Umm Ali, the quintessential Arabian dessert, is spotted at nearly every iftar in restaurants around town. Often compared to bread and butter pudding, the creamy Egyptian dessert is even simpler to make and, because it doesn't contain eggs like bread and butter pudding, it's suitable for those who don't like custard (they exist!). Syrian pastry chef Fadi Kalkosh, the man who turns out the Park Hyatt Dubai's superlative version for their daily iftar at Café Arabesque, says it's popular in the Arab world, although not in his home country.
"Many people make it at home — however, we do not make it much in Syria, which is where I come from. The first time I tried it was in 2003 when I first moved to the UAE, and I loved it. It has been a staple in Café Arabesque's dessert station daily since I joined."
He says it's the perfect Ramadan dessert for a big crowd "because it is very simple, and does not have any particular ingredient that falls under ‘acquired taste'."
"It suits most palates," he adds.
It's a great way to use up those inevitable leftovers, with the main ingredients being bread, puff or phyllo pastry — Kalkosh uses the hotel's croissants — milk and cream, pantry items we all have lying around.
And with such a simple canvas, the creative variations are endless. While Kalkosh includes pistachios in his, other nuts — almonds are also traditional — besides dried fruits such as raisins and sultanas would be welcome additions. Chocolate or coconut would be a fun twist, I mention to Kalkosh.
"Because the ingredients are quite basic, and no flavour in particular is overpowering, variations and additions to the basic ingredients are prevalent. It's funny you mention chocolate as I am experimenting with this," he says.
The legend of the dessert
Park Hyatt pastry chef Fadi Kalkosh reveals the fairytale origins of this popular family dish.
"Legend has it that a king was on a hunting trip when he stopped by a village on the way back to the palace to find food. A generous yet poor lady by the name of Umm Ali [Ali's mother] put together items she had in her kitchen and she came up with a dessert. The king was very touched by her generosity and the tastiness of the dish, which is how it became so popular. To honour the lady, the dish remained under her name."
- 500g croissants or baked phyllo or puff pastry
- 50g sliced nuts (pistachios, almonds or a mixture)
Preheat the oven to 250°C.
Cut the croissants or pastry into pieces and mix with sugar and nuts. Add the milk and cream until the croissants or pastry are well soaked with liquid. Pour into an ovenproof dish and bake for 15 minutes.
Before serving warm, cover the top with some more sliced, toasted nuts.