A few weeks ago, I made some yummy cherry clafoutis. The tradition is to leave the cherries whole in the dish, pits and all, because the pits impart this amazing, complex, nutty, almond flavor (though a complete annoyance to eat!). I used a bit of almond extract in my recipe to bring some of that flavor into play, but, if I had thought about it a bit more, I would have ground up mahlab and added it to the batter.
These adorable little guys are found within the pit of a certain wild black cherry that’s indigenous to parts of Europe and the Middle East. The kernels are dried and usually ground to a powder before being used in cooking. The flavor definitely has notes from the cherry as well as a bitter almond flavor. It’s not unlike marzipan with a touch of aftertaste and certainly has a floral quality to it.
Mahlab is more often used in baking than anything else – Greek, Armenian, Lebanese pastries all include ground mahlab (also called mahleb, mahlepi, mahalab). In Egypt, it’s used as part of a sweet dip for bread that includes honey, sesame seeds, and olive oil. Once cherry season hits, I will be baking up a storm with this stuff – I envision cherry and sweet cheese tarts with hints of this spice. I also think it would be incredible in ice cream or a luscious panna cotta.
Mahlab does not have a long shelf life and keeps better in its whole form. I like to buy the seeds and just grind a bit when I need some. Like mace, nutmeg or even cayenne, a little goes a long way, so use conservatively. It takes a bit of time for your palate and hand to become balanced with this one, so remember to taste constantly when adding.