I made this for last week’s Swerve column, wanting to break out of my usual baking habits – the scones, loaves and cookies I’ve been making for decades – things I can play with, mix and bake in semi-sleep without a recipe but with a predictable outcome. I’ve had middle eastern flavours on my mind lately – spiced desserts made with toasted nuts and sweetened with honey – and so I baked Um Ali, an Egyptian dessert (also known as Umm Ali and Om Ali – translation: mother of Ali) people often compare to bread pudding, but I find far more interesting and complex – for starters, it’s not as heavy and doughy; it’s soft and creamy in the middle, almost like rice pudding, with chewy edges and crunchy bits of pastry and nuts poking through.
It begins with a piece of puff pastry, baked while the oven is on (just unroll a piece of thawed frozen puff, that’s it) and torn into a shallow dish with chopped almonds / pistachios / walnuts / pine nuts and raisins (if you like raisins in things) and some thickly shredded coconut. I imagine there’s plenty of room to play here.
You then pour over steaming sweetened milk, which you could infuse with cinnamon sticks, strips of orange zest, sliced fresh ginger and cardamom along with vanilla. Return the pan to the oven until it’s bubbly and golden and spoon it up warm – some like it topped with ice cream, but I love it on its own, warm or cold, with no distractions.
The first time you make it, it may seem as if it needs eggs to thicken and set – it doesn’t – the cream thickens sufficiently in the oven, and further as it cools. If you want to skip the puff pastry part, or happen to have some day old croissants lounging around, Um Ali also makes great use of them – tear about three into the baking dish in place of the puff pastry. I love the thought of using this as a blank canvas, playing around with additions like I might with my usual batch of scones.