Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Period Cooking: Sharab and Ma'mool

A couple of months ago my wonderful friend, Lady Branislava Kirilova'doch Volkova, was asked to put together a Middle Eastern snack bar-type thing for Ansteorra's 30th Year Celebration this July. It's not wonder she was handpicked to run it because she is an amazing cook! I tell this story all the time, but several years ago I was invited to attend a period Russian feast. While most people will hear Russian feast and think, "Potatoes?" this feast hall was jammed with people. The food was incredible and I don't believe there were any leftovers by the end of the night. Around here people know that when Branislava is cooking, it's an experience you don't want to miss. I don't know why she isn't a Laurel yet...

Anyway, since I have been foaming at the mouth to try out some period Middle Eastern recipes, I begged to help her. She agreed to let me ride her coat tails and we began planning. Something I think it is important to understand about me is that I routinely set challenges for myself. One of my most recent challenges was to branch out and try something new in the Society so cooking seemed as good a choice as any.

Because the snack bar was requested of Branislava and not me, I let her handle the decision making and I just nodded and tried not to drown her with my enthusiasm. Since I am a far better baker than cook, I offered to make these little nut-filled cakes called ma'mool (sometimes spelled mahmoul) and a small variety of sharab.

We decided to do a snack bar preview for Baronial so we could see how things would go. Thus, bright and early last Friday morning I was in the kitchen slaving over a hot stove and loving every minute of it.

Basically, a sharab is a drink syrup made of water, sugar and some kind of flavoring whether it be spices, freshly-squeezed fruit juices or the concentrated stuff (I used the latter with excellent results). There is even a recipe for a carrot syrup, but I'm not brave enough to try that one! To drink, you just dilute with water to taste. Simple!

I used recipes found on Stefan's Florilegium (look under Beverages > jalabs-msg).

The Recipe:
I started with lime since I love limeades and figured this would turn out similarly. My exact recipe was thus:

4 cups sugar
2.5 cups water
15 oz lime concentrate

I put the water and sugar into a medium pot and let it come to a boil, stirring occasionally to help the sugar dissolve. I let the mixture hit a rolling boil and turned it back down to simmering, adding the lime concentrate (in retrospect, I would have been just fine adding the lime along with the water and sugar, which is what I did for the other syrups). After simmering 20 minutes I carefully poured it into a clean wine bottle and let it sit until it was cool (actually, I let it simmer for 40 minutes thinking the syrup would thicken up more, but it did not. So if you forget about it for a bit, it's not a problem).

The Taste:
Just as I thought, it tastes like limeade! Very refreshing and, of course, best when cold. The syrup seems thin -- not quite what as thick as I expected, but it makes up perfectly. I couldn't estimate the ratio of syrup to water I used. Just mix them until it tastes the way you like.

Unfortunately, because I was still expecting a thicker syrup, I decided to experiment with the pomegranate...

The Wrong Recipe:
16 oz POM (this can be found at Wal-Mart in the juice section)
4 cups sugar

Same procedure as the lime except that I started with 2 cups of sugar and when that wasn't thickening at all, I added 2 more. Totally the wrong thing to do!! The syrup is so thick it won't pour out of the bottle!

The Right Recipe:
15 oz POM
4 cups sugar
2.5 cups water

The Taste:
In other words, next time I will do it exactly like the lime recipe. The upshot is that, while the syrup is basically unusable as a drink because of the insane thickness of it, if you lick it off of a spoon, the taste is fantastic!! Almost like candy! I may try to salvage this syrup by reheating it, pouring it out of the bottle and adding the water. We'll see if that works or ruins it. Either way, I will definitely be attempting this again in the future.

The orange sharab was more for me than for the party, so I wasn't shy about adding some cinnamon...

The Recipe:
2 cups water
4 cups sugar
1 can orange juice concentrate

This one gave me no problems at all. It made right up and bottled without a hitch. However, after it was allowed to cool for a few hours, I noticed that a foam had formed on the surface and it looked kind of nasty.

The Taste:
But despite the weird look of it, it tastes great!! I would liken it to wassail, but if you made wassail using only oranges and cinnamon. Definitely a pleasant, breakfast-y drink that would be wonderful hot in the winter. I let Cadfael's younger brother, Andy, try some and he fell in love with it, asking me to make a bottle just for him. He called it the Nectar of the Gods.

The lemon came last...

The Recipe is same as the lime, but with lemon. I made a double batch because I thought it would be the most well-received at the party.

The Taste:
Tastes just like lemonade! If you dilute it just right you can get that nice lemony tang of lemonade.

The ma'mool were more difficult but only because of the need to clarify butter every time I turned around. I should do some research and find a better butter that doesn't reduce down so drastically.

The Recipe:
You can find the recipe for ma'mool by going to the Florilegium, clicking on Sweet or Decorated Foods and finding mahmouls-msg. I actually used Alys Katharine's recipe which is not period, but was more within my budget. And I trust Alys Katharine's opinion of what is tasty.

The only thing I would change about the ma'mool was the nuts. I used walnuts because they were the easiest to find and because I didn't want to poison the barony in light of the recent recalls. Next time I will use pistachios or dates. I had dates, but I don't care for them. I think I would prefer the pistachios for their slightly meaty flavor.

The Taste:
To me, they taste like those Dutch shortbread cookies. Other people, including Ashikaga, likened them to walnut sandies. Personally, I thought they were a little bland, but they disappeared quickly at the party and I got a lot of approving comments.

I thought it was a fun coincidence that ma'mool are the traditional Easter cookie and I was making them for an Easter weekend event.

The Result
Absolute pandemonium! Branislava had made lamb meatballs with mint and other spices (called kofta), homemade tzatziki (yogurt/cucumber sauce) and hummus with pita chips and soft pita wedges, fresh orange slices and grapes, homemade tabouli, and rosemary roasted mixed nuts. The spread looked wonderful! As soon as we opened the serving window to the little kitchen, people swarmed and a symphony of mmmmm's and oooooh's ensued.

Some were coming back for seconds, thirds and fourths on Branislava's kofta so we had to ration people to just one or risk running out before everyone had a taste. The tzatziki was incredible (I'm a sucker for the stuff!) -- I couldn't stop myself from grabbing a nibble every now and then. My ma'mool went over very well and as soon as I started advertising "middle eastern lemonade" people were thrusting their mugs at me for a refill. I think they were impressed.

In all, I think it was a successful first attempt. I can't wait to see what July brings!


Tealah said...

I'm glad to see that your foray into cooking turned out to be such a success. :)Those sound really tasty, I'm going to have to try making up a batch myself for our camping event here in Wealdsmere.

Russkievolk said...

I haz a blush...thank you so much for all of your hard work! Let's have a cooking day over at my house soon. We need to test out those candied citrus peels and some Turkish Delight!