Sour cherries are so delicious that I suppose it’s not so shocking that someone, somewhere deep in the past kept eating right past the bright red flesh and crunched away at the pit. There that adventurous eater discovered an almond-like flavor, a flavor reminiscent of the cherry but not precisely cherry, with a certain bitterness to boot.
Mahleb, the kernel in the pit of sour or black cherries, is called for virtually only in baked goods and is found in recipes from across the Levant as mahlab, mahaleb, mahleppi, and mahlebi. Will your kaik suffer without it? Most of us who know the flavor of the sweet breads would say yes. Mahleb is used in such small amounts, though, and is not so widely available unless you’re ordering online, that I make it optional. I’ve made my sweet breads with and without, and while you may not get exactly the flavor we want you to have, you’ll be enjoying something supremely delicious either way.
I feel like I tasted mahleb for the very first time when I ground it fresh myself. Spices freshly ground are light years apart in taste and scent from their distant, pre-ground cousins that sit on the grocery store shelf for God knows how long before landing in your kitchen. I was so thrilled to discover a Middle Eastern bulk food-style shop in Lansing recently that carried mahleb—albeit ground—that I over-bought, only to discover that most of the spoils were in fact spoiled, as in stale and inedible. The pistachio nougat was an even bigger disappointment than the bad mahleb; I thought it was going to transport me to the nougat I ate in Lebanon last spring. But the only place it took me was to the trash can (just further incentive to make some here).
A fresh little bag of mahleb from Penzey’s made the bad juju all better. This mahleb, which I ground in the coffee grinder Aunt Louise loaned me that she uses strictly for spices, opened new mahleb worlds for me.
The powder is almost damp in its freshness, with a yeasty aroma that is the soul of a Lebanese sweet bread. Well, almost so—a few other special ingredients (think anise, clove) play a role too.
Consider that whole mahleb is going to last you a good long while if you do take a moment to order some (mine came in four days with standard shipping). Keep the mahleb in the freezer and grind as needed.
…did you order it yet? and a kaik mold too?…good, now we’re ready to make our extra-special sweet bread.