Muhallabia was a dessert my parents often made for special occasions when I was growing up. I think partly so my dad could hide a single cherry at the bottom of our round dessert bowls so that once you inverted the pudding onto a plate it looked a bit like these Minne di Sant’Agata. And yes, my sense of humour clearly takes after my dad’s.
Muhallabia is not a difficult dessert to make. But it requires your undivided attention for the better part of a quarter of an hour while you stand at the stove and stir the custard while it slowly thickens. Any distraction, however small, and you risk the mixture turning lumpy.
And of course that is exactly what happened the first time I took over the Muhallabia making … I still remember the look on my mother’s face when she realized the custard had gone lumpy. Of course you can still strain out the lumps but every time I now make Muhallabia I remember the slightly annoyed look on my mother’s face.
Whichever way it is spelled (I have seen Muhallebi, Malabi, Mahallebi, Mahallepi, Muhallebi etc.) Muhallabia is a great and simple dessert to add to your repertoire. A simple egg free custard thickened with rice flour (something I always have on hand since I use it to dust my bannetons when I bake sourdough bread – it is far more absorbent than all purpose flour). And thanks to the rice flour Muhallabia has a unique texture. Finer than semolina or cream of wheat yet grainier than regular custard or panna cotta.
And you can of course flavour it whichever way you like. Some people like to stir some orange blossom water into the cooked custard, others like serving it with a rose water syrup and some crushed pistachios. You could also make a cardamom or cinnamon flavoured custard. Or indeed try this mahleb flavoured version. My friend Sara just brought back a huge bag of whole mahleb seeds from a trip to Istanbul. And apart from trying to work out how to thank her for the sweet gesture, I am currently brainstorming how to make the most of that bounty.
Muhallabia with Mahleb and Sour Cherry Compote
Notes: Muhallabia is best made the day before you want to serve it so the custard has time to set. At a minimum the custard needs around 3-4 hours in the fridge to set. The cherry compote can also easily be made ahead and either served cold or gently reheated once you are ready to serve.
For the Muhallabia
50g rice flour
2 tsp ground mahleb
3 tbsp sugar
For the Sour Cherry Compote
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp water
Start by making the custard. Use ca. 100ml of the milk and whisk together with the rice flour, mahleb and sugar. In the meantime heat the remaining 400ml of milk in a medium saucepan until it starts to steam. Stir in the slurry and, whisking constantly, cook the custard on medium heat until it starts to thicken. This will take ca. 10-15 minutes.
Divide the custard evenly between four small bowls and place in the fridge to set for 3-4 hours.
For the cherry compote heat all the ingredients over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and the juices have turned slightly syrupy. Serve the muhallabia with a spoon or two of the cherries and some of their syrup.