Thursday, October 29, 2015

Mexican Vanilla Ma'mul

I had a variety of jobs when I was a college student, including a stint as an abalone cleaner. The shift leader was a Lebanese woman named Yvette, who taught me to make an entire Lebanese meal including ma'mul, cookies made with clarified butter and shaped in a wooden hand-carved mold called a "tabi" (also called taabeh or tamreah) which we bought at a Middle Eastern store.** Here's my collection.

Traditionally, ma'mul are filled with pistachios, walnuts or dates and scented with orange or rose water. Different molds indicate the type of filling. I've included online sources below if you're interested in finding a tabi. Some folks don't use molds, so don't let this stop you from making ma'mul. Just flatten the cookie ball a bit and score with a fork.

Spelling variations include mamool, mamoul, maamoul, ma'amoul, in case you're interested in googling to find other versions. This video shows how the cookies are traditionally shaped, filled, and molded or decorated.

I modified Yvette's family recipe to reflect my family's preferences, using locally grown walnuts and Mexican vanilla.

Roxanne's Walnut-filled Mexican Vanilla Ma'mul
Ingredients for dough
  • 2 c. clarified butter
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 6 c. flour (if possible, use some semolina to help hold the shape)
  • 1 c. lukewarm milk
Ingredients for filling
  • 3 c. ground nuts 
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 T. Mexican vanilla**
Make the filling
  1. Toss the nuts in your food processor and give then a whirl. You're making finely chopped nuts, not nut flour, so don't go crazy.
  2. Mix the ground nuts with sugar and vanilla, cover, and set aside.
Make the dough
  1. Clarify the butter.*** As a rule of thumb, five sticks of unsalted butter yield 2 cups of clarified butter.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar.
  3. Add flour and milk to the butter mixture, and gently knead until smooth.
Prep the molds
  • If you're using a wooden mold, brush it with lightly with melted butter, making sure to get into those little crevices. This keeps the first cookies from sticking when you tap them out. The butter in the cookie dough itself will season the mold, so this step is only necessary to do once per baking session.
Make the cookies
  1. I used to have only one mold and as you can imagine, it took quite some time to make 4 dozen cookies. Since then, I've collected few and if I bake alone, I set up an assembly line: chunk out the dough, make the disks, fill the disks, fill the molds, tap tap tap tap, and bake when the cookie sheet is full.
  2. Pinch out walnut-sized chunks of dough before starting to fill. Keep this all covered so the dough doesn't dry out.
  3. Shape a chunk of dough into a disk about 1/4 inch thick and about 3 inches in diameter.
  4. Put about 1 heaping teaspoon of filling in the middle of the disk, fold the edges over and pinch closed. 
  5. Put the "package" in the mold, folded side facing out, and press gently so the design imprints on the top of the cookie and the bottom of the cookie is flattish.
  6. Tap the ma'mul out and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. These cookies don't spread, so they can be placed fairly close together.
  7. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes, until the bottoms are lightly brown. Don't turn your back on the oven! A burned batch will break your heart.
  8. When the cookies have cooled, sprinkle with confectioner's sugar if you'd like.
  9. Store in an airtight container.
Ma'mul taste better the second day and are wonderful dunked in morning coffee. They also ship well and make the perfect holiday cookie gift.

** Mexican vanilla: Mexican vanilla has gotten a bad rap, so be careful to buy from a reputable vendor. There are many online sources for Mexican vanilla without coumarin. Check Amazon or Williams Sonoma.  Yeah, yeah, you can always substitute another high quality vanilla, but imho, nothing compares with pure Mexican vanilla extract. In the words of David Liebovitz, "Real Mexican vanilla is perhaps the best in the world." Oh, and avoid vanilla blends. You want pure extract which is coumarin free & FDA registered.

***A special word about Ma'mul molds: Mine have been procured from various sources, including the now defunct Dayna's Market.
  1. If you'd like a traditional shape, try Hashems, DedeMedEid Molds, or search eBay for "maamoul mold."
  2. Or use a Chinese mooncake mold like these. You can also find mooncake molds on Amazon and Ali Express. This pattern would work beautifully.
*** Clarified butter is also known as drawn butter or ghee. Some Indian and specialty markets sell ghee. If you clarify the butter yourself, use only unsalted butter. What to do with the milk fats you skim off? I spread it on toast.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Breakfast is served: Popeye Scramble

Another recipe inspired by Cory's in Chico.

Popeye Scramble
1/2 c chopped onion
1  bag (5 oz) baby spinach
1/2 c chopped mushrooms
1 lb ground beef
1 can black olives, sliced
1/2 c cooked crumbled bacon
4 eggs
grated parmesan cheese

  1. Brown the ground beef.
  2. When the meat is no longer red, add the onions and mushrooms to brown.

  3. When the veggies are nearly tender, add the spinach and cover the skillet.

  4. Peek and stir periodically until the spinach is wilted. Then add the olives and bacon. Cook a couple more minutes uncovered to let some of the liquid evaporate.

  5. Scramble the eggs and add to the skillet. Stir in and cover for a couple of minutes.
  6. Again, peek and stir until the eggs are firm.
  7. Top with a sprinkle of grated parmesan. Mangia!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Soup: Making Minestrone

Welcome to Sunday Soup. This week's special is minestrone.

Minestrone is simply an Italian vegetable soup which often includes pasta. My minestrone is never exactly the same each time; that’s a good thing.  What I’ve posted below are guidelines, recommendations. Use seasonal ingredients and leftovers. Be creative and have fun.

When we camp in the desert, I make a version we call Playastrone, with canned veggies and beans instead of fresh veggies & pasta. When the smell wafts and unexpected guests drop by, I may ask if they have anything to contribute to the soup to stretch it. Canned corn, black beans...all gifts go in the pot. No one leaves hungry.

Both recipes serve 8 - 10 people.

Basic Minestrone 
  • Greens: 1-2 bunches. I like kale and beet greens. Chard works, too. Spinach, meh – something about the metallic aftertaste I don’t care for in my soup.
  • Mirepoix: about 1 1/2 c. chopped. equal amounts of red onion, carrots, celery. Red bell pepper too, if it’s available.
  • Other veggies: roughly 4 cups chopped: wild or cremini mushrooms, green beans, a generous amount of fresh tomatoes (Roma or grape are my faves for this -- don't skip the tomatoes!), garlic, zucchini. If they're in season: fava beans, fresh garbanzo beans, green garlic, green tomatoes (they are mild and sweet, try it and see).
  • Meat is optional, but we like it: leftover chicken or beef, or Italian sausage (precooked before adding to the pot)
  • Fresh Italian herbs (or dried herbs if you don't have fresh): parsley, basil, rosemary, lemon thyme. about 1/4 - 1/3 chopped/fresh, about 2-3 T/dried. use alight hand and taste as the soup brews. you can add but you can't take away.
  • A starch component: tortellini or beans (garbanzo, cannellini, kidney are good; lima beans or black-eyed peas are not). or leftover potatoes. or diced winter squash. or all of the above.
  • Broth: 8 cups for a big stock pot of soup.
  • My secret ingredient: lemon or orange zest. Don't get crazy with this. You only want to use enough to "freshen" the broth.
  1. Chop everything into bite-sized pieces. Lightly sauté the mirepoix in olive oil until they start to soften. Then add the garlic & tomatoes and stir a minute more. Burned garlic = bad.
  2. Now add the other raw veggies, herbs, meat, and broth. Simmer for 15-20 minutes. Veggies should be cooked enough, not to death.
  3. Pile the leafy greens on top and simmer with the lid on the pot. Check periodically. Soup should be ready to serve in 5-10 more minutes.
  4. What you do next depends on your starch component.
    • If I have tortellini on hand (I do today), I’ll cook the pasta separately. I hate over-cooked pasta and it tends to absorb the broth if you store leftovers in the fridge overnight. Just ladle the soup over your pasta before serving. 
    • If I don’t have or want pasta in the soup, I’ll add a can of beans to the pot. Or I’ll dice up a leftover baked potato or kabocha or butternut squash.  Or all of the above. Just don’t use yams or sweet potatoes, please.
  5. Season to taste with a little salt and pepper, and top with parmesan and fresh chopped Italian parsley.
  • 2-3 diced red onions
  • 2 diced green peppers
  • 4 diced carrots
  • 4 diced celery sticks
  • 6 c. broth
  • 28 oz. can stewed or diced tomatoes
  • 15 oz. can each kidney, garbanzos, green beans
  • 2-3 cans chicken
  • 2 T. dried parsley
  • 2 t. Italian seasoning
  • 1 t. lemon pepper
  • 1 t. garlic powder
  1. Saute onion, peppers, carrots and celery over med-low heat until soft. 
  2. Add broth, beans, chicken and seasoning. Simmer for 15 minutes.
Hint: Dice veggies at home, ziplock and store in the cooler.