Guest Post: Middle Eastern Delights the Milky Way
MILK has been used by humans as a foodstuff since before we were really humans. The obvious version was, of course, mother’s milk. Early humans depended mostly on gathering fruit, nuts and wild cereal crops to eat, which were substituted by the occasional passing bison. However, it wasn’t until the very earliest nomads stopped wandering aimlessly about and settled down to get on with some proper farming that it occurred to us to use animal milk in our diets as well. Since then, milk from cattle, goats, sheep and even mares has been commonly found in diets across the world. In the past, milk was actually considered a luxury, as it couldn’t be stored for long periods of time. In hotter climates, soured milk recipes are frequently found along with yoghurts and cheeses, and developed as a pragmatic option in lands where the sun is hot and milk is short lived. In many Mediterranean countries common features of many menus are cheeses, yoghurts and soured cream. Especially amongst the Arabic populations, one very popular dish is Muhallabeya, although it’s also a popular dessert amongst Jewish populations.
A creamy, richly textured pudding, Muhallabeya is a milk pudding. It also includes corn flower and usually includes almonds or pistachio nuts. For an authentic version you’ll need to get your hands on some mastic, which is a thickening agent. Mastic is a resin and it gives Muhallabeyaa unique, scented, resinous flavour, which gives the dish it’s uniquely eastern, exotic touch. Alternative thickeners can be used, but for authenticity it’s worth trying to source mastic, which can usually be found lurking in small, specialists Greek or Turkish stores.
If you’re going the whole hog and using the authentic ingredients you’ll need; four pieces of mastic; 2½ tbsp caster sugar, 4 fl oz water, 2½ tbsp corn flour, 17 fl oz milk, 2 tbsp orange-flower water and 1¾ oz pistachios. The orange flower water is usually also sourced at specialist stores along with the mastic. Before you add the mastic to the mixture, it will need to be ground. Grind the mastic with one tbsp of caster sugar in a mortar and grind them together into a fine powder. Also mix the corn flour and water into a paste.
Pour the milk into a pan; add the mastic, the corn flour and sugar. Bring to the boil and then reduce the heat to simmer for five minutes. You’ll need to stir the mixture continuously to stop it from sticking and burning. Once you can feel the mixture thickening you can turn off the heat. Stir in the orange flower water and then pour into dishes and chill in the fridge. Just before serving chop the pistachios and sprinkle on top for a fresh tasty summer pudding.
Variations on a Theme
Muhallabeya is a dish that is easy to experiment with and there are a whole range of versions to be found from North Africa across the Middle East, even as far as Iran. In place of mastic you can use more corn flour while some recipes include ground rice or rice flour. Alternatively, you can use finely ground almonds, which gives the finished dessert a thicker texture and sweeter taste. Sugar syrup is a good accompaniment, which can be made my dissolving 3 ½ oz of caster sugar into 1 ¾ fl oz of water. Mix in lemon juice and peel, or rosewater. Various varieties of nuts or dried fruit can be used as a topping, but pistachios and almonds seem to particularly suit the dish.
Milk recipes can be found across the world throughout many cultures. Semi-skimmed milk can be used for the health conscious; however, the full fat variety works particularly well in the light, popular Middle Eastern Muhallabeya.