Biscuits with Bartok 6 – Ma’amul

The concept of the weekly provision of a sweet treat for the musicians continues, allowing me to move away from the typical biscuit or cookie to something a little more out of the ordinary, Ma’amul.  Indeed the title of this series of posts is increasingly becoming a misnomer.  Bartok has been superseded in recent weeks by Telemann, the prolific late Baroque German composer – and there are a growing number of musicians.

There is something delightful and unique about sitting at my desk, working, listening to  music ebb and flow against the backdrop of the outdoor sound scape of birds, waves and wind. I hope it will eventually get warm enough to open the door so I can hear the pieces more clearly. Eventually, but for now it is still very cold, the wind swinging indiscriminately from south west to north and maintaining defiant persistence over the last 3 weeks.

Few seeds are yet planted outside, the soil temperature has dropped from 12 to 8 C.  I did try to plant some parsnip seeds, but they kept blowing out of the narrow drill.  I resorted to sowing small sections a few centimetres at a time and quickly covering them to ensure they stayed in the ground.

Dining out on fishing

Despite having more time indoors than I would normally care for at this time of year, I have had very little time over the last week to manage even one small blog post. Not only that, unusually, we have been out for dinner twice over the weekend.  Often, eating out is at houses of friends, but this was real dining out, on Uist. Imagine!

The annual dinners of North Uist Angling Club and South Uist Angling Club always occur back to back in the same weekend.  Friday night, we enjoyed a very well executed meal at Langass Lodge; smoked haddock risotto with samphire, hand dived scallops with cauliflower puree and lemoncello parfait with berries.  It really was spot on for a set meal for 35 people.  As current Chair of NUAC, I had to deliver a short speech, which was no hardship, and being Chair afforded us an invitation to the South Uist Club dinner the next evening at Grogarry Lodge, South Uist.  A tasty and comforting meal of salmon pate, venison and vegetables (significant portion and seconds offered!) and cheesecake was enjoyed and we were made to feel very welcome by the members of the club.

Sandwiched in between these dinners was our annual pollack competition on Loch Strumore, North Uist  when we attempt to catch pollack on the fly.  Always a challenge, the potential for some monster fish and a huge fight.  Two years ago we had a bathful of fish to deal with as a result and the winning angler caught an 8 lb beast that shredded his hand.  Alas, no monsters this year.  The weather deteriorated over the course of the day to intolerably freezing. I came home with a fish, as did The Man Named Sous, the only two pollack caught all day.  Another fishing trophy for my Dearest then as his was slightly bigger than mine.

pollack

As ever, when late spring arrives (the weather is allegedly supposed to improve about now), we have started to see our first visitors, from near and far.  I don’t expect therefore that I will get a huge amount of time to blog over the coming week, although my draft posts will continue to pile up (I have been experimenting with seaweed too – more on that in the next post). Tomorrow, we have a Swiss friend coming for dinner, musicians and more visitors the day after, who knows who else by the weekend. I will seize the moment to discuss the delights of ma’amul.

Ma’amul

Ma’amul (various spellings, commonly also Ma’amoul) is an appropriately windswept and interesting (as Billy Connolly would say) sweet experience. The innocuous looking shortbread-type biscuit conceals the surprise of a crumbly and aromatic exterior, which then relinquishes a sumptuous, sticky dried fruit and nutty rose-scented interior.  A definite curveball if you have not tried these before.

This is one of the most popular Arab cookies, eaten across the Middle East, particularly during Ramadan. They are rolled and stuffed with varying ingredients, commonly walnuts and dates, but also pistachios, figs and almonds. Ma’amul can be hand-rolled or pressed into decorative wooden moulds.  This reminded me of pressing shortbread into a wooden mould depicting a thistle, which I remember doing as a child, although, I don’t actually have that mould, so hand formed my ma’amul.

Texturally, I was looking for something different and I knew the main constituent ingredient of semolina would deliver an unusual textural experience while the flavours satisfy my continued love of all things aromatic, with the addition of orange blossom water and rosewater. The textures also extends to preparation and making ma’amul is a very pleasant quite unique tactile experience. Here I use a variation of the recipe from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem (I know, again, but I have been abstaining for a few weeks), altering the filling to include pistachios and figs instead of dates and replaced cinnamon with my preferred ground cardamom.

Ingredients

350g semolina

40g plain flour

pinch of salt

180g unsalted butter, cut into 3 cm cubes

2 tbsp orange blossom water

1 tbsp rose water

icing sugar for dusting

Fruit and nut filling:

150g pistachios

75g walnuts

45g dried figs

45g caster sugar

1 tsp ground cardamom

1 1/2 tsp rose water

1 tbsp orange blossom water

Preheat the oven to 190C

Method

  • Put the semolina, flour, sugar and salt in a bowl and mix.  Add the butter and work it to the texture of breadcrumbs.
  • Add the orange blossom and rose waters and 1/2 a tablespoon of water to bring the mixture together into a ball.
  • Knead on the surface until completely smooth, about 5 minutes.  By now it will smell refreshing and aromatic and you will get the sense of the distinctive texture.
  • Cover with a damp cloth and rest for about 30 minutes.

Now make the filling:

  • Put the pistachios, walnuts, figs, sugar and cardamom in a food processor, pulse then process until finely chopped but not completely ground.
  • Add the orange blossom and rose waters and pulse to produce a coarse paste.

Moulding your ma’amul

If uniformity of biscuits matters to you (as it does to me), it is always handy to have some very accurate scales to measure out each piece of dough before rolling the finished item.  I use jewellery scales. I know such scales are often associated with clandestine activities (I do not mean weighing jewellery-related items), but my original use for the scales was innocuous, albeit slightly obscure.

I bought these many years ago as a tool to weigh birds that I was ringing, unfortunately, I can no longer find the time to ring and the scales have been recycled into the kitchen.  These were ideal for accurately weighing small passerines such as goldcrests and wrens. Goldcrests weigh only 5 -7 grams, so 5 goldcrests are the same weight as the dough for just 1 biscuit, what a random fact!

Don’t be put off by the convoluted preparation description – the dough is easy to manipulate and reshape if you put your thumb through it the first time. Ma’amul can be decorated in many ways but I have opted for simply pressing across the tops with a fork.

Ma'amul cooking 001

Method

  • Get a small bowl of water and keep you hands moist to stop the dough from cracking.
  • Pick up a bit of dough about the size of a walnut, it should be about 25g, roll it into a ball between your damp palms.
  • Cup the dough in the palm of one hand and press the centre with the thumb of your other hand to form an indentation.  This is similar to producing a clay thumb pot, forming a space in the centre of the dough for the stuffing.
  • The sides of the ‘pot’ should be about 5mm thick and 2.5 cm high.
  • Keep in your palm and grab about 20g of the filling and place it in the ‘pot’.  Pull up the dough around the filling to enclose it within the dough and roll gently into a ball again.

Ma'amul cooking 003

  • At this stage, I rolled the balls into slightly tall cylinders so I could press them down with a fork on the baking sheet. Place each on a baking sheet lined with silicone sheet or parchment paper.
  • Press down gently  on the top of the biscuit with a fork to create a pattern across the top of each biscuit.

Ma'amul cooking 005

  • Bake for 12 – 14 minutes, until cooked, ensuring the biscuits take on no colour.
  • Cool on a wire rack and sprinkle with icing sugar, if desired, before serving. Enjoy with a strong espresso.

Ma'amul 026Ma'amul 021Ma'amul 044

I am The Red Queen

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

The Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass

It is peculiar how, through life, particular quotes can re-surface in different contexts. For me, none more strikingly so than that by Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen. It has been a while since I have thought about her.

My first encounter was inevitably in childhood and the wonderous world of fantastically surreal drama of Carroll’s book which left me quite frankly bewildered but intrigued – and with a fleeting fascination for mirrors and chess.

Last time I thought about her she unexpectedly appeared when I studied co-evolutionary theory as a zoology undergraduate. Although The Red Queen Hypothesis explains two different evolutionary phenomena: the advantage of sexual reproduction between individuals (micorevolutionary) and the constant evolutionary arms race between competing species (macroevolutionary). Either way, the central premise is that continuing adaptation is needed in order for a species to maintain its relative fitness amongst the systems it is co-evolving with. Matt Ridley’s work of popular science on the subject ‘The Red Queen’, is a book guaranteed to generate a storming debate and is a thought-provoking read for scientists and non-scientists alike.

Gardening here always does seem to be an arms race of a non-evolutionary sort – given the constant battle to outwit predators preying on my vulnerable produce.  However, my thoughts returned to The Red Queen over the last couple of months, and specifically to the running-to-stand-still aspect of her being, which has been my experience of late.

I’m sure the experience of frenetic activity is the same between August and October for anyone growing produce.  This is for me exacerbated by full-time work, the start of the migratory fish season and ripening of fruit and berries to forage – not to mention producing a stack of canapes for an open day for The Man Named Sous to welcome customers and friends to his new workshop! The open day was a success. Sadly there wasn’t much food left over to indulge in! Recipe for the canape below can be found here

Broad bean and pea puree with frizzled chorizo on a seeded cracker

As usual, I have written nothing down, but at least used my iPhone to catalogue food-related events.  I had the inevitable glut of veg – kilos of tomatoes, courgettes, cucumbers, peas, broad beans and carrots, too many cauliflowers but not enough pak choi, my first raspberries (exciting!) and a forest of herbs. Fishing yielded well with plenty brown trout and mackerel. A mainland forage for rowan and an exceptional bramble crop on Uist put lots of jelly on the boil.

Chutneys and relishes ensued – beetroot relish, piccalilli, rhubarb relish, veg ale chutney.  Courgettes and cucumbers were eaten fresh by the kilo in various guises from bread (courgette) to salads, the rest preserved by light pickling using numerous different experimental recipes from spicy to sweet. It is a delight to say that in my third tomato-growing year, and due to our exceptional summer, for the first time, I did not have to resort to green tomato chutney.  So lots of roasted tomatoes sauces in the freezer to look forward to over the winter.

Herbs too were exceptional.  I decided to stick to growing about 15 this year, mostly the usual suspects I find it impossible to live without. Basil contributed to fresh pesto.  Its numerous forms included the classic recipe plus variations with rocket, parsley and nasturtiums. Although coriander has to be cropped quickly as it bolts as soon as your back is turned, I did manage a steady supply by sowing weekly over the summer and it is a must for curries and mexican dishes. A trout wouldn’t be the same without dill and the fresh brownies and dill will be sadly missed over the winter. For me the most versatile of all is parsley.  Fortunately I can usually keep a year round supply growing.  Just as well, I add it to almost everything. It also made a significant contribution to my vegetable bouillon recipe.

So, while I have put plenty food in the store cupboard and freezer, not much progress has been made on completing the fruit cage or dry stone wall.  No excuses now however.

I could go on ad infinitum, so it is perhaps fortunate that my apple and marmalade cake needs to come out of the oven….


Broad bean and pea puree with frizzled chorizo on a seeded cracker

The ratio of peas to beans can be changed according to what’s available, or use just one or the other.  The amount of horseradish is up to you, depending on how much heat you like, so keep tasting as you add!

Ingredients

250g each of peas and broad beans, cooked; broad beans shelled

100g creme fraiche

3-5 tblsp fresh grated horseradish, to taste

couple of mint sprigs

chorizo, cut into chunks 1cm x 2cm approx

salt and pepper

To make:

Simmer peas/beans in boiling water for 5 mins and plunge in ice cold water to retain colour.  Shell the broad beans (it is worth the effort and produces a more refined texture), blitz in a food processor with the rest of the ingredients except the chorizo.  Taste and adjust seasoning/horseradish as required. Pass the mixture through a chinois or sieve (unless you want a coarse puree). Put mixture in the fridge as piping is easier if it is cooler and hence firmer.

Put the chorizo pieces in a dry frying pan on a medium heat and fry until the fat runs out and the pieces crisp and blacken at the edges.  Drain on kitchen towel and cool.

Fill a piping bag and using a 1cm plain nozzle pipe a small amount of the mixture onto the cracker. Top with the chorizo and any other garnish you like.  I used chives, mint would be an obvious choice.

Two seed crackers

Replace the seeds with your favourites, or to complement the topping. I often use caraway, but my home grown seed is a bit to potent and overpowers this delicate puree, so linseed and poppy seed were added.

Ingredients

250g plain flour

1tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

2 tblsp linseeds

2 tblsp poppy seeds

60g chilled salted butter, cut into small cubes

125ml cold water

pepper

To make:

Oven: 180 oC

Sift flour, baking powder and salt, add seeds and pepper to taste. Rub in the butter until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Gradually mix in the cold water with a flat-bladed knife until the mixture comes together. Gather the dough into a ball, do not knead or overhandle it.

Roll the dough between 2 sheets of cling film until it is 2mm thick – get it as thin as you can.  You may need to divide the dough and roll it in batches.  Don’t be tempted to use parchment or silicone instead of clingfilm – I found this mixture sticks to both. Cutter size is up to you.  I find for canapes 4 or 5 cm is about right, any bigger and the canape is more than a mouthful. This makes about 30 crackers. Put on a baking tray and prick with a fork.

Bake for about 25 minutes until just golden. Store in an airtight container. If you don’t need to make a big batch, the dough can be frozen and used at a later date.