Mahalabia: Orange Blossom and Cardamom Milk Pudding

I though I would end the year with the taste and scent of one of my favorite Arab comfort foods-Mahalabia. This popular and ancient Middle Eastern milk pudding has appealed to people in the Middle East for millennia, The recipe actually has Persian origins, dating back to 224 BC. By the 7th century, a Persian cook served it to an Arab general by the name of Al Muhallab ibn Abi Sufra. The general liked it so much, he named it after himself, and Muhalabia was born. 

The closest western equivalent to this pudding is the dessert called Blanc Mange, a cross between panna cotta and rice pudding. Whole milk and rice flour blend to make a surprisingly rich consistency. You can make the pudding even richer by using cream, or make a vegan version by using a fat enriched plant milk. The pudding gets a Middle Eastern twist with the infusion of fragrant orange blossom water and cardamom pods. Cardamom shares a similar flavor profile to ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg, which adds an earthy herbal flavor to the pudding. Cardamom pods are fresher than the ground variety, and will add a more potent flavor and scent to the pudding.This warming spice is perfect for the winter months and adds an exotic touch to this dessert. Like many other Arab desserts, no confection is complete without  garnishes. In this case the pudding is drizzled with a sugar syrup, then dusted with crunchy pistachios, cinnamon, and any fruit of choice like pomegranates or berries. 

You can find this pudding at Ramadan feasts or in home kitchens and dessert tables all over Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. This dessert has even traveled to Cyprus, where street vendors sell this delicious treat.

This recipe is particularly special, as it is straight from the kitchen of Chef Samer of the popular Beit Rima Restaurant in San Francisco. He was kind enough to share this recipe with me, and the ingredients were all pretty easy to find. In my version, I eased up on the sugar by using allulose as you will see in the video below, but you can use sugar or any sugar substitute you wish. I decided this was going to be our version of Christmas pudding, which we each enjoyed during our annual movie night ritual of watching “Elf” this time of year:

Mahalabia

1/2 gallon milk (full fat milk)

½ cup sugar

½ cup  cornstarch

½ cup rice flour

2-3 cardamom pods

½ tsp powedered arabic gum: https://amzn.to/3n5Gf8I

1 tbs orange blossom water

1 recipe atar

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

Cinnamon

Ground toasted pistachios

Optional Sugar syrup (Atar): 1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, juice of half a lemon

Leave the milk out at room temperature. Pour most of the milk in a pot, reserving ½ cup milk for a slurry. To the milk add sugar, arabic gum, and cardamom, and  rice flour. Add cornstarch to ½ cup reserved milk slurry, then add it to the main milk in the pot. Warm the milk to medium heat, whisk 10-15 minutes or until thick, like sahlab. Whisk depending on how thick you like it. Turn the heat off, hten add orange blossom water. Pass through a sieve, then let cool in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. To make the sugar syrup or atar, add the sugar and water to a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Bring the heat down, and simmer for about 15 minutes until thicker, and then let the pudding cool. Once the mahalabia is set, top with atar, cinnamon, toasted ground pistachios, ground up rose petals, or any kind of fruit you like.

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