From Beirut to London in 100 Dishes

Layali Lubnan (Lebanese Nights)

Layali Loubnan

A confession.  The real inspiration for my lifelong love and fascination with Lebanon’s cuisine has a sticky, sweet origin — puddings.

I think that’s partly because they were rare, for special occasions — Eid, birthdays, marriages and funerals.

One of my best memories dates to just before the war. My father would walk with me downtown to one of the old colonial squares that would soon be rendered out of bounds and then destroyed by the fighting. We would go to Bab Idriss,  Souk Ayass, to a little shop, called Intably, which made luscious versions of traditional Lebanese puddings that we both loved like Mughli and Mhalabieh. I can still see us both standing there in the small kiosk,  I would have a bowl of Mughli and he would have Lebanese rice pudding.

That was the height of happiness for me — my little bowl with all the nuts and coconut shavings and sneaking a taste of my father’s cinnamon-tinged pudding. The old memory of me  walking through the exciting confusion and brightness of the city and the souks — the dust and chaos, reduced now to just a fountain without water and a small sign to commemorate Intably’s existence in that spot so many years ago.Years after the war, they finally rebuilt the area and it is very posh and pretty but of course it’s lost its magic for me.

At home as a child, I would secretly experiment, trying to match the puddings I had downtown, adding my own twists– and often failing.  A pudding called Moufatka was my greatest challenge.  How many times I struggled to produce the ultimate version. Now I realize why it was so hard. I didn’t have a scale, trying to do magic with pudding ingredients doesn’t work, so the measurements were never quite right.

I will provide recipes for all those delights later.  But now I want to give my version of a pudding that I have been making a lot recently — Layali Loubnan or Lebanese Nights.  It’s just as delicious and addictive as the others.  I never actually made this when I lived in Lebanon.  It was my sister who finally taught me, saying it was the most refreshing of summer puddings. And she was right…

(By the way, the mastic — or miskeh — I refer to in the ingredients and recipe is a special resin from a tree that is used to add flavour and a rubbery texture to a number of Lebanese dishes.  You can get it in Middle Eastern shops — I go to Shepherds Bush in London where there are half a dozen.  I will talk about these in a later post. )

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Ingredients

1 litre of full fat milk

100g of semolina

100g of granulated sugar

1/2 tea spoon of mastic ( or miskeh)

1 tea spoon of rose water

1 tea spoon of orange blossom water

Syrup

1 glass of water 

1 glass of sugar 

1/2 tea spoon of lemon juice

1 tea spoon of orange blossom water 

Cream

200ml of double cream

1 large spoon of custard sugar

1 tea spoon of rose water

200g of coarsely chopped unsalted pistachio nuts for garnish

1 spoon of orange blossom jam per serving

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  • Prepare the syrup first.  Put the sugar, water and lemon juice in a small pan, place on the hob on a medium temperature and stir for a few minutes or until the water starts to boil. Reduce the temperature and leave on the hob for 20 minutes or until the water starts to thicken.  Leave to one side to cool down.
  •  Then, in a large non stick pan, pour the milk, semolina and sugar at a medium heat and stir continuously for a couple of minutes. Scrape the bottom from time to time so the pudding doesn’t burn.
  • Meanwhile, with a pestle and mortar, ground the mastic or miskeh — and then add to the milk. Reduce temperature to the minimum and leave to simmer. Stir from time to time for another 5-10 minutes or until the pudding starts to thicken.
  • Remove from the hob, add rose water, orange blossom water and stir well.
  • Pour the pudding in small serving bowls.
  • Leave to one side to set, then put it in the fridge for a few hours to chill.
  • Finally, add a sprinkling of the pistachio nuts on top when you serve
  • (As in the picture above, you can add a little twist on top of that, as I like to do, with orange blossom jam — another special Arab delicacy)
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