From the Spice Cupboard: Mahlab

Have you ever heard of this spice? We saw it at Penzeys and were so intrigued! Mahlab is the seed of a particular sour cherry tree native to Iran and the ground spice is used widely in Middle Eastern baking. Apparently, the flavor it adds is reminiscent of both sour cherries and bitter almonds. Sounds good to us!
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Mahlab seeds are extracted from the cracked cherry pits and then dried before being sold as a spice. The kernels are tan-colored and quite small, only about 1/4 inch or so across. The whole spice can be easily ground in a grinder like the one pictured above or using a mortar and pestle. You might also see this spice called mahaleb, mahlep, or even St. Lucie kernels.

It's nutty, slightly sour flavor is found in a lot of traditional sweet breads throughout the Middle East, like Greek tsoureki and Turkish kahvalti corekleri. Even if the recipe doesn't specifically call for it, try adding a scant teaspoon per cup of flour in your favorite sweet breads!

Like nutmeg and cinnamon, this spice can do double duty in savory dishes as well. Whole seeds can be added to a hearty braise or use the ground spice in spice rubs and marinades. We think this flavor would go especially well with lamb.

Here are a few sources for the spice and recipes to try!

Mahlab seeds, $3.15 for a 1 ounce jar at Penzeys
More about mahlab at Chow.com
Tsoureki Greek Easter Bread from Chow.com
Armenian Brioche filled with Dates, Honey and Walnuts from The Perfect Pantry
Lebanese Bread Rings with Sesame and Mahlab from a Taste of Beirut

Have you ever cooked with this spice?

Related: Dark Sweet Cherries: Ten Cherry Recipes for June

(Image: Flickr member La.Catholique licensed under Creative Commons)

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