Maamoul is made at the end of both Lent and Ramadan, leading up to Easter and Eid al Fitr. But this year, the biscuit is extra sweet as both religions enjoy it at the same time.
This spring, along the ancient streets of the holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a sweet smell wafts through the air. Inside, people’s homes are hives of activity as extended family members and neighbours come together to make a biscuit-like treat that’s very special to both Muslims and Christians.
“You can’t have Easter without maamoul because it brings the happiness,” said Rawan Ghattas, a Christian from Bethlehem, who works with famed local Fadi Kattan.
Like Ghattas, Rawan Bazbazat, a Muslim art teacher and jewellery maker from Jerusalem, has been baking the sweet since she was a child with her mother. “On Eid al Fitr, we always have to make maamoul. We can’t celebrate this holiday without it,” Bazbazat said.
Maamoul is made from a dough of semolina and ghee (though butter can be used as a substitute) and flavoured with mahlab (crushed cherry seeds, which are found inside the pits) and mastic (also known as Arabic Gum), which is the resin from the acacia tree.
While the delicate shortcrust-style sweet melts in your mouth, its design adds even more decadence. Before baking, the dough is either stuffed with pistachios drizzled with rosewater, walnuts mixed with sugar and cinnamon, or dates that have been ground to a paste with a little oil or butter. As Anissa Helou, author of Feast Food of the Islamic World described it to me, “The date maamoul is like having a cream-filled biscuit, but less fluffy.”
Each of the three flavours is then placed into its own specific wooden mould called a qalab, or formed by hand using a spiked tong called a malqat. The date maamoul traditionally has a circular shape with a flat top; the pistachio version is more like a pointy ellipse; while the walnut-flavoured biscuit is a smaller circle with a domed top.
Each year, Christian and Muslim families across the Palestinian Territories and the greater Middle East make maamoul, as well as its simpler cousin ka’ak – a flat, round biscuit made from the same dough – in the days leading up to Easter and Eid al Fitr.
The Christian holiday of Easter, observed this year on 17 April, follows Lent – an observance recognising the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting – when believers traditionally abstain from animal products and alcohol for the same number of days. Eid al Fitr, meaning “the feast of breaking the fast”, which starts on 2 May this year, is an Islamic celebration signifying the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting from dawn to sunset.
“This year, both Ramadan and Lent are together which is nice; you go to the Old City [of Jerusalem] and you find both the Christians and Muslims fasting – it’s special,” said Bazbazat.
With extended family all together in one house, the jobs for making the maamoul are divided between groups. Some make the dough (which is left for one day in the refrigerator before being formed), some make the designs, and some are experts at knowing the right time to pull the sweet out of the oven.
For many who celebrate Easter or Eid al Fitr, maamoul creates beautiful memories.
“We are three families plus all the neighbours; each day, we make the maamoul in one of the houses,” Ghattas said, expressing what she views as a time of happiness and communal celebration.
In Bazbazat’s family home, she and her five sisters, aunt, cousin, mother and grandmother make maamoul in the lead up to Eid al Fitr. “Sometimes you feel very hungry when you’re making it – you want to taste everything – but no one can touch it until the first day of Eid, then you can eat anything you want,” she said.
Ghattas remembers trying to shape the dough into flowers when she was young, inspired by her mum who makes perfect decorations. At midnight, marking the end of 40 days of fasting, she and her family raise coloured hard-boiled eggs and knock them together (with the goal of being the last person left with an unbroken egg), and then rejoice in eating them as well as the long-awaited maamoul.
Muslim families generally spend the first day of Eid together, and as is custom, send plates of ka’ak and maamoul dusted with powdered sugar to their neighbours – including Christians, who also send the biscuits to their neighbours at Easter. The next day, they welcome guests into their homes and offer coffee along with the delicious sweet.
“The Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem have a lot to share. They live in the same houses, they’re in the same city. We are like one,” Bazbazat said.
In the Palestinian Territories, some of the main ingredients of maamoul, namely dates and walnuts, are grown locally. The dates, the best type being Mejdool, come from Jericho and the farms in the Jordan Valley, in the east of the West Bank. While most people have walnut trees In their gardens, they also grow abundantly on the region’s hilltops – from Al-Khalil (also known as Hebron) in the south to Jenin in the north.
Fadi Kattan, an internationally known chef and founder of Fawda Restaurant & Café in Bethlehem – which showcases traditional recipes and local ingredients with a modern twist – links the smell of maamoul to the memory of his grandmother making it when he was young.
“Every attempt I made to try and decorate ka’ak and maamoul would ruin whatever she and her neighbours were doing, so I was nicely told to sit away and enjoy the smell,” Kattan remembered, adding he was allowed to crush the walnuts.
He says the smell, which occurs as the ghee cooks with the mastic and mahlab, is “like something being caramelised, but there’s nothing being caramelised”. There’s really no replacement for mastic’s flavour in baking, and as Kattan said, it’s “an uncompromising one”. “You can use orange blossom or rose petal water, but it’s not the same thing. Mastic has a sweet, earthy flavour – I cannot describe it,” he said. “If you played with pine trees when you were younger, that little sap that would seep out when it’s cut, that’s what it tastes like.”