Ashtalieh (Lebanese Cream Pudding)

There is a piece of dinner party wisdom which says you should not cook something you have never tried before, in case it all goes wrong and your guests hate you.

Alright, perhaps a little dramatic, but you get the idea and the theory behind it (*). Well, last New Year, I threw this concept to the wind, and made Ashtalieh as a dessert. It’s a smooth, creamy pudding, covered in softened nuts and a fragrant sugar syrup. I figured that my guests were sufficiently worldly to want to try anything, I was good at reading recipes and had an idea how they would work, and finally, this just sounded very, very delicious. That, and I had a couple of other desserts to serve, just in case it did go wrong.

Well, predictably enough, the curse of the “don’t get too bold and try something without testing first” fairy did actually strike in the end. Not so much a mistake or a disaster, but something unexpected did happen. I had used mastic gum in the recipe. It’s a marvellous fragrant, fresh-smelling resin from the Greek island of Chios, and I love it, but the amount I used (which, incidentally, was less than the amount the original recipe specified) was just too much. There was a too-strong pine taste in the cream pudding. Now, by the time I added nuts and the sweet syrup, it was actually quite nice, with the mastic gum providing an aroma rather than being the dominant flavour, and it was really quite delicious. Delicious, but it was drenched in syrup, which usually makes anything taste good. As I liked the pudding in general, I made a mental note about how to improve it next time I made it (i.e. bye-bye mastic).

And today, I unveil my version. The only tweak is an extra smidgen of sugar in the pudding and a complete lack of mastic gum. Result? Creamy, just a little aromatic, rich and luxurious. Mastic gum, it’s nothing personal, but you deserve to be the star of the show, so I will leave you to sparkle in loukoumi instead (**). I promise to do a post using mastic gum at some point, just not today.

Finally possessing the best possible recipe, there are two ways you can present this to eager diners. Either you can pour into a large dish, and serve it in squares covered in nuts and drizzled with syrup. Nice and easy. Or, you can be a masochist like me, and try pouring into individual moulds. This undoubtedly looks very pretty, and it allowed me to try our the new silicone canelé mould that I bought last time I was in Brussels, but I have learned that it really is a bit impractical to try turning out individual puddings from a tray that holds 12 in one go. So what have we learned? That we need to invest in some individual moulds.

Anyway, after a bit of delicate manoeuvring and one pudding flying in the wrong direction and impaling itself on the stove, the puddings did turn out. And they are so cool! They have that very sexy wobble you get from proper jelly, but as they are not thickened with gelatine, they are veggie friendly. They also melt seductively on the tongue, and you get fabulous flavours, textures and aromas from the cream, nuts, sugar, orange blossom and rose water.

To serve 6 people:

For the cream pudding:

• 500ml milk
• 2 tablespoons white sugar
• 2 1/2 tablespoons cornflour
• 1 tablespoon plain flour
• 170g cream cheese
• 1/2 teaspoon orange blossom water

• 1/2 teaspoons rose water (***)
• 25g blanched almonds, soaked overnight in cold water
• 25 g pine nuts,
soaked overnight in cold water
• 25g unsalted pistachios, roughly chopped
• sugar syrup (see below)

Put the milk, sugar, cornflour, flour and half of the cream cheese in a saucepan. Heat gently, stirring all the time with a whisk, until the sugar dissolves.

Bring the mixture to the boil, then simmer until the mixture thickens.

Add the orange blossom water and rose water, then keep simmering for another 5 minutes, stirring all the time.

Pour the mixture into a shallow serving dish, and allow to cool. Once cold, spread with the remainder of the cream cheese. Alternatively: divide the mixture between individual silicone moulds. In this case, you don’t need the remaining cream cheese.

To serve: cover each portion with two tablespoons of sugar syrup. Sprinkle over some almonds, pine nuts and chopped pistachios.

For the sugar syrup:

In a saucepan, heat 250g white sugar with 125ml of water and a teaspoon of lemon juice. Once the sugar dissolves, bring to the boil and simmer for two minutes. Finally, add a teaspoon of orange blossom water and a teaspoon of rose water. Stir well and leave to cool.

Worth making? Absolutely. This is one of my favourite new dessert recipes from those that I have tried recently. It’s easy to make, and the ingredient are the sort of thing you have in the store cupboard, but they combine to make something that, in my view, is really quite special.

(*) Not sure that this idea really is so good after all. Taking it to its logical extreme, we would never try anything new, ever, and how much more boring would that make life? Exactly.

(**) Which in Britain we call Turkish delight. Except the Greek version is called loukoumi, and as mastic gum can only come from Greece, I’ll use loukoumi here.

(***) By “rose water” I mean the lighty scented water. DO NOT replace this with a teaspoon of the strong rose extract. You will be overpowered and feel like you are eating perfume. If you do have the strong stuff, use 1-2 drops instead.

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Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

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