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Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015 12:01 am

Maamoul cookies

Muslim sweets for holiday treats

Maamoul cookies
PHOTO FROM WIKIMEDIA/USER fugzu

 

“I know Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, but…” I said.
“Actually, we do,” replied Ali Nizamuddin.

Of course. I’d forgotten that Islam teaches that Jews, Christians and Muslims are all “people of the book.”

While Muslims don’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, he is regarded as a major prophet along with Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses. Christmas isn’t as big a celebration for Muslims as Christians, but it is observed.

I’ve been increasingly disheartened by the rising tide of harassment and hatred directed at all Muslims just because they share the same ancestry and religion as the murderous thugs and terrorists who deserve our disgust.

So why don’t the good Muslims get together and get rid of the bad guys? The easiest explanation is simplistic, for sure, but doesn’t necessitate in-depth study: Islam is not a cohesive religion like Catholicism with one leader in charge. It’s more like Protestantism in that it has numerous sects and even more splinter groups within those sects. Spread those sects over the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Southeast Asia, add in customs and cultures from those areas along with the evolution of customs and cultures over centuries, and the diversity of Muslims becomes clear. The few extremists who cherry-pick parts of the Quran to suit their own violent goals are not representative of the whole.

Of course, many other religions have their own radically extreme cults, including Christianity. The Ku Klux Klan considers itself a Christian organization. They and the terrorists who have attacked Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics or preachers that believe LBGT folks should be put to death also cherry-pick parts of the Bible they believe condone their actions.

I wanted to do something to help promote understanding. But what? My answer came while reading a lovely Facebook post, Gate A-4, by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Nye’s flight from Albequerque, N.M., to El Paso, Texas, was delayed four hours. An elderly Palestinian woman at its A-4 boarding gate began weeping uncontrollably. The woman spoke little English and the flight staff no Arabic. Nye’s Arabic wasn’t perfect, but good enough to straighten things out. The elderly woman, who was going to El Paso for major medical treatment the next day, had thought the flight was cancelled.

Nye stayed with her, talking with her son, calling the woman’s other children, Nye’s father and some Palestinian friends so they could chat with the woman as they waited.

Nye wrote:

“She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies – little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts – from her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single traveler declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo – we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.”

“Then the airline broke out free apple juice and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar, too.”

Yes! Food is one of the easiest ways to understand other cultures and meet people of other traditions. Even if they don’t want to understand your language, religion or values, if you put your delicious food in front of them, they’ll eat it. And what better food for that than cookies?
 
I’d never heard of mamool (or maamoul) before. So I contacted Dr. Nizamuddin for help. Nizamuddin is an associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield and the faculty advisor for UIS’s Muslim student group. He told me that there would be an Interfaith Peace Vigil at The Islamic Society of Greater Springfield the next Sunday. If I could come, he would be able to introduce me to Ali Hussian, president of ISOGS’s board and owner of Lulu’s Diner on Ninth Street, as well as others who could help me in my cookie quest.

I got lots more on Sunday night than cookie information. I’ve never been greeted more warmly, nor been thanked for coming by so many people. Nor have I been to a more patriotic event. Young girls handed tiny American flags to all who arrived. The vigil started with ISOGS children leading the Pledge of Allegiance and ended with them leading singing of the “Star Spangled Banner”. Speakers included Mayor Jim Langfelder, Republican Representative Jim Butler, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, religious leaders of many faiths and others, including a retired Army officer. All were inspiring; several brought tears to my eyes and I knew, as Nye wrote in her story’s ending:

“… I looked around… and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate – once the crying and confusion stopped – seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”
 
Maamoul originated in Lebanon. They’re made with lightly yeasted dough that is then filled and shaped in wooden molds that create a decorative pattern, traditional at holidays and served with tea. The most common fillings are dates, walnuts, pistachios or a combination of the nuts, although I did find others. Many recipes call for special Middle Eastern ingredients but they can be optional. Maamoul can also be formed into balls without using the molds, although they won’t be as pretty.
 
Maamoul cookies

Dough:
• 3 c. all-purpose or bread flour
• 1/2 c. powdered sugar, plus additional for sprinkling
• 1/2 tsp. active, dry yeast
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1 c. butter
• 1/2 c. milk
• 2 T. each orange blossom water and rose water or substitute 1/4 c. orange juice

Mix the flour, sugar, yeast and salt together in a large bowl. Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat, then stir in the milk, rose and orange blossom waters or substitute orange juice.

Pour the butter mixture over the dry ingredients and stir until combined, then gently knead for a minute in the bowl with floured hands.

Cover the dough with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel and let rest for two hours.
 
Fillings
Dates
• 1/2 lb. pitted dates
• 2 T. softened butter

Combine in a food processor and mix to a paste.

Walnut or pistachio
• 1 1/2 c. ground walnuts or pistachios
• ½ c. sugar
• 3 T. orange blossom water or orange juice

Mix together in a bowl.

Date and nut
Combine 1/2 recipe of the date filling with 1/2 recipe of the walnut or pistachio filling.

For the Maamoul:

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Grease a baking sheet or line with parchment paper.

After 2 hours, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead lightly. Divide into equal pieces the size of a small apricot.

Make a hole in the balls with your finger, then fill with a teaspoon of filling. Pinch the dough together to seal in the filling, then roll into a ball.

When using molds, the ball is placed in the mold, rapped sharply to set the design, then turned out onto the baking sheet. If not using molds space the balls evenly on the sheet, then press lightly to flatten them slightly. Either way, the cookies should be about an inch apart.

Bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown, then cool. Dust with powdered sugar if desired – this is most common with nut-filled maamoul.

Makes approximately a dozen.

Note: Rose water can usually be found at Mini Devon Grocery; sometimes it and orange blossom water are available at Little World Market or in groceries’ ethnic sections.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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