You know that thing that happens when you read a new recipe and it contains an ingredient you have never heard of? I am never sure whether to be annoyed or excited when that happens, but generally, I take it as an opportunity to learn and … shop. And that is what happened with this ingredient, Mahlab, Mahleb (Arabic), Mahaleb, Mahlab (Armenian), Agriokerasia, Machalepi, Machlepi (Greek), and Mahlep (Turkish). In Europe, it is called Cerisier de Sainte-Lucie (France), Steinweichsel, Felsenkirsche, Türkische Weichsel, or Türkische Kirsche (Germany), and in English, it is called, unsurprisingly, the English cherry, Rock cherry, or St. Lucie cherry.
Mahlap is a spice produced from the seeds of Prunus mahleb or St. Lucie Cherry from the Rosaceae family. The plant is a highly ornamental, small tree/shrub. It bears glossy green leaves, which turn yellow in autumn. Fragrant white flowers in spring are followed in September by black ornamental cherries. It is an excellent hedging species, providing food and cover for wildlife. Seeds can be bought. The cherry tree (St Lucy) itself is native to Iran and found throughout the Mediterranean and Turkey, now grows wild and in gardens throughout Europe.
Exotic seeds provides an excellent summary of mahlab through history and says,
“Prunus mahaleb is a likely candidate for the ḫalub-tree mentioned in early Sumerian writings, a durable fruit-bearing hardwood with seeds and leaves known for their medicinal properties and associated with the goddess Inana. The Arabic محلب mahleb or mahlab meaning the mahaleb cherry is in medieval Arabic writings by among others Al-Razi (died 930), Ibn al-Baitar (died 1248) and Ibn al-Awwam. Ibn Al-Awwam in his book on agriculture dated late 12th century described how to cultivate the mahaleb tree: he says the tree is a vigorous grower, easy to grow, but a thing to watch out for is that it is not resistant to prolonged drought. He also described how to prepare the mahaleb seeds by boiling them in sugared water. The word, and probably the mahaleb itself, does not appear in classical Latin, nor early or mid medieval Latin, and is rare in late medieval Latin. One early record in Latin is dated in the 1317 encyclopedia by Matthaeus Silvaticus, who wrote that the “mahaleb” is the kernel seed of the fruit of both domesticated and wild cherry trees in Arabic countries. Another early record in Latin is in a medical-botany book by Ioannis Mesuae in 1479 spelled almahaleb (where “al-” is the Arabic definite article). In 1593 the Latin botanist Carolus Clusius spelled it mahaleb.Today its cultivation and use is largely restricted to the region that in the 19th and earlier centuries formed the Ottoman Empire“.
Today, Iran, Turkey and Syria are among the top producers of this spice. The fruits of the cherry, are thin-fleshed and small but can be eaten. The seeds or pips, from which the spice comes, are smaller – about 1/4 inch or less. They’re light tan or beige, similar in shape to a small peanut. Mahlab can be purchased whole and ground in a mortar and pestle or you can purchase it in ground form. The essential oils dissipate quickly so the ground product is less desirable thus grinding the whole seed right before use produces the best flavor.
In terms of taste, mahlab is said to have a mixture of flavors – faintly sweet like rose water with a hint of nuttiness and bitterness or having a bitter flavor with an almond/cherry aftertaste. It is also said to taste of marzipan.
Mahlab was first used in perfume production in Turkey and the Middle East. Later on it was used to add flavor to breads. Most commonly today it is used in breads and baking. Nancy Gaifyllia from Spruce Eats, says that “Mahlab is most commonly used in baking. It works as a flavoring in the tsoureki-type sweet breads traditionally made at Christmas and Easter in Greece, and in Turkish kahvalti corekleri. Surprisingly, Mahlab also pairs well with certain meats. Use it in a marinade for lamb or pork. It’s subtle, rich taste combines well with dairy products like cheese, and it’s been used in rice pudding recipes”. Sami Tamimi & Tara Wigley in their book, Falastin, recommend adding a tiny pinch to shortbread recipes, to sugar syrups for fruit salads, or when you are whipping cream.
Today’s recipe is for Mahlab Butter Cookies, or Sweet Ka’ak, and is from the talented chef, photographer, and food writer, Omayah Atassi. Enjoy.