Friday, January 22, 2010

Dessert: Umm Ali

I've decided to make Fridays my dessert day; it's the end of the week and it's a chance to indulge in something wonderfully sweet. Today's dessert lives up to a high sweetness standard.

Umm Ali, or in arabic, Mother of Ali, is a dessert I've always heard about, but only got to try on my last trip to Egypt. While we were taking a cruise up the Nile, we had the unfortunate task of eating the same 'europeanized' food on the boat; every night. Which really is shame given that there is an abundance of fresh and flavourful food all around. I'm not even sure Europeans like bland European food--except maybe the British...To make matters even worse, or more frustrating for me at least, was the fact that all the chefs and cooks were Egyptian. So cooking Egyptian fare was not a stretch for them; in fact it came naturally to them as they displayed their talents on the obnoxious Egyptian theme night.

For this long awaited theme night, guests were encouraged to look 'Egyptian' by buying one of the typical galabayas (long robe) available at the boat store--surprise, surprise. The night ended on a horribly embarrassing note as guests were invited--more like forced, to belly-dance on stage. I may have been guilty of this; but no one knows...

In any case, this was the only night that I really ate well. All kinds of Egyptian favourites were made for the guests, including this dessert. I was warned by my family that it is too heavy to be enjoyed. Ha! Wrong! It's just perfect! It's a simple concoction of pistachios, pine nuts, almonds, bread, sweet milk and cinnamon. It's Egypt's answer to the British bread pudding (which I still don't like).

There are many stories surrounding the birth of this dessert. Three in total were what I found. I'll start with my favourite and most preposterous one.

Back in the day, when Egypt was invaded and ruled by different dynasties came the
invasion of the Mamelukes. Mamelukes were slaves bought as children and trained to be loyal soldiers. It was a practice started by the Abassid Caliphate (the third caliphate in the Islamic empire following the death of the Prophet Mohammad).

Anyways, the first Mameluke to be made a Sultan of Egypt was
al-Muizz Izz-ad-Din Aybak. He was married to one lady with a son, Ali, hence her name: Mother of Ali. He also had another wife and son. Women at the time were not allowed to rule the country, but in the absence of a Sultan, a mother could be the guardian to her son until he came of age to take over the Sultan title. In this case, Aybak died leaving the two women to fight out whose son would rule. Umm Ali hatched a plan with the handmaid of the second wife, and had her killed. To celebrate her victory, she made this sweet dessert (akin to sweet revenge) to share with everyone.

The second legend is a bit more believable. A Sultan was down in the Nile Valley hunting with some people when he suddenly became very hungry. He stopped into a small village asking for food. The villagers asked Umm Ali to prepare something for him, as she was known to be the best cook in the village. She whipped up this dessert and the Sultan loved it so much, he came back for seconds.

The third legend has nothing to do with Ali's mom. It's about an Irish nurse with the family name O'Malley. She was in Egypt and caught the eye of the ruler, Khedive Ismail. As his mistress, he had a dessert created especially for her called: O'Malley, which sounds like Umm Ali.

In each scenario, the dessert itself is something that can be easily made with what you have in your kitchen. Many recipes call for phyllo or puff pastry, but the point is that you make it on the fly. So if you have stale pita or regular bread, use it.

It's quite easy to make, and has many different layers of flavour to it. The coconut addition to it is optional, since coconuts are not native to Egypt yet; next round of invasions may rectify that problem. But in my defense, I have a weakness for all things coconut and jumped on the idea.

Total Preparation Time: 10 minutes
Yield: 4 Persons


Enough stale or oven-dried bread to fill the bottom of a dish (about 2 medium-sized pitas)
3/4 cup of pistachios (unshelled and unsalted)
1/4 cup of almonds (flaked, or slivered, or chopped)
1/4 cup of pine nuts

1/2 cup of unsweetened coconut flakes (optional)
2 handfuls of raisens
1 tablespoon of cinnamon
2 cups of milk
1 cup of sugar
**2 cups of condensed milk can also be used**
1 tablespoon of rose or orange blossom water (optional)

1 cup of heavy cream


1. Turn oven to 375F
2. Make sure bread is dry, if not put in oven until brittle
3. Break up bread into smaller pieces
4. Lightly grease a baking dish
5. Add bread to dish so bottom is covered (about an inch thick of bread)

6. In a large mixing bowl, add nuts, raisins, cinnamon and coconut flakes
7. Add nut mixture on top of bread
8. In a pot on medium heat, add milk and sugar
9. Continue heating milk until sugar dissolves and is a little thicker than regular milk
10. When milk reaches a good consistency, add orange blossom/rose water if it is available
11. Take off heat and add to bread/nut mixture

12. Pour cream over mixture
13. Put in oven for about 20 minutes, or until dish looks golden.

Yes, it is a heavy dish, but it doubles as a breakfast for champions, woop woop!


  1. Very interesting! I posted a recipe and information about On Ali in my campus magazine Article last Ramadan.