This is one of my mother’s specialties. One of many that I’ll be sharing with you over time, because seriously my mama and my father BOTH have always been phenomenal cooks.
The fascinating thing, I find, and the thing that makes them so phenomenal to me, is that I don’t remember ever seeing either of them look at an actual recipe. I mean, my mom had her undecipherable “recipe notebook”, that always looked like morse code to anyone but her, but it was merely a collection of notes and scribbles…nothing like the precise and structured recipes you see these days. She and my dad both store most of their recipes in their heads, and I am determined to document as much of them as possible in measured, readable, follow-able form. This is after all my (delicious) heritage!
So anyway, back to the Nammoora. You probably won’t find too many Egyptians familiar with this recipe. My mother got it from her mother, who was Turkish (and basically the queen of food, FULL STOP), so I don’t believe it is an Egyptian recipe at all. Neither a Turkish one, for that matter. I have recently found out that there is a VERY similar version of it in Greek cuisine, called Bougatsa or Galaktoboureko…no surprise here. We share so many of the same flavours that I almost feel part Greek at times. In any case, regardless of its origins, it is insanely good and you should make it. That’s that.
Because Ramadan is a month heavy on sweeter-than-usual desserts, mama always made it for us in Ramadan, and it has always been my number one out of all of the month’s delectable desserts in our household.
A thick, creamy custard is made with milk, semolina flour (which is a coarsely ground durum wheat flour, also known in Egypt as “semeed basbousa”), fresh local “eshta” cream (or fresh ricotta cheese if ‘eshta’ is not available. Gosh I miss eshta…) and a dash of vanilla. It is then cooled, and then encased in layers and layers of buttery phyllo (or phylo or filo) pastry.
You lay down half the phyllo sheets, brushing with ghee or butter between layers, then spread the filling almost till the edges like so.
You then top with the rest of the phyllo sheets and slice into diamonds on the diagonal. To make cutting the raw pastry easier, I like to place the whole thing in the freezer just for 10 minutes or so, otherwise the sheets are prone to tearing and clumping up because of how delicate they are. It works like magic.
This next part is awesome: you heat up a couple of tablespoons of ghee or clarified butter until scorching hot, then you pour it over the top of the Nammoora. This seals in the edges and creates the lovely “domed” effect when you bake it in the oven, and prevents the phyllo diamonds from curling up. As soon as you pour it on, it sizzles and hisses delightfully, blistering the top layer of phyllo and tucking it in like magic. TSSSSS!
Then it all gets baked together, so that the phyllo crisps up and turns wonderfully golden and the filling is slightly oozy. The diamond-shaped slices puff up into domed little pillows that kinda look like the quilt of my wildest dreams.
Finally, the entire thing gets drenched in a simple sugar syrup before serving. I know, I know, it’s a lot of sugar. You guys know I try to avoid too much sugar as much as I possibly can, but now is not the time to hold back. Let me celebrate with ferocity. No apologies.
NOTE: I’ve tried making a honey simple syrup to go with this by combining half a cup of honey with half a cup of water and heating till combined. While it tasted delicious, I found that it made the phyllo pastry soggy almost instantly. It has something to do with honey’s chemistry (it is a humectant, which means it attracts and retains moisture). In any case, I refuse to have soggy pastry, so no compromise here. It has to be sugar!
And there you have it! The most ridiculously delicious and satisfying celebratory dessert possible. I cannot resist its addictive contrast of textures between soft creamy custard filling and shatteringly brittle delicate exterior, and I cannot make it without thinking of my mama and feeling her presence with me every step of the way, giving me vague instructions, cheering me on and urging me to add more butter.
Thank you mama!
Nammoora: Phyllo Pastry with Semolina Cream Filling
FOR THE FILLING:
- 500 ml milk
- 3 tbsp sugar OR 2 tbsp. honey
- 90 g fine semolina flour also known in Egypt as ‘semeed basbousa’
- Seeds from one vanilla pod or 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 250 g Egyptian ‘eshta’ OR fresh ricotta cheese
FOR THE SYRUP:
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- squeeze of lemon
- 1 tbsp vanilla extract
- 20 sheets Phyllo pastry fully thawed in the fridge if frozen
- 100 g butter melted, plus extra for greasing the pan
- 3 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
- Make the filling: combine the milk and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until sugar dissolves and milk begins to heat up. Add the semolina flour, whisking continuously until the mixture boils and thickens, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat, add vanilla and ‘eshta’/ricotta and whisk until thoroughly combined. Set aside to cool completely.
- Make the syrup: combine the sugar and water in a saucepan. Stir to mix, then put on medium heat and cook, until sugar dissolves (no stirring once the mixture is on the heat). Simmer the mixture for just 10 minutes until slightly syrupy. Add the squeeze of lemon, remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Pour into a jar or jug and set aside to cool completely.
- Make the nammoora: preheat oven to 200 degrees C (375 F). Generously butter a rectangular baking dish. The one I used is 33cm x 23cm (13”x 9”). Place a sheet of phyllo pastry into the pan, trimming any excess off the sides so that it fits snugly. Brush with melted butter, then add another sheet. Continue until you have laid down 12 of the 20 phyllo sheets.
- Give the completely cooled semolina filling a whisk to loosen slightly, then tip onto the phyllo base in the baking tray. Use a spatula/the back of a spoon/slightly wet fingers to spread the filling out almost to the edges, leaving just 1 or 2 cm around the border.
- Place the rest of the (8) phyllo sheets on top, brushing with melted butter between each layer and on top of the final layer. Using a very sharp knife, slice the nammoora into diamonds diagonally (you don’t have to slice all the way down, just the top layer is enough). TIP: Place the whole tray in the freezer just for 10 minutes before slicing to make slicing it MUCH easier.
- In a small saucepan, melt the ghee over medium heat, and continue to heat it until scorching hot, about 3-5 minutes (you will notice it starting to make popping sounds). While it is super hot, pour it all onto the nammoora’s surface, trying to distribute it all over to seal in all the slices’ edges. You will hear it hissing and the top layer might bubble up slightly. FUN!
- Bake the nammoora in the oven for 35-45 minutes, until golden and crisp and the diamond-shaped slices have become domed.
- Take it out of the oven, and while it is still very hot, pour on your cooled sugar syrup all over it. Let it stand for 10-15 minutes before slicing and eating. Sprinkle with crushed almonds if desired!