Middle Eastern puddings...

...and the importance of creamy desserts.

Malabi 370 (photo credit: Judith Goldstein )
Malabi 370
(photo credit: Judith Goldstein )
Middle Eastern cuisine is famous for baklava and its phyllo pastry family members, but there are other popular desserts as well.
Some of the best-loved are puddings. What makes many of them distinctive is their lavish use of nuts and their frequent flavoring with orange blossom water, rose water or both.
A tasty reminder of the importance of creamy desserts in the Mideast came in the form of a “pudding-cake” called aish al saraya (palace bread), which we recently enjoyed at Nara Bistro, a restaurant in Anaheim, California, specializing in the foods of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Aish al saraya was the star of the restaurant’s dessert table, and owner Salee Zawerbek told us how she makes it. She moistens toasted bread with syrup flavored with rose water and tops it with a creamy pudding made with milk, sugar and cornstarch. Then she coats the pudding generously with chopped pistachios.
It is interesting to see how such simple components – toast, syrup and a basic pudding – add up to such a lovely dessert. The syrup makes the toast seem like cake.
This layered dessert is somewhat similar to tiramisu in form, with a cake-like base and a creamy topping. In fact, at a Middle Eastern pastry shop we like, aish al saraya is displayed alongside the tiramisu and other European-style cakes.
Claudia Roden, author of The Book of Middle Eastern Food, finds that aish al saraya is related to the popular Turkish dessert ekmek kadaifi (bread kadaif), which is made of toasted bread soaked in syrup and topped with thick cream.
Mideastern cooks use this cream, which is known in Turkey as kaymak and elsewhere as eshta or keshta, in aish al saraya, either instead of the pudding or in addition to it. Levana Zamir, author of Tavshilim Mi’eretz Hanilus (“Cooking from the land of the Nile”), makes the dessert with whipped cream instead of pudding and flavors the syrup with caramel, vanilla and lemon juice instead of rose water.
A bread pudding made using a different technique is called um Khalid. May S. Bsisu, author of The Arab Table, explains that the name means “mother of Khalid” (the Syrian queen of sweets). Bsisu uses pieces of halla or brioche to make the pudding and moistens them with cream. She also adds raisins and grated, unsalted mozzarella cheese. After making two layers of the ingredients, she sprinkles the mixture with pine nuts, refrigerates it so the bread absorbs the cream, and bakes it until golden.
To sweeten the pudding, she drizzles it with syrup flavored with orange blossom water and rose water.
HOME COOKS throughout the Mideast also make rice puddings. These are typically made by cooking round or short-grain rice in milk with sugar. Jennifer Felicia Abadi, author of A Fistful of Lentils, a book of Syrian-Jewish recipes, flavors her Syrian rice pudding, riz bihaleb (rice in milk), with vanilla as well as rose water and serves it sprinkled with ground cinnamon or cardamom. Bsisu is especially fond of this dessert, which she learned to make from her grandmother in Beirut. She flavors hers with orange blossom water and finishes it by baking it in the oven. Fresh cherries and chopped pistachios garnished the rice pudding at Nara Bistro.
At pudding shops in Turkey we enjoyed muhallebi, which is made of sweetened milk thickened with rice flour or cornstarch. It comes in a variety of flavors and is served plain or garnished with cinnamon or chopped pistachios or other nuts. Turkish Jews, writes Esther Benbassa in Cuisine Judeo-Espagnole, are also fond of this dessert and call it malebi. They prepare white and cocoa versions, as well as an almond-flavored variation made by cooking the milk with ground almonds and garnishing the pudding with crushed pistachios and grated coconut. Israelis call the dessert malabi and make it as a white pudding topped with coconut, chopped peanuts and red syrup flavored with rose water.
These puddings are easy to prepare at home, and this undoubtedly contributes to their appeal.Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
Infusing the milk with ground pistachios or almonds gives this pudding a richer flavor. For a faster dessert, you can skip this step and simply sprinkle all the nuts on top.
Some make malabi with water instead of milk to make it parve; we prefer to use soy milk or rice milk for a richer taste. If you like, substitute vanilla for the rose water.Makes 4 servings.
5 Tbsp. toasted unsalted pistachios or 2 Tbsp.blanched almonds and 3 Tbsp. toasted almonds 1⁄4 cup cornstarch 3 cups milk 4 to 5 Tbsp. sugar 2 tsp. rose water or orange blossom water, or to taste
Grind 2 Tbsp. of the pistachios or the blanched almonds very fine.
Chop the remaining nuts in coarse pieces and reserve for garnish. Mix cornstarch with 1⁄2 cup cold milk to a smooth paste. In a heavy saucepan, combine remaining milk with sugar and bring to a simmer, stirring. Stir cornstarch mixture again until smooth and pour it gradually into the simmering milk, whisking rapidly. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Stir in the ground nuts. Cook for 5 minutes or until mixture becomes a thick, smooth pudding.
If you prefer a smoother pudding, strain it, pressing the pudding through the strainer.
Cool pudding to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
Stir in rose water. Transfer to shallow dessert dishes and refrigerate. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios or almonds.
This recipe is from Classic Palestinian Cookery. “Eish means bread,” writes author Christiane Dabdoub Nasser.
“Eish es-saraya, literally ‘the bread of the palaces,’ is an appellation laden with images of a thousand and one dreams and totally appropriate to this delectable dessert.
This layered dessert can turn any dinner party into an unforgettable experience.”
To make this dessert, some moisten a layer of toast slices with syrup. Nasser chops the bread into small chunks instead and then adds the hot syrup. When she makes it with Middle Eastern cream, or keshta, she uses 350 grams (12 ounces) and 1 cup milk instead of 3 cups whipping cream, and only 11⁄2 Tbsp cornflour.Makes about 8 servings.
1⁄2 loaf (250 gr. or 9 ounces) sliced white bread, grilled or toasted 2 cups water 11⁄2 cups sugar 1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice 2 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp rose water 3 cups whipping cream 3 Tbsp. cornstarch or cornflour 80 gr. (3 ounces) pistachios, shelled and chopped
Chop the grilled bread in a food processor on low so as to get coarse but small chunks. Spread the crumbs at the bottom of a rectangular medium-sized serving plate – about 25 cm. (10 inches) with a 6-cm. (about 21⁄2-inch) edge.
To prepare the syrup, dissolve the sugar in the water and let it boil for a few minutes, adding the lemon juice in the process. Add 1 tsp rose water after you’ve removed it from the heat. While still hot, pour it over the bread so as to soak it completely. With the back of a fork, press the layer of sweetened bread against the bottom of the plate so as to form an even, thick layer.
In a small casserole, mix the cream slowly into the cornstarch and blend them thoroughly. Bring to a boil on medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Cook over low heat for a few minutes or until the pudding is thick enough to cling to the back of the spoon. Remove from heat and add 2 Tbsp. rose water.
Spread the pudding over the bread mixture, covering it completely. Sprinkle a thick layer of pistachios on top and let cool. Refrigerate for a few hours before serving.