Umm Ali might be relatively unknown elsewhere, but it's one of Egypt's favorite desserts. It's easy to make and is very much like a bread pudding with nuts and raisins mingled in - so delicious!
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Towards the end of last year, I was doing the relatively typical look back over the year and gathering thoughts and plans for the year ahead. But of course, I had to have a food aspect in there as well.
In terms of plans, it's definitely going to be a busy year for us as we'll be living in a new continent and we hope to explore the region. Melbourne is known as a foodie city and I certainly hope to explore some of what it has to offer, as well as the other places we hope to go.
However as I was looking back, I also felt like I wanted to push myself in to trying more foods from places I was less familiar with. Yes, I love recreating things we have tried on trips or from places I have lived. But I think it's also good to try things very much out of the world we have yet explored, too.
When I came across this Egyptian dessert, I instantly knew it was one I needed to try. After all, when most people describe it as a kind of bread pudding and it's loaded up with nuts and raisins, it's off to a good start. We weren't disappointed.
What are the origins of Umm Ali?
The name "umm Ali" (or om Ali, omali) literally means "Ali's mother" and the roots of this dish can be traced back to around the 12th century in Egypt. Just like the dish itself, there are a few variations on whom the dishes name refers to.
Some say it was the wife of one of the Egyptian rulers, others say it was a woman in a town where the ruler was passing through who made it for the visiting dignitary.
Many stories involve a sultan's wife or other people being killed along the way and this dish somehow saving the day. Given it's such an ancient dish, it's not surprising the legends around it are pretty creative. But the main thing you need to know is the fuss is worth it as it's a really tasty dish.
What goes in this Egyptian dessert?
As I mentioned, you'll find a range of variations but most include the following:
- Crisp pastry (or similar slightly sweet crackers/cookies)
- Nuts - often a few different kinds
- Dairy - this can be cream, milk, sweetened condensed milk or mire commonly a mix.
Many recipes also include some raisins and a little cinnamon. From some things I read, traditionally you'd use buffalo milk which is partly why sweetened condensed milk is common as it is similar.
Most recipes use puff pastry and break it up into pieces. Traditionally, this would be khari biscuits or cookies, which are originally a Parsi/Iranian snack - you'll often find them served with tea. These are very much like puff pastry, which is why this is an easy swap.
You can use ready cooked puff pastry if you prefer, but it doesn't take long to cook a piece in the oven. You can also make it ahead, and even break it up ready for when you want to make this dish.
How to adapt this dish
Given this dish has many variations, it's really easy to adapt to your taste. For example:
- Use different nuts - I have used coconut, walnut and pistachio here, but you could also use pine nuts, pecans and almonds.
- Add more or different dried fruits - while they a bit more secondary to the nuts, you could easily change the raisins for other fruits or add more eg dried cranberries, cherries or chopped up dates or apricots.
- Make it dairy free - typically this is made with cow's milk, but I can definitely see this working with coconut milk, with a mix of both the thinner drinking milk (or eg almond milk) as well as some of the thicker coconut milk/coconut cream to get that thicker texture. If needed, add a little sugar to make it sweeter.
- Try it with different pastries as the base - I have seen versions using croissants and palmiers which both sound good.
- While not at all traditional, I can also see other additions like chocolate chips working too.
Umm Ali is a delicious Egyptian dessert that's both easy to make and easy to adapt to your tastes. Give it a try and it will soon become a favorite!
Try these other comforting desserts:
- Strawberry rhubarb crisp
- Blueberry clafoutis (a bit like a baked custard)
- Arroz con leche (Spanish rice pudding)
- Sheer khurma (an Indian dessert a bit like rice pudding made with vermicelli and sweetened with dates)
- Plus get more dessert recipes in the archives.
- ½ sheet puff pastry 123g (can also use ready-baked)
- 2 tbsp raisins
- 2 tbsp coconut flakes
- 2 tbsp pistachios roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp walnuts roughly chopped
- ½ cup whole milk 120ml
- ½ cup heavy cream 120ml double cream
- 3 tbsp sweetened condensed milk
- ⅛ tsp cinnamon
- If cooking pastry from raw dough, prepare the pastry according to package instructions - generally put it on a lightly oiled baking sheet/tray and bake for 15 minutes at 400F/200C. Remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle - you can do this ahead of time.
- Preheat oven to 400F/200C (if not already on for pastry).
- Break up the pastry into roughly bite-size pieces. Put the pieces in a baking dish (approx 8x6in/20x15cm) and sprinkle over the raisins, coconut, pistachio and walnut pieces.
- Mix together the milk, cream, condensed milk and cinnamon. Pour the mixture over the pastry and nut mixture. Try to press the pastry down in to the liquid a little, or else toss the pieces so most if not all take in some of the liquid.
- Bake for approximately 15 minutes until the liquid is bubbling up slightly and the top is gently brown. You can eat this both warm or cooled.
See some of my favorite cooking tools and ingredients in the Caroline's Cooking Amazon store.
Try these other flavors of the Middle East:
- Apricot Pistachio Cake from Food Lust People Love
- Basbousa Cake from Pandemonium Noshery
- Easy Middle Eastern Puff Pastry Cheese Bourekas by Fatih, Hope, Love & Luck Survive Despite a Whiskered Accomplice
- Laffa Bread from Making Miracles
- Lebanese Sesame Cookies from Culinary Adventures with Camilla
- Mana'eesh (Palestinian Flatbread) from Karen's Kitchen Stories
- Parda Pulao - Iraqi Parda Plau from The Schizo Chef
- Roast Chicken Shwarma from A Day in the Life on the Farm