A chat about Middle Eastern sweets, their traditions and culture and Zalatimo’s Date Maamoul Recipe!!

With the Holy month of Ramadan unwinding and Eid right by our doorsteps; there is no better time to talk about traditional Arabic sweets.

During Eid, it is customary in the Middle East to offer guests Maamoul (Semolina cookies filled with dates or nuts), together with other assorted Arabic sweets.

 

The best thing about Middle Eastern Sweets is that they are by all means a treat, both to the palate and the eye. They are always filled with nature’s best produce be it the nuts or the dates. Other ingredients such as sweetened white cheese, Ashta (cream or milk curds) as well as the finest local clarified butter (samneh baladieh) are also generously used in the making of these delectable desserts. These mouth-watering sweets are usually oozing in the finest sugar syrup, making them rich in sweet flavours and a satisfying end to any meal! If you have never tried any before, then my friend you have been missing out on a lot! Run, and make sure you do just that, go and grab a selection and enter the sweet, syrup-drenched world of Arabic sweets! Now you will love it so much that you will want to keep going at it, but remember this is a treat, and so have it only occasionally.

The Middle Eastern sweets are reflective of the region’s culture. There are many traditions around them, that even what you choose to offer is usually governed by the occasion. Different occasions call for different sweets, like Maamoul for instance is usually served during both Eids and during Christmas celebrations. While in big occasions like weddings and engagements Knafeh is the dessert to serve… and so on.

Since we are talking about Arabic sweets and culture, then who better to talk to than the very people who have become synonymous with the best quality Middle Eastern Sweets? Zalatimo Sweets, which is one of the region’s oldest and finest Middle Eastern Sweets labels.

In the video above you can see clips of the historical Zalatimo established in Jerusalem in 1860. If you understand Arabic you will also hear Ahmad Zalatimo speak about the establishment and growth of Zalatimo sweets since that time until now. How he branched off to refine and develop the old concept into his vision of what it is today. In the video Ahmad Zalatimo describes how he employed his degree in manufacturing engineering into refining his sweet creation process and the quality of their offering. He speaks about family tradition, his father’s insisting on him to hold the family legacy, branding, refining and serving the best quality there is of these popular and loved sweets.

I have also had a chat with Abdallah Zalatimo, the General Manager of “Zalatimo Sweets Co LLC”. We talked about Middle Eastern Sweets and traditions, as well as about the inspiring journey of establishing this great company and its products…

Here is what we talked about:

Abdallah, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into Zalatimo Sweets Co 

My name is Abdallah Zalatimo.  I am 46 years old.  I have an MBA in marketing.  I attended the university of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh , Pennsylvania and graduated in 1986.  Upon graduating, I returned to Amman to expand the family business out of Jerusalem into Amman, Jordan.  I have been at work in Zalatimo Sweets since 1986.  I am married and have two children, a 17 year old boy and a 14 year old girl.

When you decided to work in Zalatimo Sweets, was your decision influenced by the family? How did you decide to go into this line of work?

My family did not influence me to join the family business.  I was being trained in marketing and was working in the US with a financial management company.  So I was as far away as possible from the family business.  I think the history of our family business influenced me more.  I was intrigued by our family history which was in the business of making sweets and pastries for over 120 years back then.  Many people spoke so highly of our business and of the family members who had managed it.  My father and uncles were not involved first hand since my father and uncle were medical doctors and my other uncle was an engineer.  I felt that there was a vacuum in the business and that it was dying slowly since the only people running it were quite old at the time and had little energy to cope with the challenges of the modern world.  The vacuum presented me with a challenge that I took when I joined the family business.  But this decision was only made 6 months before I graduated.

 

 

When Zalatimo was first conceived as an idea, what inspired it?

Old Jerusalemites in 1800’s

(For those, unfamiliar with Zalatimo Sweets Co, here is a bit of a background about this amazing company that has played a key role in shaping these sweets and the culture around them)

In the year 1860, Mohammed Zalatimo opened a small pastry shop in the old city of Jerusalem to make a pastry called “Mutabak”. Due to the limited space in the Original Zalatimo Sweets store, “Mutabak” was offered as a take away product and only in the morning for breakfast. In addition to “Mutabak”, a few other specialty sweets were made on a daily basis. Later, Mohammad Zalatimo, due to the growing demand for the high quality sweets he offered, rented the shop next door so that he could offer seating to the growing number of customers visiting the shop in the ancient walls surrounding the Roman built Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Zalatimo Sweets Company was established in Amman- Jordan in 1986 and has been expanding both locally and regionally since then. With more than 6 shops in Jordan, and having opened branches in Qatar, and 2 in Bahrain. We export our products on regular basis to KSA and USA.

How many people worked in Zalatimo when it first started, and how many kitchens and workers do you have now?

Zalatimo Sweets started out with 3 people in one location in 1860 and today we are about 250 persons in 3 production facilities.

What is Zalatimo’s reach now? how many shops do you have?

We have 6 shops in Jordan, 2 in Bahrain, and one in Qatar.  We export our products on a regular basis to Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

Tell us a little bit about Arabic sweets; what are the main characteristics and how different are they from European and other sweets?

Assorted Middle Eastern Sweets by Zalatimo Sweets Co

I always prefer to call Arabic sweets: Mediterranean sweets or Middle Eastern sweets.  The origin of many of our sweets, is from the Turkish cuisine.  After 500 years of being occupied by the Ottoman empire, our cuisine was highly influenced and in some areas changed for good.  Most of the ingredients in our sweets are not originating from the area.  Actually, their origins are in Turkey.  Such as the pistachios, pine nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, butter, etc…

The main characteristic of our sweets is the importance of the presence of nuts, syrup or sugar, and flour or semolina.  We also use a large amount of clarified butter (samneh) and cheese or cream (milk curds).  The main flavouring that is added is either rose petal water or  citrus flower water.  These in themselves identify the Middle Eastern sweets.  We do not use chocolate or fruits or milk in our sweets at all.


Are Zalatimo’s Middle Eastern Sweets seasonal – limited only to Ramadan & Eid – or do they work for other seasons and occasions?

We have a wide variety of sweets that are demanded year round.  Some like Mamool are more seasonal but others like baklawa are demanded year round.

Our cuisine’s sweet varieties are very traditional, and have hardly changed or evolved through time. As a huge and reputed Arabic sweet establishment, do you consider creating brand new sweets recipes to contribute to the development of the pastry section of Arabic Cuisine? 

We have tried introducing new ideas over the years and they have been met with little interest and find very modest success.  We continue to try but I think that new ideas will catch on once we have the younger generation – people who are 22 and below – become more of a purchasing power.  I think the biggest change we have made in our sweets is to make them less sweet and less rich (using milder butters) than what my great grandfather used to do.  And this is primarily due to the changing tastes of our quality conscious consumers.  People in Jordan don’t ask much for new products and are content with the traditional products.  I think it has to do with the way people live in Jordan.  In Lebanon, however, they are more innovative in their approach to our sweets but again, at the end of the day, the volume is in the traditional sweets.

Our products are associated with occasions and it is difficult to change people’s consumption habits during special occasions (for example, Eid means maamoul dates and pistachios, visiting somebody ill means taking assorted sweets as a gift, engagement means knafe, Ramadan means sweets made with Kishta {milk curds},  etc…)  we will keep trying to introduce new items and hope that we can keep up with our customer’s ever changing tastes.

In the same light, Arabic sweets are known to be very indulgent. Do you try to go with global trends, such as catering for the health conscious, or diabetics…etc? Is there a “Healthy” line at Zalatimo Sweets Co? 

When you choose to eat Middle Eastern sweets, I do not believe in cutting corners.  But that is my belief relating to all foods as I tend to think of myself as a purist when it comes to food.  Either eat it as it was meant to be or don’t.  For those attempting to lose weight, then minimising the portion is the best way to go.  That is it!  There is no alternative to flour for those who are gluten intolerant, there is no alternative to most of the ingredients that we use without greatly compromising the integrity of the product.

The only exception is sugar. About 5 years ago, we began introducing a diabetic line of products that uses a Sorbitol and Maltitol based sweetener.  They have done great and we continue to expand this line in terms of volume and assortment.

Are there future plans to grow and explore other foreign markets?

We are currently available in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States.  Our future plans are to further expand out of Jordan, primarily in Saudi Arabia and then to the other Gulf states.  Maybe we will expand in the US in the longer term.

What is the formula of success in this field, from the experience of one of the most successful establishments such as Zalatimo Sweets? What do you advise aspiring Arabic Pastry Chefs?

I think that the most important element of success in any culinary or pastry discipline is to consistently pay attention to details and the use of top quality ingredients.  Middle Eastern pastries are steeped in heritage so it is very important to know the history of what you are making to be true to the origins of the desert, or else you should give it a new name.

I am sure that Zalatimo’s recipes are secret family recipes, but everybody loves a real good recipe! There is no better Middle Eastern Sweet Recipe than that of Zalatimo, so if we asked you to share one with us, would you?

To my surprise, Abdallah was generous and kind enough to share with us Zalatimo’s Best Loved Dates Maamoul Recipe (Semolina Cookies filled with dates)!! And here it is if you would like to try it.

 

For Cookie Dough

1 1/2 Kg Semolina
3 cups flour
1/2 Kg Clarified Butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup Orange Blossom Water
1/2 cup Rose Water
1 cup Water
2 tbsp yeast in 1/2 cup warm water
1 tsp Mehlep
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting

For Filling

1/2 Kg pitted Dates
4 tbsp Clarified Butter
a sprinkle of Mehlep

 

In a large bowl, mix semolina, sugar and mehleb until well mixed. Add clarified butter to the semolina mixture and mix using only the fingertips without kneading. Cover the mixture and let it set for 6 hours.

20 minutes before the end of 6 hours, place the yeast in 1/2 cup of warm water and mix to incorporate. let the yeast mixture stand for 20 minutes.

When 20 minutes are done, sprinkle the yeast mixture over the set semolina mixture and rub the mix between your palms for 10 minutes to incorporate. Add the rose water and enough water to get a moist sticky dough (about 1 cup) Let stand for 1 hour. Rub all the ingredients again until the mixture comes together and becomes more like a dough.

Take a small piece of the Semolina dough (size depending the size of mould you are using), place in your left palm, and with your right index finger, press the dough inwards from the centre facing you, to create an opening for the filling. Fill this opening with a tsp of filling and gently fold over the dough to close the opening. Place the filled cookie in the mould and gently press. Flip the mould, and tap it against the table or counter top to release the cookie. Repeat, till all quantity is finished. Let the mixture stand for 1 hour. Then bake until done and slightly golden.

Zalatimo maamouls are the best you can ever have. They are a Eid tradition since childhood, I love them. They go very well with Traditional Arabic coffee (Ahweh Sada, recipe on this link)! YUMMY….

 

Ramadan Kareem!

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6 responses to ““Zalatimo Sweets” Since 1860

    1. Thank you for the comment I have edited the recipe and put in the addition of water. Please note that this is the recipe as provided by Zalatimo Sweets. I have posted it as submitted by them.

  1. Salaam dear Abdulah,

    Congratulations, great job. We wish you all success.

    We buy from Albahsali/Lebanon, and from here Shatella/USA. We wonder if you take orders from overseas and do deliver? if so, what are the prices, and do you have a percentage discount and free shipping for orders over $150 "like other guys "above"?
    Thanks,

    Hussein Alkowni

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