dough
340g (2 cups) coarse semolina flour (Smeed)
160g (1 cup) fine semolina flour (Farkha)
30g (2 Tbsp) granulated sugar
½ tsp instant dry yeast
½ tsp ground mahleb
210g (1 cup) clarified butter samneh, room temperature
2 Tbsp rose water
2 Tbsp orange blossom water (1/4 cup and 1 tablespoon)
Icing sugar (optional)

Make the date filling:
Mix the cleaned dates, rose water, orange blossom water, ground mahleb and clarified butter with your hands until a homogeneous paste is formed. Cover date paste with plastic wrap and set aside until later use.

Make the semolina dough:
In a large bowl mix the coarse semolina and fine semolina, sugar, yeast, and ground mahleb. Add the clarified butter and rub mixture together with the palm of your hands until the mixture is grainy and the butter is fully absorbed in the flour (about 5 minutes). Cover in plastic wrap and let it sit on the kitchen counter overnight or at least 2 hours.

After resting the dough, add the rose and orange blossom water, mix again and cover with plastic wrap leaving it to rest for another hour.

Preheat oven to 360°F (180°C). Brush a 9″x13″ rectangular baking pan or glass pyrex dish with clarified butter. Divide the semolina dough in half and cover the other half to prevent it from drying out. Roll out the first dough to roughly 9″x13″ inch and transfer to the baking dish (I find it easier to roll it between two sheets of wax paper). Use a bench scraper to smooth the dough and make sure that it’s evenly leveled. Repeat the same process with the date paste and the second half of the semolina dough.

Using a sharp knife, carefully slice the unbaked ma’amoul into 1.5″ vertical strips, making sure to slice all the way to the bottom of the baking dish. Then, slice diagonally in a crossways pattern, to create diamond shapes (alternatively, cut crosswise to make rectangles). Bake for 35 minutes, or until the top is golden and the edges are a light brown.

Take out the pan from the oven and let cool completely (preferably overnight). Dust the pieces of ma’amoul with icing sugar only before serving. Store in an air tight container up to a month or freeze up to 3 months.

Ma’amoul Bil Tamer (Semolina Date Cookies)

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For as long as I can remember, all the women in my family have made these Ma’amoul cookies for the Christmas and Easter holidays. They would all gather together at my grandma or mom’s home to bake the cookies while drinking fenjan ahweh (Arabic Coffee), gossiping about family members, and passionately discussing current events. It literally took them all day to make roughly roughly 3-4 kg (7-8 pounds) of Ma’amoul which are then distributed among different families.

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Ma’amoul are extremely popular in Lebanon, and they’re typically filled with date paste, ground pistachios, walnuts, or almonds. Each flavor has its own shape and geometric design: Dates (Tamer) are typically round, pistachios (Festok) or walnuts (Joz) are domed, almonds (Loz) are crescent. The dough is incredibly soft and crumbly with a toothy semolina crunch that’s flavored with mahleb (more about this spice here), orange blossom water, and rose water.

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There are a lot of good recipes of Ma’amoul in cookbooks and online that call for other ingredients or techniques, but that’s my family’s version and it’s the most valuable one. This recipe produces more than a sweet snack or a delicious treat, it connects me to my roots, brings up memories, offers comfort and nourishes me way beyond its nutritional value. It’s been passed on and tweaked across generations of women in my family who spent countless of hours in the kitchen together working on their skills and creating experiences. Knowing that – not only instills a gratifying sense of wonder and excitement – but also drives me to keep our tradition alive by baking.

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Recipe: – Yields roughly 40 cookies

Dough:
• 400g farina (smeed – coarse flour)
• 200g semolina flour (farkha – fine flour)
• 300g unsalted butter, melted and warm
• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
• 1¼ tsp mahleb powder
• 60ml (1/4 cup) orange blossom water, warm
• 60ml (1/4 cup) rose water, warm
• 3 tsp orange blossom water, warm
• 3 tsp rose water, warm

Date Filling:
• 800g high quality, soft medjool dates pitted and white interior skin removed
• 100g unsalted butter
• 1 tsp orange blossom water
• 1 tsp rose water

Day 1: Prepare the dough
In a large bowl mix the farina flour, semolina flour, and mahleb powder. Gradually add the warm butter and vegetable oil and mix with your hands. Gently rub the mixture with the palm of your hands for about 5 minutes until it’s no longer lumpy. Cover in plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm place overnight.

Day 2: Make the date filling and bake the cookies
1. After removing the pits of the dates and cleaning them, place them in a medium saucepan with the butter over medium heat. Stir for 20 minutes until a date paste is formed.
2. Let it cool down for a few minutes then transfer to a food processor and add the rose and orange blossom water. Pulse a few times until homogeneous.
3. Using a tablespoon, form roughly 40 balls, place on a large plate or baking sheet and cover with a damp kitchen towel to prevent them from drying out.
4. Uncover the dough from Day 1, add the 1/4 cup of each rose and orange blossom water, and knead with your hands for about 2 minutes until it comes together – Don’t worry if it’s still crumbly at this point.
5. Divide the dough into three even portions and cover with a damp towel. Take out one portion and add 1 teaspoon of each rose and orange blossom water and knead on a clean surface until it becomes a smooth and silky dough.
6. To make the cookies: Prepare 2-3 large baking sheets and line with parchment paper. Scoop 1 tablespoon of the semolina dough, roll into a ball and flatten with the palms of your hands. Place a date ball in the middle, bring the edges of the dough together and roll again into a ball then flatten to form a short cylinder. Using a wooden spoon, poke a hole in the middle of the cookie. Smooth the edges and use a decorative pinch or fork to create a design. Place the cookie on the baking sheet. Repeat this step until all the cookies are molded then repeat step five with the rest 2/3 of the dough.
7. Pre-heat oven to 350°F (180°C). Place the baking sheets in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, rotating halfway, until lightly golden around the edges. Let cool completely before serving.

Notes:
• Serving suggestion: dust the ma’amoul with powdered sugar before serving.
• Ma’amoul cookies will keep unrefrigerated in an airtight container for one month or frozen up to 4 months.

Brioche with Mahleb Date Paste and Walnuts

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There’s something about making brioche from scratch that brings comfort and pleasure: the rich smell of butter and yeast, the pillowy soft dough beneath your hands, the quiet hours of the kitchen, the dark golden loaf rising in the oven. The whole process calms me and makes me forget about stressful weekdays and the constant buzz of people in this chaotic yet charming city.

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The flavors I used here are inspired by K’aak bi M’aamoul, these little round semolina cookies filled with dates, nuts, and orange blossom water. They remind me of home – Beirut – and my family’s traditional recipes. What I love about this combination is  the thick pockets of mahleb date paste layered with crunchy walnuts and the soft aerated brioche dough.

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A freshly baked warm slice of buttery brioche brings a smile to my face but if you end up with leftovers the next day, go ahead and make french toast. The bread is naturally sweetened with dates so there’s no need to douse it with honey or maple syrup.

Brioche dough recipe adapted from Bouchon Bakery Cookbook
Makes two 9″x4″ (23 cm x 10 cm) loaves

Ingredients:

Date Paste
250g pitted medjool dated
30g butter
3 Tbs water
1 tsp orange blossom water
¼ tsp ground mahleb

Make the Date Paste:
1. Place the dates and butter in a medium sauce pan over medium heat, and stir until the dates get really soft.
2. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and add the rest of the ingredients.
3. Blend until a smooth thick paste is formed. Cover and set aside.

Roasted Walnuts
1 cup, chopped roasted walnuts (reserve a handful to sprinkle on top of the loaves)

Brioche
372g bread flour
8g instant yeast
45g granulated sugar
5g fine sea salt
186g eggs, room temperature
63 g whole milk, room temperature
170 g unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1/8th inch dice
1 small beaten egg with a dash of water  (for the egg wash)

Make the Dough:
1. Spray a large bowl with nonstick spray.
2. For the brioche, place the flour and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook and mix for 15 seconds to distribute the yeast evenly.
3. Add all of the remaining dough ingredients except for the butter and mix on low speed for 4 minutes.
4. Add the butter a few pieces at a time, incorporating after each addition before adding the next. Stop and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and push the dough off the hook. Mix for a total of roughly 20 minutes on low speed. (it is ready when the dough is elastic and holds together in one piece)
5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Fold the left side over to the right, the right over to the left, then the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top so you have a “package” with the seam at the top. Place the dough seam-side down in the prepared bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it ferment for 1 hour.
6. Repeat the folding process, place it back in the bowl, cover, and refrigerate overnight (up to 24 hours).

7. Grease a 9×4 inch (22 x 13 cm) loaf pan. Line the tin with parchment paper, making sure to let it slightly overhang the sides. Set aside.
8. Remove the brioche from the refrigerator and divide it into 2 equal pieces. Work with one piece of dough at a time while keeping the other half in the refrigerator.
9. Lightly dust your working surface with flour and using a rolling pin, roll the dough out to form a rectangular shape, about 10 x 15 inch (25 x 40 cm).
10. Spread half of the date filling onto the brioche using an offset spatula, reaching all the way to the edges but leaving half an inch (1.3 cm) of dough bare on one of the long sides. Sprinkle with half of the chopped walnuts.
11. Brush the bare part with water. Starting from the other long side, roll up the dough tightly and evenly. Refrigerate the dough for 15-20 minutes on a parchment lined baking sheet.
12. Using a large knife, make a cut in the dough log. Place the right half of dough over the left, then repeat until you have a “braid” of dough. Gently press the ends of the dough together them together, then place in the prepared loaf pan.
13. Place a piece of oiled plastic wrap lightly on the surface of the brioche and let it proof in a warm place for 2 hours. (Note: I turn the oven for a minute and place boiling water in a cup to add some steam – make sure the oven is not too hot!). Take the brioche dough out of the oven.
14. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Lightly brush the brioche with egg wash, sprinkle with more walnuts, and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes.
15. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before slicing. (Repeat the process for the second brioche dough).