For a dessert that's as delightful in the foggy, coastal chill as it is in the summer heat, chef Reem Assil of Reem's California turns to mahalabiya, a custardy cousin of Italian panna cotta and French crème brûlée.
"When I first opened my bakery, I was trying to figure out what are some really easy-to-do dishes that are delicious but simple," she explains. "I sort of became obsessed with mahalabiya." Not only does the rich custard have deep roots in the Arab world dating back to at least the 7th century, it's the ideal canvas for showcasing seasonal fruits. "When it's apricot season, we serve mahalabiya with an apricot layer on top," says Assil. In summer, it gets a crown of berries.
In Assil's mahalabiya recipe, the trick is to carefully watch over the custard as it cooks so as not to scald the milk. When it's ready to be pulled from the heat, she adds cornstarch, cream, and a touch of rose water, then refrigerates the mixture. After the custard is firm, she flips it, drizzles it with fruit compote, and adds pistachios.
"It's this really fragrant, cold, refreshing dish that's perfect for summer," says Assil. Just try not to have seconds. We dare you!
Mahalabiya pairs beautifully with robust black mint tea or coffee—Assil likes neighborhood roastery Grand Coffee, which is available in their Mission cafe and online—or a bright, juicy rosé such as Clos du Val's 2019 Estate Pinot Noir Rose.
Recipe: Reem Assil's Mahalabiya (Custard Dessert)
Servings: 4-6 people
2 cups whole milk
1 cup sugar
1 tsp ground cardamom (The Spice Hunter)
1 cup cold heavy cream
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 tsp rose water
2 tbsp sugar
1/4 cup crushed pistachios
1 cup strawberry compote*
1 lb strawberries, hulled
½ tsp ground cardamom (The Spice Hunter)
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp rose water
1 tbsp lemon juice, about half a lemon
In a medium sauce pot, bring milk, sugar, and cardamom to a slow simmer.
In a medium bowl, whisk cornstarch into cold cream until incorporated.
Slowly whisk cornstarch mixture into hot milk until thickened. You will know it is at the right thickness when you press your whisk into the mixture and the imprint holds.
Add rose water and pour warm mixture through a strainer, then back into 4-6 oz serving cups or ramekins. Refrigerate and let the custard firm up (4–6 hours).
In a saucepan prepare the compote. Add strawberries, water, sugar and spices. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the strawberries are soft and starting to fall apart and liquid thickens, between 5 to 10 minutes. Add lemon juice and adjust sugar as needed. Let cool.
Garnish cooled custard with strawberry compote and pistachios.
This recipe concludes our three-part summer series, The 7x7 Spice-In, starring chef Reem Assil and in partnership with The Spice Hunter. If you missed our first two episodes, we hope you'll click over to 7x7.com/cooking-videos to make Assil's baba ganoush and kafta meatballs. Need some spices? Use the promo code 7X7SPICEIN to receive 20 percent off purchases from The Spice Hunter through September 1st, spicehunter.com.
About The Spice Hunter
The Spice Hunter was founded by a woman on a quest for the best spices from around the world. For the past 20 years, the California company has made it their mission to continue seeking innovative and global flavors that will bring inspiration and creativity to the home chef. Their spices and herbs are sourced from the finest growing regions in the world, and are both organic and non-GMO certified.