How to Make Blancmange, Muhallebi, Mahalepi, Malabi, Kazan Dibi: Middle Eastern Desserts

Mahalepi (in glass) and rose-flavoured blacmange
Mahalepi (in glass) and rose-flavoured blacmange
I added a drop of red food colouring to the blancmange, because, after all, everybody likes a pink blancmange!

Who would have guessed?

The humble, old-fashioned blancmange, which I always thought to be an English, or, due to its name; blancmange (eat white, or white dish), French dessert, has been enjoyed for centuries all over the Middle East under other names, muhallebi, mahalepi, malabi and kazan dibi.

A dessert by any other name would taste as sweet!

Old-fashioned blancmange
Old-fashioned puddings

These sweet, wobbly delights are basically made from milk and sugar thickened with corn flour (corn starch) or rice flour, and, particularly in the Middle East, slathered with rose water syrup, and topped with crunchy chopped pistachio nuts, in England however, where its inhabitants are known for being rather straight-laced and puritanical, it comes as is, straight up and unadorned.

The origins of this simple sweet can be traced back to the Middle Ages, Geoffrey Chaucer mentions blancmange in his “Canterbury Tales” as far back as 1340 or 1344 to 1400;
(Written in Olde English)

"A cook they hadde with them for the nones (occasion) To boil the chickens and the marrow bones,
And powder merchant tart and galingale.
Well could he know a draught of London ale.
He could roast, and stew, and broil, and fry,
Make mortrewes, and well bake a pie.
But great harm was it, as it thoughte me,
That, on his shin a mormal ( open running ulcer) hadde he.
For blanc manger, that made he with the best."


  Back in the day i.e. around 1200 to 1300, blancmange consisted of shredded chicken along with the milk and sugar and was considered a suitable dish for invalids, this goes for both European and Persian versions, all variations on a theme.
By the 1800s the chicken seems to have disappeared from the dish (I’m really pleased about that!).

  Lemon and almond- flavoured blancmange  with ground cinnamon or nutmeg
Lemon and almond- flavoured blancmange
 with ground cinnamon or nutmeg


Muhallebi, or, as it’s known in Greece, mahallebi, not to be confused with Mahlepi an aromatic spice made from ground cherry kernels, which tastes similar to bitter almonds, was introduced to the Middle East by a Persian cook who made it for an Arab General, al-Muhallab bin Abi Sufra, who loved it so much, he gave the dish his name.

Muhallebi can also be made with ground almonds or almond milk, flavoured with vanilla, rose water, or ground  Mastic.

 See the most popular rose water brand here, recommended by top chefs:

 Cortas Rose Water

Muhallebi
Muhallebi

In Israel, malabi, or shekedim, is traditionally eaten in Sephardic homes to break the fast after Shavout, The Feast of Roses, on Yom Kippur.

To keep within diet rules, it is made with almond milk instead of cow’s milk.


Vanilla-flavoured blancmange with rose water syrup
Vanilla-flavoured blancmange with rose water syrup, or, if you like muhallebi, mahalepi or malabi!


Kazan dibi, a Turkish dish, is basically blancmange with a caramelized bottom, the name means burnt pudding, bottom of the pan (Kazan), or burnt bottom (now that name would get the conversation flowing at a dinner party, “Who’s for burnt bottom?” !) and it’s divine, rather like crème brulee or crème caramel.

I didn't have much of a story to tell you about kazan dibi, until per chance, my good friend Aris, on hearing I had had a go at making this Turkish treat, told me the wonderful story about the origins of this Turkish dessert, it appears it was invented by mistake!

Being rather difficult to regulate the heat over a wood fire, the cooks burnt a type of cream dish they were preparing, but all was not lost, they scraped off the burnt bottom and served up the cream only, but, being frugal, they weren’t about to throw away the burnt bottom, and so, they removed it from the pan, in rolls, drenched it in ground cinnamon, to disguise the burnt flavour and sold it, and what do you know? It was a hit!

Today in Turkey, kazan dibbi can often be found served in rolls as well as slabs.


Kazan Dibi
Kazan Dibi

Why my interest in all of this?

 Well, MGG (My Greek God), has a fixation with blancmange, or, as it’s called in Greece, crema, I make a batch, at least twice a week, now, I'm as partial to a bit of blancmange as the next person, it brings back sweet, childhood memories, my grandmother made it all the time, in cute little aluminum molds, maybe she had the same fixation as MGG, but sometimes, you just want a change.


Almond-flavoured blancmange Petimezi to serve
Almond-flavoured blancmange
Petimezi to serve. (see link about petimezi at end of post.)

 MGG was happy enough, just sprinkling cinnamon over the top of his "crema", he's a creature of habit, but, as I don’t care for cinnamon, I decided to experiment, and so, for two days I boiled liters of milk, mixed sugar and corn flour (corn starch), and even produced some surprisingly good rose water syrup, and most likely put on a couple kilos, I had to test all this you understand!

I can’t say I was optimistic about MGG preferring any of my new concoctions, he likes same old, same old, but, he surprised me, you’ll find out about that shortly.

Here’s what I came up with, using the same basic recipe, and different flavours.

These are ideal for flavoring milk puddings: Amoretti Premium Floral Syrups 50ml 3 Pack (Rose, Violet Lavender, Orange Blossom)

 Dried Lavender flowers are also used for another popular flavour choice, and, if I had had any, I would certainly have tried this !


Blancmange and Middle Eastern Milk puddings
Blancmange and Middle Eastern Milk puddings
Lemon-almond, orange-vanilla, rose-water and good old plain vanilla flavoured.

The Middle Eastern recipes were usually half corn flour (Corn starch), and half rice flour, but some recipes did mention that rice flour can produce a gritty or grainy result, and anyway, I didn’t have any, so I just used my usual corn flour (corn starch) recipe.

Don’t despair if you are lactose intolerant, I found this fabulous book for you, with dairy alternatives, so, you see, you don’t have to miss out, and, if you need to be gluten free, use rice flour!

The New Milks by Diane Cheney Dairy free recipes
The New Milks
by Diane Cheney
Dairy free recipes
Click on link below for more info about this useful book:

 The New Milks: 100-Plus Dairy-Free Recipes for Making and Cooking with Soy, Nut, Seed, Grain, and Coconut Milks

Basic blancmange recipe

Ingredients

Rose-flavoured blancmange
Rose-flavoured blancmange
Darling MGG went searching Loutraki just to find me a rose to enhance my photos, bless him!

1.5 litres milk

100g Corn flour (corn starch)

150 g Sugar

One of the following flavourings:

1 vanilla pod, (split, seeds scraped out), or 1 tsp vanilla essence.

Or

1 tsp almond essence plus the zest of 1 lemon.

Or

Vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla essence plus the zest of 1 orange

Or

Vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla essence plus 2 tsp rose water

Or

1 tsp ground mastika

Method

Have your molds, or containers at the ready for the blancmange, as it thickens quickly once boiled and maybe difficult to pour if you dally about and let it cool.

You can use anything, small dishes, glasses, even jam jars (You won’t be able to turn it out of a jam jar though).

 Use glass or ceramic, (tea cups are a good idea), as it’s difficult to turn the blancmange out of plastic containers, it sticks to plastic like nobody's business, and looks a sorry sight indeed by the time you've prodded and poked at it with a knife trying to coax it onto a plate.

Run the containers under the cold tap, before filling and your blancmange should just plop out easily, cover the top of mold with a plate and flip over, voila!

Old-fashioned molds
Old-fashioned molds

Right, let's get started then, keep back about half a cup of the milk, put the remaining milk in a pan, along with whichever flavour you are using and bring to the boil.

While the milk is heating up, mix corn flour and sugar together in bowl, and mix well with the half cup of milk, I have found the best way to prevent lumps forming, is to beat it with a wire whisk.

Remove pan from heat as soon as the milk has reached boiling point and add the corn flour-sugar mixture, whisking well as you add it to the milk.

Return pan to the heat, and stirring, or whisking continuously, bring the mixture to the boil again, remove pan from heat as soon as it begins to bubble.

Pour mixture into molds, the easiest way is to pour the mixture into a heat - proof jug and then fill the molds one by one.

Leave the blancmange to cool, and then place in fridge for at least 5 hours, overnight is best.

Vanilla and orange - flavoured blancmange Sprinkled with grated dark chocolate
Vanilla and orange - flavoured blancmange
Sprinkled with grated dark chocolate
Never got chance to try this one, MGG scoffed them both!


That’s it, once set, and just before serving, sprinkle with whatever takes your fancy, ground cinnamon or nutmeg, grated chocolate, or pour over petimezi, fruit syrup, a spoonful of jam, or, of course, rose water syrup!

Rose Water Syrup

Rose water syrup
Rose water syrup

Sugar and water syrups are usually half sugar, half water and boiled for about 10 minutes; this produces thin syrup, usually used for pouring over cakes and pies, it's too thin for pouring over blancmange, so, I used the usual syrup recipe and boiled for longer, about 20-25 minutes or so, until I got the consistency I wanted.

500 mls water

250 g sugar

2 table spoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons rose water

A couple of drops red food colouring

Put water, sugar, lemon juice and rose water in a pan and bring to the boil, turn down heat and simmer until required consistency, about 25 minutes, stir continuously once syrup begins to thicken.

Remove from heat.

As this is clear syrup, I added a couple of drops of red food colouring, once I removed the syrup from the heat.

This syrup can be poured over Greek yogurt, ice cream, panna cotta, and yes, blancmange!

rose water syrup
I decanted my rose water syrup into an old , but practical, plastic bottle
 which once held a delicious fig balsamic vinegar, I knew I would find a use for this bottle!

Kazan dibi

Ingredients

1.5 litres milk

100g Corn flour (corn starch)

150 g Sugar

2 tsp rose water or 1 tsp vanilla essence (or vanilla pod).

Butter to grease pan

2 tablspoons sugar

Method

Keep back about half a cup of the milk, put the remaining milk in a pan, along with rose water or the vanilla, whichever flavour you chose,and bring to the boil.

While the milk is heating up, mix corn flour and sugar together in bowl, and mix well with the half cup of milk, I have found the best way to prevent lumps forming, is to beat it with a wire whisk.

Remove pan from heat as soon as the milk has reached boiling point and add the corn flour-sugar mixture, whisking well as you add it to the milk.

Return pan to the heat, and stirring, or whisking continuously, bring the mixture to the boil again, remove pan from heat as soon as it begins to bubble.

Grease the bottom of a baking tin or heatproof dish (About 24 x 25 cm) and evenly sprinkle over the 2 tablespoons sugar.

Preperation for Kazan dibi,  cover the greased  bottom of an heat-proof dish with sugar
Preperation for Kazan dibi,
 cover the greased  bottom of an heat-proof dish with sugar


Pour a thin layer of the cooked cream mixture (about half) evenly over the sugar, and spread to the edges of the pan.

Cover sugar with a thin layer of  ceram
Cover sugar with a thin layer of  ceram


Either using a kitchen blow torch, evenly burn the bottom of the pan, moving torch about until you can see  a dark brown colour at the bottom of the pan as the cream bubbles, or on top of the oven, gas or electric, moving the pan about until all the bottom is evenly “burnt”.
Be careful, things get extremely hot, be sure to hold the pan with oven gloves.

Heat bottom of oven-proof dish until sugar turns brown
Heat bottom of oven-proof dish until sugar turns brown


You need to be brave here, it has to be a very dark brown, not a golden caramel colour, as the sugar melts, it turns to syrup which runs to the edges of the pan, when this turns from clear to brown, it should be done.

I used a heat-proof glass dish, which made it easier to see how things were doing.

You will smell burning, you will think “this is going to be inedible”, which is exactly what I thought, but I was wrong.

Once you have burnt the bottom evenly, remove from heat, pour over the rest of the cream mixture, leave to cool and place in fridge for at least 5 hours, best is to leave it overnight.

Cut into squares and with a large spatula remove a piece, invert a plate over the top and flip it over, this is much easier than you think, to reveal the dark, caramelized underside.

Kazan Dibi Burnt pudding or burnt bottom
Kazan Dibi
Burnt pudding or burnt bottom

All my efforts were delicious, I’m sure you will love them too, and what a wonderful dessert idea for a dinner party, something different, slightly exotic, something with a story, which, best of all, can be made the day before, even two or three days before, it keeps well in the fridge.

Oh, you’re waiting to hear MGG’s thoughts, well, up until now; day in, day out, we had vanilla- flavoured blancmange, but from now on, (and probably for evermore) we are to have the almond and lemon zest blancmange!

Almond and lemon - flavoured blancmange
Almond and lemon - flavoured blancmange

MGG was okay with all these new and exciting flavours, except for the rose water one, which he didn't take to at all, but the almond-lemon one he loved.

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