Sitto’s Date Ma’moul
Date Ma’moul are traditional Lebanese shortbread cookies that are molded and filled. There are different shapes of molds, meant to indicate the different types of fillings. Walnuts, pistachios, and date paste are the classic fillings. Date Ma’moul is made for special occasions and holidays. Find the highest quality mold, custom made, along with specialty ingredients in my shop here.
Even more spectacular than the melt-in-your-mouth filled butter cookie that is ma’moul. . . even more than the aroma of such a thing baking . . . even more than the “thwack!” of every ma’moul released from its mold— even more than these indelible taste memories of ma’moul-making in my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchen growing up is another aspect of the recipe that isn’t written down.
Perhaps it was just Mom and Sitto. Or several on any given baking day, with Aunt Hilda and Aunt Louise standing around the kitchen island each with their own mold and pile of flour at the ready.
No matter how few or many the ma’moul-making gathering was, it was always, always just that.
They did together. Baking as event. Coffee and talk, how one’s mother did it this way and the other’s did it that way.
The mental drawing of the family tree came around on these days: which cousin was this one? Why did Jiddo go straight to Nebraska off the voyage? What was his father’s name again? Was he really an orphan? (honestly, if any of you in the local community here in Michigan knew him and can tell me, I’d love to know…)
We like to joke about how someone before us left out an ingredient in a recipe, and that must be why it never tastes as hers did. Pretty certain now that the ingredient, the thing that made everything taste so good back when, had to do with all of that togetherness, the this-is-what-we-do-as-family floating around in the flour dust of baking days. Here we have it, the most important ingredient never shown in Sitto’s ma’moul, or any of the recipes we inherited.
And one we keep striving to make a must-have tradition on any baking day.
Sitto's Date Ma'moul
For the dough:
For the filling:
- 10 oz. date paste (also known as “baking dates”) OR 10 ounces fresh pitted dates plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- In a stand mixer or using a hand-held mixer, beat the butter in a large bowl until it’s creamy and light, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolk, vanilla, orange blossom water, and whiskey. Beat again until the mixture is thick and creamy, another 3 minutes.
- Sift into the butter mixture the confectioner’s sugar, cake flour, and mahleb. Use a wooden spoon to incorporate the dry ingredients. The dough will be crumbly at first, but when squeezed should hold together without cracking. If the dough seems too wet, add more cake flour 1 tablespoon at a time.If the dough is dry and cracking, add orange juice, 1 tablespoon at a time. After each small addition, squeeze a walnut-sized piece of dough in your hand to test how it holds together (looking for pliable and soft).
- Allow the dough to rest for about 15 minutes, then squeeze a palmful again and adjust as needed to form a soft, pliable dough, taking care not to overwork the dough with your hands.
- For the filling, if using fresh dates, finely chop them by hand or in the food processor. In a small saucepan over medium heat, cook the chopped dates with the butter,stirring until the dates are broken down to a paste. Cool.
- Form this homemade or the premade date paste into small balls (coat your hands witha touch of oil or flour to prevent the date paste from sticking), using about1-1/2 teaspoons per ball. The size of your filling depends on the size of your cookie, so adjust as needed. This is for a 2-inch cookie mold.
To fill, shape, and bake:
- Move the oven rack to the top third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper or Silpats.
- Pull a piece of dough about the size of a walnut (1 ounce), shaping into a rough ball.
- Coat the interior of a wooden ma’amoul mold with flour, knocking out the excess. Don’t skip this step! Do it every time dough is pressed into the mold; it’s essential for releasing the molded dough. If the mold becomes caked with dough during the molding process, wipe it out with a towel or rinse and dry it.
- Place a ball of dough into the mold. Press the dough ball into the mold, creating a hollow space in the center and pushing the dough up and over the perimeter edge. Fill the hollow with a date ball.
- Cover the date ball with the dough, using a touch more dough as needed to seal the date ball inside the dough. Smooth the flat side of the dough numerous times with the tips and palm of the hand. Wipe the dough away from the cookie mold scallop edges so the base of the cookie will have precise lines.
- Turn the mold over and decisively whack the top bottom-facing corner of the mold on the work surface to release the cookie. Better with one whack than two, to avoid mistakenly hitting the released cookie with the mold.
- Transfer the ma'moul to the lined cookie sheet, spacing them about an inch apart.
- Repeat this process with the rest of the dough and date filling, placing the cookies about an inch apart on the baking sheets.
- Bake the cookies, one sheet pan at a time, for 15-17 minutes, or until the cookies are a very pale golden brown. Keep an eye on the cookies to monitor if they are beginning to crack at the top. If the tops begin to crack, immediately remove the cookies from the oven. Place the hot sheet pan on a cooling rack and leave the cookies undisturbed. Sift confectioners’ sugar over the cookies.
Storage and other Tips
Sitto used whiskey in her ma’moul, which contributes to meltaway texture of the cookie. Sub out more vanilla or flower water if you prefer. Both orange blossom water and rose water are nice together in this recipe. Purchase high quality flower waters in my shop here.
Nut fillings such as walnut or pistachio are traditional. I always toast the nuts first for best texture and flavor, then grind or finely chop them. Use about a cup of chopped nuts mixed with 1/4 cup granulated sugar and a teaspoon of orange blossom water. Fill the cookie dough with nuts using a teaspoon. Date filling can be studded with toasted nuts (massage the nuts into the date paste by hand) and also flavored with flower waters. Purchase excellent, soft date paste in my shop here.
About the Mold
Molding ma’amoul is great fun and results in such a gorgeous cookie! But the molds found in Middle Eastern markets today are not like our vintage molds. They aren’t deep enough, and the design is typically not very well cut in the wood. I developed a wonderful mold that is the closest thing I’ve seen in quality to the vintage wood molds–and perhaps even better, for precise designs and depth of the imprint.
Store the baked cookies in an airtight container for up to two weeks at room temperature, or for two months frozen. Give the cookies a fresh dusting of confectioners’ sugar just before serving.
I'm so glad you're here! You'll find among these pages the fresh and classic Lebanese recipes we can't get enough of! My mission is to share my tried + true recipes -- and to help our Lebanese food-loving community keep these culinary traditions alive and on the table. What recipes are you looking for? Let me know!