Yotam Ottolenghi waxed lyrical about the milk puddings of the Middle East in an episode of his television series, Jerusalem on a Plate. During a scene where YO bought a cup of malabi from a street vendor then devoured it, Peter looked my way and said ‘That sounds so good, you must make it for us!’
His wish is my command when it comes to food and cooking. I found a selection of recipes in my library – the first of which, Mahlebieh or almond cream pudding, is in Anto der Haroutunain’s Middle Eastern Cookery. A favourite on our shelves, Peter bought it during a 1980s peacekeeping mission in the Sinai. ‘Mahlebieh,’ der Haroutunain writes, ‘is Arabic meaning “with milk” and the pudding should be served chilled’. The author offers a few interesting variations, including the Turkish sakiz muhallebisi made with mastic.
The late Tess Mallos also included a recipe for Muhallabia, or almond cream pudding (noted as being from ‘Lebanon, Syria Jordan’), in her Middle Eastern Home Cooking. I note that hers is beautifully garnished with jewel-like pomegranate seeds and pistachio nuts.
In New Food of Life – Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Ceremonies, Najmieh Matmanglij shares a recipe sans the ground rice and almonds. Paradise Custard, or Yakh dar behesht (which translates lyrically to “Ice in Paradise”), includes cardamom pods and a garnish of slivered almonds. I am taken by the name "Paradise Custard" and will use it for my adaptation, methinks.
Ground almonds and ground rice, together with almond essence, feature in the traditional Ottoman dessert known as keşkül or almond cream, included in Claudia Roden’s Tamarind and Saffron. ‘Milk puddings are a specialty of the Middle East and this is my favourite,’ Ms Roden writes. I make a mental note to check the freezer to see if I have any almonds.
Vanilla and bay leaf syrup, together with desiccated coconut and chopped pistachios, is the garnish for the Muhallabieh or malabi showcased in Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. ‘It is fair to say that Arabs and Jews share a fascination with these milky desserts,’ they mention. Me too, I say. Must try the bay leaf syrup.
Perusing this pile of recipes was as far as I’d come with this dessert, until my next encounters with it... in Dubai.
We should have been en route to London, but our flight was delayed from the start, which meant a fleeting, unexpected stopover in the UAE – a real pain in the butt given that we had already spent nine hours waiting in the Emirates Lounge in Melbourne! Dubai International Airport is the mother of all airports – it's massive and as busy as an airport can get. After disembarking and trudging from one end of the airport to the other, then queuing for 45 minutes to collect accommodation and meal vouchers, we waited 30 agonising minutes more for our transfer to the hotel.
Outside, it was 40 degrees C and I was in my winter-down-under denims and a long-sleeved tee. My feet ached and I could barely keep my eyes open. After checking in, we had a scant four hours to throw down some food, shower and get some sleep, before getting back to the airport at midnight! No time to have a dip in the pool, which looked ever-so inviting!
In the dining room, Peter, who was ravenous, left my side in a flash to make his way to the smorgasbord and load up a plate. Almost in a stupor and not feeling hungry, I circled the buffet, and then the mahlebieh caught my eye. It was in a large, glass dish atop a mountain of ice. I filled my little bowl, returned to my seat and, with my elbows on the table, spooned the exquisite pudding into my mouth – nonchalantly observing the other guests. The Indian man with his three little boys. The middle aged woman wearing the ḥijāb. The talkative Danish couple that we met on the bus. Would they notice if I went back for a second or third helping, I wondered? Being so tired, I was beyond caring.
Eating that silky concoction was like slipping into a soft towelling robe after a cooling shower. Sleep was to follow quickly and, though it was brief, it was deep and I snored contentedly – dreaming that I was in my kitchen at home making mahlebieh for my Peter.
MAHLEBIEH – PARADISE CUSTARD
35g maize cornflour
40g vanilla-infused caster sugar
a few drops of orange blossom water or rose water
1 tablespoon pistachio nuts, roughly crushed
2-3 large strawberries, diced
Pour 50mls of the milk into a small Pyrex jug and sprinkle the cornflour over the milk, then whisk to a smooth paste. Combine the remaining 200mls of milk with the water and vanilla-infused caster sugar in a saucepan. Heat gently over a medium-low heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Pour in the cornflour mixture and stir until the mixture begins to boil and thicken.
At this stage, I recommend you either pour the custard into a Pyrex jug and, from there, pour into attractive serving dishes. Alternatively, ladle the milky custard carefully into the serving dishes. Cover with cling film and refrigerate for 2-3 hours until the mahlebieh has set.
When ready to serve, sprinkle the top of the pudding with the diced strawberries and the pistachio nuts. Serves 2-4, depending on the size of your appetite and your dishes.
In closing, I had the pleasure of eating mahlebieh once more in Dubai, this time on our way home some six weeks or so later. It was to be the BEST Lebanese meal that I have eaten in my entire life. More on this in a future postcards and morsels post. Now, tell me dear readers, do you enjoy Middle Eastern puddings?
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.