Egyptian marmelade oranges (معجون النارنج, ma’jun al-naranj)

We still had some sour oranges left and this 14th-century recipe is just perfect for the en-of-season batch! It has primarily a medicinal purpose in that it combines a stomachic (جوارشن/جوارش, juwārish[n], a borrowing from Persian) and an electuary (معجون, ma’jūn, literally meaning ‘paste’, from the verb , عجن/‘ajana, ‘to knead’), which referred to medicines mixed with honey or juice syrup of some kind. It’s a bit labour- and time intensive, but so worth the effort.

The ma’jūn is made by soaking orange peels for ten days and then boiling them (this removes the bitterness). The next step is to cut up some of the peels which are then added to boiled honey. The remaining peels are kept whole, except for the tops being cut off (don’t throw them away as they will be used later), since they will serve as the receptacles for the juwārish mixture. Naturally, aromatics (saffron) and spices are added as well. The juwārish is made by slow-cooking sour oranges before boiling them in rose water and syrup, and adding spices like cinnamon, cloves, spikenard, and mace. The result is something that most people will recognize as marmelade — did I tell you that’s another Arab invention that was passed on to Europe?

The final step is to cram the stuffing in the orange peels (alternate layering of peels and marmelade works wonderfully well) and then — yes, we’re not done yet! — pour on sugar syrup you’ve prepared in the meantime, and you end up with what is essentially a stuffed toffee (candied) orange.

Medicinally, it would have been recommended as a breath freshener, for its digestive, appetizing and anti-emetic properties, and the fact that it strengthens the heart. It is not certain whether it also had the effect of the lemon stomachic, which slows down intoxication, clears hangovers, as well as increasing sexual potency. Not that any of this matters, though, as people would have just enjoyed it for its own sake, just like toffee apples today.

No 150! Medieval Egyptian Valentine’s Day treat: sugar-dried rose petal conserve (ورد مربّى, ward murabbā)

The word murabbā (or, more correctly, murabban) refers to something made with rubb (ربّ), inspissated or concentrated juice, with murabbayāt (مربّيات) denoting various kinds of preserves, conserves, etc. There are often references to the use of rose murabbā in medieval Arab cookery books, usually as a sweetener in dishes, but none of them gives any recipes. As a result, the recreation required a search elsewhere, and leads us to the 11th-century pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, from whom the method for making a violet murabbā was adapted by replacing the violets with rose petals. The process requires sun-dried rubbed rose petals, sugar, and sugar syrup, followed by some more sun drying (tip: an air dryer does the trick as well). It is more than likely that the dish is Persian in origin, while the closest modern avatar is the Indian gulkand (my thanks to Priya Mina for pointing this out). The outcome is crumbly sweet rosey deliciousness, perfect for sharing on Valentine’s Day!

Medley of no-bake Andalusian biscuits

For those dreary days, when one sweet just isn’t enough to get you through, here are two delicious biscuits from 13th-century Muslim Spain. And even if you don’t have an oven, that is no excuse for not making them since they don’t require baking. But, as with most things in life, there is a trade-off in that they require a bit more elbow grease! The first recipe is for hadīdāt (حديدات), which can be translated as ‘the iron ones’, from the Arabic word for ‘iron’, hadīd (حديد), for reasons that will soon become apparent. The basic ingredients are toasted flour, skimmed honey (i.e. honey from which the scum has been removed after heating), and oil (walnut works particularly well). The mixture is kneaded into a stiff dough, together with pepper, as well as other spices, and shaped into biscuits. As a result of the added pepper, they will look like pieces of iron, hence their name. Brace yourself, though, since that peppery sweetness has quite a kick!

The second recipe is for biscuits called fālūdhaj (فالوذج), which, rather confusingly, share their name with what is usually a starch pudding — a linguistic problem that one should carefully ponder when savouring them. These biscuits are also made with honey, but this time, starch is added, as well as ground almonds and, of course, saffron. The mixture is shaped into mini-loaves, which should look like little gold ingots.

The most time- and labour-consuming part of the process is the careful shaping of each biscuit, which gives the wrists and forearms a pretty good work-out! However, rest assured, the effort you put in is rewarded once you taste the biscuits. Of course, the only accompaniment worth having with them is some freshly brewed mint tea!

Andalusian quince pudding

This is a recipe for a starch pudding (similar in texture to a flummery), known as fālūdhaj (فالوذج), which is Persian in origin. First, you need to make some almond milk by crushing (sweet) almonds, adding water and straining the liquid through a fine-meshed sieve, ‘until it becomes like milk.’ In terms of fruit, you can use the juice of pomegranate, apples, pears, gourd, or quince. After bringing the juice to a boil over a gentle fire, add starch until you obtain the required consistency. The 13th-century anonymous author must have been quite partial to this dish since he called it wondrous (عجيب, ‘ajīb)!

Flaky laminated flatbread (مسمّنة, musammana)

This recipe is found in two Andalusian cookery books from the 13th century, and is one of relatively few to have survived almost unchanged in the form of the present-day Moroccan breakfast classic, msemmen, which is usually eaten with amlou (أملو, a blend of Argan oil and honey) or honey, and cheese. However, it also brings to mind a bread from further afield, as it bears more than a passing resemblance to the Indian paratha. It is also part of other North African cuisines; in Tunisia, it is known as mlaoui (ملاوي) and in Algeria by a variety of names depending on the region, including maarek (معارك), semniyette (سمنيات), and mtawi (مطاوي).

The Andalusian recipe starts with a dough made with fine white flour or semolina (for the recreation, a mixture of both was used), water and salt. The dough is rolled out very thinly and folded several times, with (melted) clarified butter (or ghee) being used to seal the edges (similar to the use of egg wash in modern patisserie). This ingredient actually gives the recipe its name, since musamman means ‘added with clarified butter (samn)’.

The laminated dough results in several thin flaky layers once the musamman is fried; hence, this kind of pastry was also known as muwarraq (مورّق), that is to say, ‘consisting of layers as thin as paper (waraq).’ For best result, the musammana are fried in clarified butter until golden brown. As they can be quite greasy, drain well before serving. The recipe recommends pouring on some (hot) honey and dusting with cinnamon and sugar — there you have it, heaven on a plate!

Mulberry pastries

Recipes for this delicious sweet are found in 13th-century Syrian and 14th-century Egyptian cookery books. They are called ‘mulberries’ (tūt, توت) in reference to their shape. The instructions could not be easier; after rolling the dough over a sieve to get the right texture, it is shaped into mulberry-type pieces which are then fried in sesame oil before being dipped in rose-water syrup. Serve with a dusting of sugar. They are an excellent accompaniment to mint tea! There is a direct modern descendant of this delicacy in the form of the Lebanese ma’kroon (معكرون), which in other countries are also known by the more poetical name of ‘Zeineb’s fingers’ (أصابع زينب). They are a very popular treat during Ramadan.

Sesame seed candy

This recipe from 10th-century Baghdad is called lu’lu’ī (لؤلؤي), ‘the pearly one’, as the sesame seeds appear to be like pearls. It is made by boiling honey and then adding hulled sesame seeds. Once it has formed into one mass, spread it out on a greased board or surface and when it has cooled down, you can break it into pieces of your liking.

The Qadi’s biscuits (كَعْك, ka’k)

This medieval Egyptian biscuit is so delicious that it was considered an appropriate gift for visiting grandees. It requires flour, pistachios, sugar, and both chicken fat and sheep’s tail fat, but in the absence of the latter, the re-creation (from The Sultan’s Feast) used only the former. Another interesting twist is that the fat, which is kneaded into the dough, should be rubbed with mastic, cinnamon, musk, and camphor, added with a drizzle of lime juice. Once the dough is finished, make biscuit shapes and bake in the oven until golden. The addition of a pine nut on top just tied it all together!


Oh, my sweet gourd…

Two mediaeval Egyptian recipes from The Sultan’s Feast for sweets made from gourd, one resembling candy strings, and the other a pudding. The recipes simply call for ‘green sweet gourd’, and were recreated using the more unusual snake gourd. In both cases, the gourd pieces are boiled. The candied strings are made with sugar, honey and rose-water syrup, and garnished with crushed pistachios. The second dish has the consistency of the carrot khabis, and requires poppyseed essence, almond milk, sugar, starch, rose-water syrup, and sesame oil. If you are a purist or mediaevalist, then you should also flavour the sugar with musk.

Quince jelly (مَعْجُون السَّفَرْجَل, ma’jun al-safarjal)

A delicious quince preserve recipe from 13th-century Andalusia. The Arabic word ma’jūn is related to a verb meaning ‘to knead’, and denotes a paste, usually for medicinal use, though the result is often so tasty that one does not need to be sick to enjoy it! The preparation could not be simpler and requires about a pound of quince and sugar. According to the author, the jelly can be used to remove bitterness in the mouth, arouse the appetite, but also prevents bad vapours (بخارات, bukhārāt) from rising from the stomach to the brain. You can’t say fairer than that, can you!