Spice Garden: Mahlab
The small, shrubby Prunus mahaleb is one of two species of cherry (the other is Mazzard) from which cultivated cherries are grafted. Also known as the St. Lucie cherry or rock cherry, the name mahaleb comes from the Arabic word that references its sweet smell. While Mahaleb cherries are not usually cultivated for their small and bitter fruit, the seed kernel can be ground into a fragrant spice, known as mahlab, that seems to carry the fruit's seminal cherry essence.
Drawing of Mahaleb leaves, flowers, and fruit courtesy USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Vol. 2: 328.
With its enchanting almond-anise-like fragrance, complex nutty flavor and surprisingly bitter aftertaste, mahlab is used to flavor baked goods in many European, Western and Central Asian cooking traditions. I have not found explicit mention of mahlab being used in savory dishes. A recipe for Vegetable Stew from a 15th century Dutch cookbook which translator Christianne Muusers calls Wel ende edelike spijse (Good and Noble Food), mentions the ingredient "kernellen van criekelsteenen" or "kernels of cherry stones" in addition to other spices such as anise. The Dutch criekel translates as "black cherry" but I would not be surprised if at the time the cookbook was written, this referred to the black cherries of Prunus mahaleb and not the Prunus serotina variety commonly known today as black cherry. I'm not sure if the latter can be used in seasoning; I have tried breaking open the pit and the kernel looks similar to mahlab, but I have never heard of the pits of any other cherry variety being used in place of mahlab. Any further information would be appreciated.
Mahlab's aromatic quality was also used in soap-making, combined with other essential oils, as mentioned in the 10th century Iraqi cookbook, Kitab Tabikh by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, translated in Nawal Nasrallah's excellent tome Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook, pp 495-498.
I like to grind a tablespoon or so of mahlab in a mortar and pestle and add it to cookies and breads. I recently experimented with using it in baklava, mixing it into a paste with sesame seeds and cashews. It adds such a lovely fragrance.
This recipe requires about 30 sheets of phyllo. I used 4-inch (10cm) wide strips but if your sheets are wider, simply double or triple the first 5 ingredients.
1/3 cup sesame seeds, lightly toasted
1 Tbs mahlab, ground
1/4 cup cashews
3 Tbs brown sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted
pinch of cardamom and cinnamon
frozen phyllo dough, thawed
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. To make the filling, finely grind the first 4 ingredients together in a food processor into a loose, crumbly mixture and set aside. Brush a rectangular baking pan with butter. Place 2 phyllo sheets on pan, brush with butter and repeat this step 4 more times ending with butter on top of the last layer. Evenly sprinkle 1/3 of the filling on top.
2. Place 2 sheets over filling, brush with butter and repeat 2 more times. Sprinkle 1/3 of filling on top.
3. Repeat step 2 using final 1/3 of filling.
4. Place 1 sheet on top of filling and brush with butter. Place 1 more sheet on top and brush with butter. Chill for 10 minutes. Cut into squares or diamonds and bake in oven for about 30 minutes, until golden on top. Serve with a little cinnamon sprinkled on top and a generous drizzle of acacia honey.