Monday, April 15, 2024
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Velvety malabi

THE WASHINGTON POST – I don’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I know which direction I was facing the first time I had malabi. If not for the urging of my server, I might have skipped right past it on the menu. To think I almost missed it.

This exquisite dessert has enraptured me like no other.

With likely ancestral roots in Persia, malabi is a staple conclusion to Middle Eastern meals, long ubiquitous in Israel, for example – in restaurants, in storefronts ‘round about town, from mall kiosks and street carts.

Malabi is rose water milk pudding – delicate in flavour, firm but creamy, not too sweet – most often topped with a simple berry sauce and chopped pistachios. The final flourish is up to the chef. Mine is topped with shredded halvah. Others, coconut flakes and dried fruit. It’s to be enjoyed as a whole: Sink your spoon in for each bite and savor the sum of its parts.

It’s impossible for me to think about malabi and not consider it through the prism of a pandemic-altered world, and how easily food – steeped in time and place, carved into memory, craved – connects us with ease to our past, our present and our future. What more easily than a specific dish can remind us equally of where we’ve been and of where we next wish to go?

Malabi is a staple dessert in the Middle East. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST
PHOTO: ENVATO

I’ve thought a great deal about malabi in the past few years. I’ve missed it. A close friend and I, sharing a devotion to fine sweets, used to meet about once a month to eat malabi at MishMish, a Mediterranean restaurant. We soon started to order lighter fare for our mains to ensure plenty of room for dessert. Malabi was, for us, entirely the point.

The first summer of the pandemic, in the new abnormal, our only option was to order it as takeout. I arrived to find a handled brown paper bag with my name on it waiting for me on a small table outside, right about where I once sat eating malabi for the very first time.

Through the front glass, I glimpsed rows of tables, empty and dark, and saw no one when I took the bag and left.

Back home, my friend Aleta arrived, and we ate our malabi at opposite ends of my outdoor table. We were glad to have it, of course, but it wasn’t the same, because the world, and we, sitting far apart, were no longer the same. Neither of us suggested we do it again.

The restaurant soon closed. I spoke to the chef and owner, Meny Vaknin, a few months later, and he told me I could still buy malabi over the counter at the restaurant’s sister establishment, Marcel, a casual eatery at the opposite end of town. It wouldn’t come with the berry sauce and pistachios, nor with the shredded halvah, but he invited me to call ahead and he’d have those parts ready for me.

It seemed fitting for what was then our ongoing reality: something prized, something sweet, separated into parts, gathered and assembled as best we were able.

Things are better now. As we’ve emerged, falteringly at times, many of us have been fortunate to find what we loved, what nourished us, still there – or perhaps finding its way back. Marcel now stocks malabi in small Mason jars with the berry sauce included.

I used to contemplate what for me would represent that we’d truly made it through to the other side, and it always arrived in one simple vision: friends, at a table in a crowded restaurant, indoors, unmasked, talking, laughing. Eating malabi.

MALABI

The velvety little secret of a milk pudding is that it’s an ideal dessert for dinner parties. It both demands to be made ahead and stores beautifully. All that’s left to do is spoon on the simple berry sauce and add any toppings before serving.

Preparing the cornstarch mixture first allows you to whisk the milk and cream without pause, important, as it can scald easily on the bottom of the pot.

If lumps form (a cornstarch culprit), simply ladle malabi into your ramekins or jars over a mesh strainer.

For the berry sauce, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, either solo or mixed, work well. Vaknin serves his malabi with a half strawberry, half blueberry sauce with lemon zest. Strain through a mesh strainer to avoid seeds and skins.

Shredded halvah is so lovely on top but may prove elusive. You can sprinkle your malabi with regular halvah, grated, but I tend to skip it if I can’t have the melt-in-your-mouth shredded.

Consider using small Mason jars, often available at local hardware stores, for easy storage, transport and a delightful serve (especially outdoors). And who doesn’t like to eat out of a jar?

Ingredients

For the malabi

– Scant one-third cup cornstarch

– Two-and-one-third cups whole milk, divided

– Two cups heavy cream

– Half cup granulated sugar

– One teaspoon vanilla extract

– Pinch fine salt

– Two teaspoons rose water

For the berry sauce

– One (284 grammes) bag frozen berries or one pint fresh

– Two tablespoons granulated sugar, plus more to taste

– Zest of half a lemon

For the suggested toppings

– Coarsely chopped unsalted, roasted pistachios

– Fresh berries of your choosing

– Shredded halvah

– Chopped dried apricots

– Shredded or flaked unsweetened coconut

Directions
In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the cornstarch with one-third cup milk until smooth.

In a medium pot over medium-high heat, combine the remaining two cups milk, cream, sugar, vanilla and salt, whisking continuously, until it reaches a gentle boil, about eight minutes.

When the mixture begins to rise, reduce the heat to low. Re-whisk the milk-cornstarch slurry to recombine and slowly add it, whisking continuously, and increase the heat to medium.

Continue to whisk until the mixture returns to a gentle boil and thickens slightly – enough to coat the back of a spoon, about one minute. Remove from the heat and whisk in the rose water.

Ladle about three-quarter cup of the mixture into eight-ounce ramekins, small bowls or jars, leaving about one inch at the top to allow room for the berry sauce and toppings.

Cover and refrigerate for at least three hours or until set.

Make the berry sauce: While the malabi chills, in a small pot over low to medium-low heat, combine the berries, sugar and lemon zest, if using, and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture gently simmers and the berries break down, about 10 minutes. (If your berries are frozen, this may take a few more minutes). Taste and add more sugar, if desired, then remove from the heat. Use an immersion blender to puree the sauce until smooth.

Strain through a mesh strainer to avoid seeds and skins, if needed. Let cool completely.

Just before serving, spoon about two tablespoons of the berry sauce and about one tablespoon of pistachios over the malabi.

If desired, add any other toppings of your choosing. – Jessica Stolzberg

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