Saturday, November 24, 2007

In Search of a Cookie (Part One): Ma'amoul

John is thinking about his childhood. He removes a cigarette from a burgundy box of Dunhill’s® and holds it between his lips. His callused thumb runs against the starter, the metallic snap narrating a spark as it turns into a flame. The end of the cigarette glows and momentarily fades to black, flecked with gray and white ashes that quietly drop off. He takes a long and thoughtful drag, followed by an exhalation of smoke perfumed with nostalgia. He is intriguingly pensive, running his hand along the side of his face as if searching for the reason his five o’clock shadow has arrived at three.

John is an American of Sicilian descent, graced with a full head of salt and pepper hair and a marvelous sense of culinary adventure. He is thinking about the rich aromatic meat dishes his mother cooked when he was a boy, during the years his father owned a butcher shop a few blocks away from the United Nations—where we are presently strolling. As a child of Italian immigrants, John was initiated into the world of tripe, brain, kidney, liver and heart, organ meats that today’s “chicken-finger” eating children would sooner retch than relish. He takes another drag from his cigarette after sharing a memory and when he exhales, the smoke dissipates in a gust of October wind, taking the recollection with it.

I’ve known John for over fifteen years. A mutual love of food and fierce passion for coffee and dark chocolate continuously kindle our friendship. On a Friday afternoon, after dining at the Ethiopian Meserkem in the West Village, we decide to head towards Bleecker Street, where a string of Italian bakeries line the street. John has been haunted by the memory of an Italian pastry whose name he cannot recall. He describes it as a cookie filled with a spiced, brown fruit paste made of dates or figs. The mixture contained bits of chocolate, candied orange peel, and perhaps some powdered espresso.

John’s craving began at historic Calvary Cemetery in Queens, while he was visiting his aunt’s grave. After paying respect to his parents, he went to the site where his aunt Alphonsina was buried. He stood across “Beppina’s” grave (a nickname given to her by John’s uncle, Achille) and remembered how he and his family would always bring pastry to her house whenever they dropped by. There was one particular cookie that came to mind, something related to the holidays which became symbolic of these visits. That is when the craving began; “I could taste this cookie as if it was in my mouth,” he says, “and have been thinking about it ever since.”

John’s craving is intense, so a quest for the special cookie begins. We walk down Bleecker Street and enter Rocco’s Pastry Shop and Espresso Café. The cases are filled with an assortment of butter cookies and Italian standbys like biscotti, cannoli, bocconotti, and pignoli nut cookies. There seem to be more tourists than natives in the pastry shop, which is overflowing with Italian kitsch. John scans the dessert cases like a speed reader and clears his throat before announcing, “They’re not here. Let’s try another place down the street.”

We head to Bruno Bakery and discover more variety and color in their pastry displays. John describes the cookie of his childhood to the counter girl, but she is not familiar with what he is recounting. Our eyes are transfixed by several pastries in the form of single-serving cakes with flavors like caramel pear, dulce de leche cheesecake, and chocolate hazelnut mousse. Many other beguiling and mouthwatering treats are meticulously arranged behind the pastry cases, stirring our cravings until there is nothing to do except give in. The air is laden with vanilla, butter and hospitality, so indulging in espresso and dessert seems inevitable and apropos.

Wanting food because you need nourishment is very different from craving something—craving is sparked by the mingling of desire and memory. John’s description of the fruit-filled cookie of his childhood reminds me of ma'amoul. Ma’amoul is a Middle Eastern butter cookie filled with a paste of dates and walnuts. Dates are naturally rich in brown sugar and caramel notes and when combined with the woody and somewhat tannic notes of walnuts, become the perfect foil for character extremes in the individual ingredients which make up the cookie. It is the addition of floral water that lends an indecipherable beauty to ma’amoul, one that is initially exotic, but like any new pleasure, becomes agreeably familiar and increasingly desired when consumed.

I offer to make more ma’amoul for John and he smiles, reminding me that it was the Arabs who brought pine nuts, apricots, figs and dates to Italy, exerting influence on Sicilian baking. He is also quick to add that Catherine de Medici took the Arabic influence to France, when she married King Henry II. “It was the Italians who taught the French to cook,” he teases. The date pastry I offer John begins to feel like a poor substitute for his true craving. I stare at the bottom of my espresso cup haunted and determined; I am going to find this cookie.

[Stay tuned for Part II of this cookie mystery, which will appear in next week's edition of Glass Petal Smoke.]

Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd

Yield: 56 cookies

· 3 cups of unbleached, all-purpose flour
· 1 teaspoon baking powder
· ½ teaspoon salt
· ¾ cup sugar
· 1½ sticks of butter (¾ cup)
· 2 large eggs
· 1 teaspoon Tahitian vanilla for the cookie dough
· 1½ teaspoons Chinese cassia cinnamon for the cookie dough
· 2 teaspoons rosewater for the cookie dough
· 1 package of date paste (you’ll need 10 ounces of the 13 ounces in the pack)
· 1 teaspoon Chinese cassia cinnamon (for the date paste)
· 1 teaspoon Tahitian vanilla (for the date paste)
· ¾ cup of chopped walnuts (lightly toasted in a pan and cooled, to bring out the flavor)
· ¼ cup warm water

· 2 cookie trays lined with parchment paper
· sheet of aluminum foil about the size of a cookie tray
· flour sifter
· mixing bowl and spatula
· measuring cups for dry ingredients
· measuring cup for wet ingredients
· two forks
· small bowl for beating eggs and vanilla
· small microwave bowl for butter
· 1¾ inch (in diameter) cookie cutter or jelly glass
· measuring spoons
· rolling pin
· cookie spatula
· plastic wrap for dough

· Toast chopped walnuts over a low flame and remove as soon as they begin to toast lightly (you’ll know by the soft, woody aroma). Allow to cool completely.
. Sift the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and 1½ teaspoons of cinnamon.
· Place butter in a small microwave bowl and microwave for 40 seconds (or until butter grows soft, making sure the butter is soft, not warm). Mix by hand with a fork so the melted and soft sections are blended together.
· In a small bowl, gently beat eggs, rosewater and vanilla. Add this to the butter and mix thoroughly.
· Add wet ingredients to dry and use your hands to form the dough.
· Separate the dough into two balls. Place each on the middle of an 18 inch sheet of plastic wrap. Fold the bottom third of the plastic wrap over the dough and pat down until it forms a 6 inch disc. Bring in the sides of the plastic wrap and fold the remaining top piece over the disc. Refrigerate for 4 hours.
· Fifteen minutes before the dough is ready to be rolled out, prepare the date paste. Put date paste into a small bowl and add warm water. Mix with a fork until the date paste has a malleable consistency that lends itself to filling a teaspoon with ease. If you find any date stems, remove them. Add one teaspoon each of cinnamon and vanilla and mix with a fork. Add crushed walnuts and incorporate.
· Divide the oven rack into thirds and set the temperature at 375 degrees. Allow the oven to heat to full temperature while you are rolling out the cookies, making sure the preparation area is a moderate distance from the oven.
· On a lightly floured surface, roll out a quarter of one of the chilled dough balls, until it is ⅛ inch thick. Cut with a cookie cutter and set on cookie sheet, keeping each cookie about one inch apart. Re-roll scraps, continuing to roll and cut. Use the extra sheet of aluminum foil to set cookie cuttings aside as you may run out of room on your cookie sheets in the preparation stage. (Each dough ball should yield 28 cookie sandwiches.)
· Place one teaspoon of date mixture over half of the cookies and use the remaining cut cookies to cover them. Pick up the sandwiched cookie, pinching and sealing the edges by hand, so the cookie looks like ravioli. Set the cookie back on the tray. Crimp the edges with the tines of a small fork. Prick the tops twice with the fork (the cookies will look like little pies) so that the centers can release heat in the oven while they are baking.
· Continue cutting and filling the cookies until each dough ball is used. When you are done you should have 24 filled cookies on each sheet, and 8 more filled cookies you’ll have to bake when the four dozen are finished.
· Refrigerate all of the ma'amoul for 8-10 minutes. This will allow the butter in the dough to firm up and will ensure that the cookies bake evenly, (the ones you made first will be affected by the room temperature in which they have been resting).
· Place each tray of cookies on a single rack in the oven and bake for 6 minutes. Open the oven and move the top tray to the bottom and the bottom tray to the top, reversing the front and back ends for even baking. Bake for an additional 6 minutes or until bottoms are lightly browned.
· Remove cookies from their trays and place on cooling rack for an hour or until completely cooled. Store in an airtight container.

There are many variations of the Middle Eastern ma’amoul. Some use orange blossom water or rosewater in the dough. Others use semolina instead of flour. For those who delight in sweetness and presentation, a dusting of confectioner’s sugar is preferred. Some recipes omit eggs and baking powder. This recipe is a winner because the texture of the cookie is enhanced by eggs and leavening.

Ma’amoul taste better the day after they are baked as the moisture in the filling softens the cookie dough. That’s a respectable characteristic for those of us who believe that age improves our unique essence as human beings. One of the things I like best about ma’amoul is that it has a shared history among Arabs and Jews. Perhaps the act of baking these is actually a gesture of peace in itself.

For floral waters, date paste and Tahitian vanilla, shop online at Kalustyan’s. Cortes® brand floral waters are highly recommended.

For China cassia cinnamon shop online at Penzey’s Spices.