by Fouad Kassab
As Easter approaches, one great way for me to connect with my memories of growing up in Lebanon is to make our traditional Easter sweets, maamoul. I remember being in the living room as a child, with my mum and four or five of her friends, making huge quantities of this delicious shortbread. This community of women would get together to collaborate on this mammoth project, entertain each other through hours of baking, and to supply their individual households with kilos and kilos of this highly sought-after delicacy. The ladies would have each prepared their pastry and fillings the night before at home. This is the easy part: the pastry is semolina kneaded with butter and scented with rosewater, and, sometimes orange blossom water. The fillings could be dates mixed with butter, or a variety of nuts – pistachios, almonds or walnuts – mixed with sugar and rosewater. The labour-intensive part is making the individual pastries. Though not particularly back breaking work, filling the pastry with dates or nuts, placing them in the specially designed maamoul moulds (different designs for different fillings) and then knocking the mould on a wooden board and filling up over a hundred trays requires patience and company.
We had a round, flat portable oven that we used especially for these occasions and though the smell of freshly baked maamoul would be intoxicatingly beautiful and almost impossible to resist, we would have to wait until Easter day before we got a chance to try any. Lent is a period of contemplation and prayer, and sweet delights such as maamoul were not to be consumed. Can you imagine how much discipline and parental pressure it took for us kids to not steal some when the parents weren’t looking?
I miss these communal gatherings I experienced as a child. The coming together of neighbours and friends to keep each other entertained and motivated is a beautiful thing to take part of, and life in Australia seems too busy for such an event to occur. And since I quit eating gluten, I also miss maamoul. This year, however, I took it upon myself to make the impossible possible. The challenge was, could I create a gluten-free maamoul that was as good as the real deal? Inspired by my macadamia and currant shortbreads which I included in our cookbook, Life-Changing Food, I have created this recipe for gluten-free/grain-free maamoul. The result, I promise you, is as good if not better than the originals. And if you don’t believe me, bake a batch and see for yourself. The only thing is, do you have the self-control to wait until after Easter to dig in?
- 200g tapioca starch*, plus extra for dusting
- 200g blanched almond meal
- 190 cold salted butter, cut into cubes (if using unsalted, add 1/8th tsp fine salt)
- 2 Tbsp rosewater
- 260g medjool dates, pitted
- 100g cold salted butter, cut into cubes (if using unsalted, add 1/8th tsp fine salt)
- Wooden maamoul moulds, baking trays and baking paper
- OR a 20x30cm (or 25x25cm) flat baking dish and baking paper
- Place all ingredients into TM bowl and blend 15 sec/speed 6. Set aside while making filling.
- Wash and dry TM bowl.
- Place dates and butter into clean TM bowl and blend 10 sec/speed 7.
- Scrape down sides of bowl with spatula and blend again 10 sec/speed 4.
- Preheat oven to 150C.
- Divide and roll dough into 24 balls of 25g each, dusting with tapioca starch so dough doesn’t stick to your hands.
- Divide and roll date paste into 24 balls of 15g each.
- Lightly dust a ball of dough with tapioca, flatten out with fingertips into a circle, and place a ball of date paste onto dough. Wrap dough around the date ball and roll into a smooth ball, then place into a mould, pressing in gently. Knock the pastry out of the mould onto lined baking tray, and repeat with remaining balls of dough and date paste. . (Alternatively, you can make the balls of dough with date paste inside, press down slightly on a baking tray, then decorate the edges with a fork if you have no moulds.)
- Bake pastries for 30 minutes. They will still be pale in colour. Remove carefully to cooling racks after 10 mins.
- These can be served warm or cool, but they will hold together much better after being in the fridge for a day.
- Divide dough into two equal balls and chill in fridge for 30 mins. Leave the date paste to sit out at room temp so that it is soft enough to spread.
- Grease a 20x30cm or 25x25cm baking dish, and line with baking paper.
- Preheat oven to 150C.
- Press one ball of dough into lined dish to form the base of the slice, patting with fingers to even out surface of dough. If the dough has softened over this time, return to fridge to chill for 10 mins before proceeding with filling.
- Place spoonfuls of the date paste onto the base, and spread out with a spatula or back of a spoon to evenly cover base. (You may need to wet your hands and use your fingers to press paste down so that you can get it smooth and even.)
- Roll out second ball of dough between two sheets of baking paper, to fit baking tray exactly. Remove top sheet of paper and turn dough over into the baking dish, pressing down gently onto the filling. Carefully remove paper from top of dough, then smooth dough with fingers as needed.
- With a very sharp knife, slice into squares, cutting the whole way through. (Cutting the slice before baking makes it easier to cut after it’s cooked.) If you like, decorate top of slice with a fork to make patterns.
- Place slice into oven and bake 40 mins, or until cooked through. Slice will be pale in colour.
- Allow to cool then chill in fridge to completely set before serving. (If you can wait! Slice will crumble more if served while warm.)
- Dough: Mix in a food processor or by hand until smooth.
- Filling: Mix in a food processor until a smooth paste is formed.
- Continue recipe as above.
- Store in an airtight container in fridge for up to a month, or freezer for up to 4 months.
- * Note: Tapioca starch is preferred to arrowroot starch in this recipe, as arrowroot gives a more delicate and crumbly result.