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How to make this sweet brioche bread from Aleppo

It only appears in Syria's largest city during Ramadan - but it's worth the wait.
One of maarouk's key ingredients is mahlab from cherry kernels (@mounaskitchen/Instagram).

Maarouk is a sweet and fragrant brioche-like bread that is only made during Ramadan in Aleppo. This sweet bread delight comes in many shapes and fillings: the recipe below includes some which are braided and others which are round and filled with dates.

One of its key ingredients is mahlab, a spice that is traditionally added to flavour maarouk dough. It is made from the pits of a specific kind of cherry tree that grows in the Mediterranean and whose kernels are ground down to an aromatic powder. It can usually be found in Middle Eastern stores: if not, then replace it with a different spice of your choice such as cardamom or turmeric.


Recipe

Makes: 3 big braids or 10 date rings

Preparation and baking time: 2 hrs 45 mins (includes 2hrs resting time)

Maarouk is best enjoyed with jam, butter or cheese (@mounaskitchen/Instagram)

1. Ingredients

The dough

  • 385g (13½oz) plain white flour
  • 50g (2oz) granulated sugar
  • ½ tbsp dried instant yeast
  • ½ tbsp mahlab
  • pinch of salt
  • 185ml (6¼ fl oz) warm milk
  • 60g (2oz) yoghurt
  • 60ml (2fl oz) vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp white vinegar
  • sesame seeds and nigella seeds to decorate

Syrup

  • 50g (2oz) granulated sugar
  • 100ml (3½ fl oz) water
  • ¼ tsp lemon juice

Date filling

  • 150g (5oz) dates
  • 1 tbsp melted butter
  • ½ tsp ground cardamom

Egg wash

  • 1 egg yolk
  • ¼ tsp instant coffee
  • a drop of vegetable oil

2. Method

To make the date filling

  1. Mix all the ingredients together in a food processor until you have a smooth paste.

For the dough

  1. Place all the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer that's fitted with a kneading hook.
  2. Add the vegetable oil, yoghurt and vinegar. Mix until well combined.
  3. Add the egg and mix until well incorporated.
  4. Add the warm milk and knead the dough for a further five mins.
  5. The dough should be smooth. If it feels sticky then add another 30g (1oz) flour and knead for another five mins.
  6. Remove the dough from the mixer and place into a lightly oiled bowl.
  7. Cover with cling film and leave to rest in a warm place for two hours or until the dough has doubled in size.
  8. Deflate the dough gently by softly pressing down on it.
  9. Allow to rest for another 15 mins.
     
Here's how to shape the bread to braid your maarouk (@mounaskitchen/Instagram)

To shape the dough

  1. To make the braids, take three tennis ball-sized pieces of dough and roll each one into equal-sized ropes.
  2. Join the three ropes together (see above). Begin to braid them by bringing the outermost rope into the centre, alternating the sides as you go down.
  3. Pinch the ends together. Transfer the braid to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
  4. Alternatively, you can shape the dough into a disc by rolling out a tennis-ball sized piece of dough into a circle around 2 cm (1 inch) thick using a rolling pin.
  5. Sprinkle the disc with sesame seeds. Lightly press the seeds down so they stay in place.

To make the date rings

  1. Roll out a piece of dough so you have a rectangle that is around 20 x 10cm (8ins x 4ins)  and 1cm (just under ½ in) thick.
  2. Roll out some of the date filling so you have a rope that is 20cm (8ins) long.
  3. Place the rolled out date filling onto the long side of the dough (see the righthand photo above).
  4. Gently roll the dough around the date rope so that it wraps around the filling twice. Cut off any excess dough.
  5. Bring the two ends of the dough together to form a ring, pinching the sides to seal them.
  6. Using a knife, make cuts around the ring about 1cm (just under ½ inch) apart from each other.
  7. Gently place the ring onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
     
Maarouk can come in braided and rounded varieties (@mounaskitchen/Instagram)

Baking

  1. Mix the egg wash ingredients together and brush onto the shaped dough. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and nigella seeds as desired.
  2. Bake the dough at 200ºC (400ºF)  for 15 mins or until the maarouk are golden brown.
  3. While the maarouk are baking, make the sugar syrup.
  4. First, bring the sugar and water to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
  5. Once the mixture boils, add the lemon juice and allow it to simmer for five mins. Turn off the heat and set aside.
  6. Brush the maarouk with the sugar syrup as soon as you take them out of the oven.
  7. Allow the maarouk to cool and then enjoy.

Mouna Elkekhia is a chef and member of the Marhabtayn Syrian supper club. You can follow her on Instagram @mounaskitchenwebsite or Facebook page