nuhud al-adhra copy

Anissa: Time for a guest post by the great Charles Perry. This time it is about an edible virgin, or to be more precise her breasts. Don’t worry, I am not being prurient and there is nothing obscene about these breasts. As Charles explains, Mediterraneans and Arabs have this habit of calling sweets after charming female attributes. Another example is z’nud el-sitt (lady’s wrists, which are slender rolls made by rolling filo pastry around qashtah, the Arab equivalent of clotted cream). The rolls are then fried and dipped in syrup. Quite delicious as are the medieval virgin’s breasts. By the way, Charles is sorry about the picture not being perfect but I am sure you don’t mind. His entry is, as always, fascinating.

Charles: A recipe that can be found in all four 13th-century cookbooks from the eastern Arab world is called nuhud al-‘adhra: virgin’s breasts. (So the Mediterranean taste for naming sweets after charming female attributes goes back at least eight centuries.)

Looking at the recipe, I have wondered whether it might be ancestral to the modern buttery shortbreadghraibeh (“little marvelous thing”), which became gurabiye/kurabiye in Turkish and finally kourambies in Greek. The ingredient list is much the same: flour, butter and sugar, but there are some differences. The medieval pastry is made with toasted flour, while ghraibeh uses semolina, and ghraibeh is flavored with rose water and orange blossom water. And the proportions are different. Nuhud al-‘adhra uses flour, sugar and butter in equal amounts, but there is more flour in ghraibeh.

Naturally, I had to try it. I found that because there is less flour, the mixture is relatively loose. Following the instructions, you knead it into shapes like breasts and put them on a baking sheet, but no matter how breast-like you have attempted to make them, they flatten a great deal as they bake, suggesting that these virgins are very young and virginal indeed.

Since the flour has been toasted, the predominating flavor is browned flour, quite delicious. It tastes like many a modern butter cookie, only perhaps browner, and it bakes up remarkably crunchy, I presume because the butter is clarified and there is no moisture at all in the mix.

In short, the result is not as delicate as ghraibeh but it has a charm of its own. And I still like to think that ghraibeh is descended from it, particularly the version that has a suggestive topping of an almond right in the middle.

Nuhud al-‘Adhra

1 cup clarified butter

1 cup flour

1 cup finely ground sugar

Mix the butter with the flour in a frying pan and fry until it colors very slightly and loses the smell of raw flour. When the mixture is cool enough, mix with the sugar.

Heat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit/175 Celsius. Form the dough into six rounded lumps at least 1 inch apart on a baking sheet and bake until firm and lightly browned on the bottom.

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