“Do you take sugar in your coffee?” my hostess in Maputo asked me.
Usually I take my drinks unsweetened, but for some reason I asked for one spoon. I took a sip, and the taste literally exploded in my mouth – never before have I tasted sweet umami such as this. The closest taste memory was of demerara sugar, which my mother used exclusively in her cooking, but this sugar was extraordinary, in the full sense of the word.
It turned out that it was an organic sugar, produced in the north of the country, and when I read the chemical analysis, all was revealed. This sugar contains elevated levels of iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and Vitamin A, in stark contrast to the lifeless refined sugars we buy.
As a parting gift, I was given a bag of this sugar as well as a bag of organically grown cashew nuts.
Armed with such stellar ingredients, I cobbled together a recipe of one of my all-time favourite deserts, the famed Umm Ali bread pudding of Egypt.
- Palmier biscuits, enough to pack a small oven proof dish, four-deep.
- Half a cup of sugar, preferably demerara
- A few cardamom seeds, crushed in a mortar
- Half a cup of flaked almonsHalf a cup shredded coconut
- A cup of pecan nuts, roughly chopped
- 2 cups of full cream milk
- 85 grams of seedless sultanas, soaked overnight in Grand Marnier liqueur (Cointreau or a fine Muscat d’ Alexandrie wine will also do).
- Half a teaspoon of good Bourbon vanilla
Pack a small ovenproof dish with Palmier biscuits, four deep. One can also use filo-pastry, sourdough bread, or croissants. In a small saucepan, combine the milk, sugar, nuts, almonds, pecans, crushed cardamom, raisins, vanilla and milk. Heat gently and bring to boiling point, reduce heat and simmer gently for 3 minutes.
Set oven to 200C
Gently spoon the milk mixture over the palmier biscuits, making sure that the mixture is evenly distributed. Now place the dish in the oven, and cook for 15 minutes. Then carefully place under the grill, for about 3 minutes, or until the crust is evenly browned.
Serve warm, with good quality ice-cream, or, if you feel bold, a dollop of clotted cream.
This is not a desert for the feint hearted or anyone on a diet. But once you have tasted Umm Ali, you will know why it is called Mother Ali in Egypt. Because this is the mother of all deserts.