At this time of year I am something of an involuntary baker. That’s not to say I don’t like baking, but rather to say I can’t help baking. I remember one year I was down with a cold, got up from a nap to get a glass of water and, next thing I knew, I was encircled by a cloud of flour and there were three dozen lace cookies on the counter and I had no memory of how they got there.
My family’s favorite holiday treat is a Wafi Box. There’s a store in Dubai called the Wafi Gourmet that makes the most delicious assortment of baklava you could imagine in small, bite size pieces that pack a big flavor punch. Now, I love me a Wafi box as much as the next person, but my favorite Middle Eastern cookie is Mamoul, which is basically a semolina crust surrounding a heavenly date filling. They’re usually made in intricately carved molds, but mine were sacrificed to the moving gremlins, hence the need for a new strategy.
This year I’ve been jimmying around with a few recipes to come up with a Mamoul recipe I like that I can make in my mini muffin tin. It seems to work pretty well and, the longer they sit, the better they get. They’re a tad labor intensive, but worth it.
2 cups semolina flour
1 1/2 sticks of melted butter
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon of vanilla or, if you prefer it, rose flower water
1 teaspoon salt
Mix these ingredients together and let them sit at least overnight in the refrigerator so the semolina soaks up the butter and it all becomes the consistency of pie dough.
1 cup of date pieces from your local bulk food store
2 T. butter
1 cup of water
Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and cook on a low simmer until the dates have softened and the water seems to have all but entirely evaporated. You can leave the pieces whole, but if you like you can whazz them up in a food processor or with an immersion blender to turn them into a paste of uniform consistency. Let cool before using.
When you’re ready to make the cookies, take the dough out of the fridge and let it get to room temperature so it becomes pliable. With a mini ice cream scoop, portion out a scoopfull of dough into each muffin cup, then press the dough around the cup and up over the sides so the cup is full and there’s about a half inch of overlap all around. Spoon a teaspoon of date filling into each muffin cup full of dough, then pull the overlapping crust over the top of the date filling and pinch and prod it together to seal in the filling and make a flat top over the cookies.
Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes until just starting to brown. Let cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a cooling rack. Store in an airtight container.
These get better with age. The dough feels slightly sandy and is a lovely counterpoint to the rich, gooey date filling.
Variation: Mamoul are sometimes made with nuts instead of dates but I like these so much better I’ve never made the nut variety. Although walnuts, almonds or pistachios would be more common in the Middle East, these are pretty good with pecans too.