The Great Plotnik

Monday, May 06, 2013

Making Mahmoul (Part One)

Yesterday's post about the mahmoul put Plotnik in motion. You don't read wonderful cookie stories without wanting to taste them, and you can't really taste them until you make them yourself.

So Plottie started researching mahmoul and the first thing he realized is mahmoul are the cookies that every Middle Easterner's grandma used to bake. There are fifty videos on line showing Chef Jameela or Chef Kamala in their kitchens as they go through the processes of preparing the dough, making the filling and baking the cookies; there are also at least fifty recipes, each different than the others.

The common ingredients are butter, nuts and honey.

First, you need a mahmoul mold.

Since we are lucky enough to live in a city where every other corner store is run by a Palestinian or Lebanese or Jordanian whose family came here in the 1950s, and since Plotnik (and you) are already familiar with his fondness for Samiramis on Mission Street... he went on the Plotkicycle.

Plot has been coming to Samiramis for almost twenty years. You will remember that in the old days, old Samir used to stand all day behind his counter and swear bilingually at his black and white TV: "Crooks! They're all crooks!"

But Samir has retired. The store is now run by younger men who use their I-Phones for swearing.

Wadee, the manager, and a nicely dressed customer were engaged in what sounded like a serious discussion in Arabic (Plotnik surmises the subject was women, given their hand language, serious glowering and total exasperation. Wadee kept slapping the side of his own face and saying "Allah!" The other guy would say something else and Wadee would slap his face again and say "Allah!" Plotnik surprises the dialogue would translate something like this:

Customer: "My wife wants me to mow the lawn."

Wadee: "Oh, man!")

But when Plotnik dragged the Plotkicycle into the store and took off his helmet Wadee looked up and said: "Ah, hello my friend."

Plot usually comes in for coffee with cardamom, or fresh pita, or perhaps the cheapest olives in town. But today he was on a mission.

"Hi," said Plot. "I want to make mahmoul. I need the mahmoul mold."

The two men spun around. Did you say "mahmoul?"

Their faces lit up.

"You know, my grandma Jazmeena made the best mahmoul," said the customer. He had forgotten all about his wife and the lawn.

"Yes, of course, we have mold for mahmoul. The wooden one, right?  Go to the back, on the right, on the bottom, you'll find a box. Look in the box."

Plot walked past the cans of grape leaves and spices, then past the bulgar and semolina, and just before the cooler with the feta and labneh cheeses he found the mahmoul mold. It looked like it had been in that box since Samir emigrated from Ramallah.

The price was stamped on the back in Arabic.

Wadee said "Are you going to use dates or nuts?"

"Does it matter?"

"Wait," he said, and walked to the front of the store and reached into his display case, returning with a fat, delicious-looking cookie covered in powdered sugar. He took out a pen knife and cut the cookie in half, saying: "You taste. Half for you, half for me."

It was flaky on the outside but moist and filled with rosewater inside, which was the first flavor you noticed, followed by the rich, sweet and nutty filling.

"Mmmmm," said Plotnik, smiling.

"This one is pistachio," Wadee said, wiping the sugar off his lips. The customer looked on hungrily but he was not offered any.

"This is delicious. I'll make this one," Plotnik said. "OK," said Wadee. "Go to the back, on the left, in the cooler, middle shelf."

Plot walked down the left aisle this time, past the fancy-wrapped boxes of pastries, the boxes of dates and tins of spices and the racks of sesame and pita breads, then opened up the cooler and grabbed the pistachios, then remembered he needed semolina too, since (everybody knows this) you can't make mahmoul with regular flour, Allah!"). But when he was paying for everything the customer said:

 "Do you have mahlab?

"I don't think so. What is mahlab?"

"It is ground up seed from wild, sour cherry," said Wadee.

"You can't make mahmoul without mahlab," the customer said and Wadee said "Well, you can, but..."

He shrugged his shoulders, like somebody had said "I am making goat stew but I have no goat."

The customer stood firm, with his arms folded across his chest: "No mahlab, no mahmoul."

"OK," said Plotnik. "So do you have mahlab?"

"Of course," Wadee said. 

He reached over his head and pulled down a box, marked "saffron." Inside the box was another box with labeling that appeared to be Urdu, and inside that box was a third box. Wadee reached into that box and pulled out a little plastic bottle which had a label written in English, Arabic and Urdu.

Wadee removed the plastic cap and said to Plotnik: "Here. Taste."

Plottie figured he had already bought it if he was tasting it, so he stuck his finger in and got a little mahlab on his finger and stuck it in his mouth. It had no taste at all.

"Uh, I..."

"Wait," said the customer.

Then, like the tears of the children of Israel building Pharoah's pyramids, came the bitterness.

"Ooo-waa-yaaa!" said Plotnik. "That's bitter."

The customer and Wadee smiled.

"This is the secret, You wait."

(Continued tomorrow...)


At 8:15 AM, Blogger Linda Davick said...

You KNOW I love BEST YOU EVER, but don't forget about MAHMOUL Part Two!

p.s. See you Thursday. Is anyone bringing treats that you know of? it's kind of sad that we haven' t had very many treats lately.

At 6:20 AM, Blogger mary ann said...

These were delicious!

At 8:13 AM, Anonymous Ray F said...

Not Urdu, but Armenian! :-)


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