[Blog-checking lines: The Daring Bakers’ April 2012 challenge, hosted by Jason at Daily Candor, were two Armenian standards: nazook and nutmeg cake. Nazook is a layered yeasted dough pastry with a sweet filling, and nutmeg cake is a fragrant, nutty coffee-style cake.]
On reading about nazook, this month’s Daring Bakers’ challenge, one unfamiliar word kept popping up: mahlab. The name comes from the Latin name of the St. Lucie cherry tree (Prunus mahaleb), from which it is produced – the cherry stones are cracked to retrieve the seeds, which are then ground into a spice. Common in Middle Eastern cooking, mahlab is used as a sort of spice in cornerstone Greek, Turkish, and Armenian sweets and pastries. On tasting it straight out of the canister, it has a very bitter aftertaste, but when cooked evokes ground almonds, and a hint of light, floral cherry flavor.
Nazook is supposed to be a flakier concoction, probably not helped by ten minutes of kneading as instructed in the recipe I followed; but then again, I’m a nazook virgin, and regardless of nit-picking over texture the recipe was delicious. Next time, I intend to treat the mixture as you would a pie dough, with small pebbles of butter which will melt in the oven, releasing steam and creating gaps in the dough that create flakiness. I kind of knew I should have done this for what I consider to be a ‘flaky’ dough, but I’m a sucker for little old ladies, especially when they play into my fantasy of having an old world European grandmother (country unspecified – donkey included). My main adaption was in adding 2 tablespoons of mahlab, found for a few pounds a canister at my favorite Middle Eastern food market, to the streusel-like filling cautiously scattered over the yeasted dough.
For an extra kick, I added the zest of a lime (about 1 teaspoon) to half of the yeasted dough as an experiment. The subtle-but-there citrus contrast to the rich, sweet almond flavor of the mahlab filling lightened everything up – I found that I preferred these to the pieces with plain pastry, after a serious round of testing, of course.
The simultaneous comfort and exoticism of all of that slightly scented butter makes nazook perfect for cosy, blustery Edinburgh days. Having never experienced it before, I thought of wandering dark morning Paris when the city is waking up, and when those who know how lucky they are to be awake early in this place breathe in the inviting haze of almond croissants on every passing street corner.
Disclaimer: Please don’t decide to make a filling entirely out of mahlab and then eat a whole batch, as too much can cause cyanide poisoning. Don’t fret, though – the same is true of apple seeds, nutmeg, and almonds before they are treated for consumption. Just one more reason to practice a balanced diet (or stay away from fruit).
Lime & Mahlab Nazook
adapted from this HubPages recipe from Jason Menayan
227 g sour cream, room temperature
7 g (1 packet) active dry yeast
375 g all-purpose flour
227 g butter, slightly chilled
2 teaspoons lime zest
94 g flour
85 g butter, slightly chilled
150 g sugar
1 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon mahlab
1 egg for egg wash
1. Combine yeast and sour cream and set aside for five minutes.
2. Rub butter into lime zest and flour until mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add sour cream & yeast mixture and form into dough, kneading only until combined (it is okay – even preferable – for small pea-sized pieces of butter to remain, but the rest of the mixture should be homogeneous).
3. Wrap and chill yeasted mixture overnight, or a minimum 5 hours.
4. Remove yeasted dough from refrigerator and split into four equal portions, and wait 15 minutes to take off some of the chill. (I do this by weighing the dough on my scale and dividing by four, just to be sure.)
5. Preheat oven to 175*C (350*F).
6. Create streusel filling by combining the flour, sugar, and mahlab. Rub in the butter until the mixture again resembles coarse breadcrumbs, and then slowly add the vanilla and quickly stir for equal distribution.
7. Roll one portion of the yeasted dough out into (roughly) a 6×12-inch rectangle.
8. Scatter a quarter of the streusel filling over the rectangle, and roll into a log. (This may seem scant, but overfilling will cause the dainty pieces to expand, and then split and disintegrate due to excess butter melting/creating too much steam which cannot escape.)
9. Pat the round down lightly, and cut into about ten pieces. For a traditional look, use a crinkle-edged cutter.
10. Repeat this process for the remaining three portions of yeasted dough, and transfer the pieces to baking sheets lined with parchment paper.
11. Lightly beat one egg for an egg wash, and carefully coat nazook pieces.
12. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown.