If ma’mul are the quintessential pastry for Christians for Easter, they are the staple sweet throughout the month of Ramadan, and for Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of the month of fast. Except that I can imagine it being torture for those making the pastries during the hours of fast when no food or drink is allowed through their lips.
What’s interesting is that every few years, Eid el-Fitr and Easter fall more or less at the same time, mainly because the former is within the lunar calendar and as such the date moves backwards every year while the latter is within the solar calendar with only a slight change in date to accommodate Easter in the month after the spring equinox on March 21st. And when this happens, you will find Christian and Muslim neighbours helping each other making ma’mul, before sharing their labour with loved ones, friends and neighbours.
During Ramadan, the most sacred month in the Muslim calendar, a feverish activity takes place in Muslim homes. The same went down in our kitchen leading up to Easter Sunday. The atmosphere was intense, with my mother, aunt and grandmother preparing industrial quantities of ma’mul. My grandmother made the pastry, my mother the fillings and my aunt buttered the baking sheets on which the ma’mul would bake and the beautiful hand-carved wooden moulds that they used to shape the ma’mul and tidied up as they went along – she was younger and unmarried hence her less elevated status in the kitchen!
Once the pastry and fillings were ready, they sat around the table each shaping one type of ma’mul. My mother made those filled with walnuts using a round pointed mould while my aunt made the pistachio ones with an oval pointed mould. My grandmother was in charge of the date-filled ones using a round flat mould.
It was painstaking work. They each pinched a little pastry off the mound in the middle of the table. They rolled their piece of pastry into a ball before flattening it into a thin disk on the palm of their hand then my aunt and my mother scooped a little nut filling from the bowl in front of them to put in the middle before closing the pastry around the filling. They delicately rolled the filled pastry into a ball (for the walnuts) and an oval shape (for the pistachios) which they then pressed into the mould. They gently tapped the edge of the mould against the table to let the sculpted ma’mul drop onto their open hand before sliding it onto the baking sheet. They had a knack for making the filled balls of pastry just the right size so that each ma’mul came out absolutely perfect with no overhang on the bottom because they used too much pastry.
My grandmother had to first shape the date paste filling into small disks which she lined up neatly in front of her before starting to shape theqrass bil-tamr (date-balls) – some people call these ma’mul bil-tamr. She too made them just the right size for each to come out absolutely perfect. I guess they had years of experience making hundreds every Easter. And my being their kitchen pest, circling around them, watching with great interest their dexterity at shaping such intricate pastries while waiting impatiently for the first batch to sneak a taste, stood me in good stead when I started cooking and even more so when I began writing about food!
Even though I consider myself a totally liberated woman who never lived a domesticated life, I’m very happy to have a mother who is the exact opposite, being a traditional and very accomplished homemaker. She was, and still is a fabulous cook. Her go-to meal when she didn’t feel like cooking was pan-fried veal chops, hand-cut French fries (which in those days she fried in extra virgin olive oil) and a seasonal tomato or cabbage salad for a fresh note. But she never stinted on the number of Lebanese dishes she cooked when it came to preparing a meal for celebrations, either religious or secular, and she spent hours in the kitchen preparing the feast.
The reason why my mother made such industrial quantities was because she sent out boxes of homemade ma’mul to neighbours and friends. She no longer has the energy to make them and now orders hers from a good home cook, but always in large amounts to share.