Traditional sweet treats and old fashioned baking crafts give a great insight into an unknown culture. You just have to visit a bakery or confectionery when you get to a new country and you’ll immediately have an idea of its mentality. The presentation, the ingredients used by the chef patisseur, the way it’s decorated, all these details reveal a lot about a place and its people.
Malta has plenty of culinary culture and so many sweet secrets that I’m still learning about new delicacies every time I visit the islands. It’s close to Italy, so you’ll find Mediterranean classics like cannoli (Kannoli in Maltese), the frilly cassata siciliana and syrupy ricotta pies. Various rulers of the small archipelago left their traces in the kitchen, the British brought fruit pies and trifles and the Arabic influence is shown in the generous use of citrus fruits and the import of sticky sweet nougat, Qubbajt in Maltese. One of my personal favourites are the wonderfully simple Ottijiet, crunchy eight-shaped sesame cookies made with cloves, vanilla and aniseed. They are perfect for tea time, just as much as Edith’s Essijiet with Vermouth. You can easily guess their shape from the name. Another highlight is Malta’s aromatic bread pudding that Joanna Bonnici made for me when we met for our meet in your kitchen feature.
The list of these beautifully honest sweets is endless, it’s my kind of baking, with lots of spices and citrus, the recipes are not too complicated and quite easy to prepare. Every time I exchange my Berlin kitchen for my Maltese mother Jenny’s culinary space, I try to include at least one sweet Maltese dish in my baking activities that leads me to new grounds. Mqaret have been on my mind for quite a while. The little pastries look a bit like giant ravioli, they are diamond shaped, translated to maqrut (singular form) in Maltese. The sweets are generously filled with dates and infused with aniseed, they are a scrumptious remnant of the Arabic takeover starting in 870 AD. They taste so good that they stayed on the island even after the invaders had left. Today, you find them in every village sold at street markets, but unfortunately, often of rather weak quality. My favourite places to enjoy them are Scoglitti and Nenu’s bakery in Valletta, or you bake your own at home.
Mqaret are either deep-fried (which I prefer) or baked in the oven, and although I’m not a big fan of cooking in hot oil, in this case, it creates a flakier texture. The traditional recipe uses a short crust pastry made with a little more water than I would normally use, if it’s too crumbly you won’t be able to fold the dough over the fruit filling. Mqaret are best when they are hot and generously filled, this is at least my humble opinion and it caused long discussions in the family. I used lemon zest but originally it’s made with orange and tangerine instead, as the fruits are not in season at the moment I went for their yellow relative which added a flowery fruitiness to the dates. I must admit that I was a bit scared of this project but in the end it turned out to be much easier than expected!
Mqaret – Traditional Maltese Date Pastries
Deep frying in hot oil should never be attempted with children close by, be very carefully while cooking the pastries in the oil!
Makes about 14 Mqaret.
vegetable oil, for frying, about 1l / 4 1/4 cups
sugar, to sprinkle the cooked mqaret
For the pastry
plain flour 230g / 8oz / 1 3/4 cups
a pinch of salt
butter cold 60g / 2oz
water cold 3-5 tablespoons
freshly squeezed lemon juice 1 tablespoon
anisette spirit 1 tablespoon
Combine the flour and salt. Cut the butter with a knife into the flour until there are just little pieces of butter left. Continue with your fingers and rub the butter into the flour until combined. Add 3 tablespoons of water, the juice and spirit and continue mixing with your hands until you have a crumbly mixture, you should be able to form a ball. If it’s too dry, mix in 1-2 tablespoons of a water. Form a ball, wrap in cling film and put in the fridge for about 15 minutes.
For the filling
dried dates, pitted and finely chopped, 250g / 9oz
water, about 4 tablespoons
lemon zest 1 teaspoon (organic fruit)
(or 1/2 teaspoon of orange zest and 1 teaspoon of tangerine zest)
a pinch of ground cloves
a pinch of cinnamon
sugar 1 tablespoon
anisette spirit 1 1/2 tablespoon
In a sauce pan, bring the dates and water to the boil. Mash the dates with a spoon and leave on low heat for 1 minute. The mixture will be thick and sticky. Take off the heat, add the remaining ingredients and mix well with a spoon, set aside.
For the mqaret
In a large pot, heat the oil.
Divide the dough in 2 parts and roll out each of them between cling film into a 40 x 10cm (16 x 4″) rectangle. Spread half the date filling on one half of 1 rectangle (along the longer side) and brush the rim (the long side) with water. Fold the dough over the filling (along the long side) and close the rim well, push it together with your fingers. The short ends stay open. Repeat with the second pastry rectangle, you should end up with 2 long pastry sandwiches filled with dates. Cut each of them with a sharp knife into 6-7 diamond shaped pastries, the cut sides stay open, leaving the date filling exposed.
Use the handle of a wooden spoon to check if the oil is hot enough, bubbles will rise when the temperature is right. Fry the mqaret in the hot oil until golden brown, mind that they don’t get too dark. Take them out with a slotted ladle and transfer to kitchen paper to remove excess oil. Sprinkle with sugar and serve immediately. They go very well with vanilla ice cream!