I first encountered umm ali at a fancy hotel buffet in Dubai. It’s a rich, creamy dessert, basically the Arabic equivalent of a bread-and-butter pudding with its origins in Egypt. Umm ali means “Ali’s mother” and I often wonder if somewhere, many, many years ago someone called Ali was so impressed by his mum’s dessert that he was determined to popularise it across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond.
Once I tried umm ali and fell in love with it, I scoured the internet for recipes to perfect my own version. It’s really easy, it doesn’t require any special skills and if you can’t find rosewater in the supermarket, try your friendly local open-all-hours grocery stores. I get mine from Rana Grocery on the Morden high street in South London – I love it for the amazing perfume when you unscrew the lid and the pretty retro bottle.
Umm ali is great served with whipped cream, clotted cream, ice cream, or vanilla yoghurt. Custard is maybe a bit too much as the layers of flaky pastry are already infused with the sweeter-than-sweet rosewater custard unless you really like sugar.
And do try to serve the umm ali fresh from the oven – if you leave it too long, it will morph from pleasantly squishy to icky-soggy. Ideally, you’ll crunch your spoon through a crispy top layer before plunging into the warm, soft middle. My maternal grandmother was rather sceptical about umm ali when I was on a visit to Australia while living in the Middle East but after one mouthful, she was instantly open-minded. This is the true beauty of the foods of the world. I’m all for peace, harmony and understanding via the medium of umm ali.
One sheet of puff pastry rolled out and cooked according to the directions on the packet and cut into one-inch squares
170g tin condensed milk
1 tablespoon vanilla essence or extract
3 tablespoons rosewater
1/4 cup desiccated coconut, plus extra to garnish.
1/4 cup flaked almonds, plus extra to garnish
1/4 cup pistachio nuts, shelled and crushed, plus extra to garnish
1/2 cup sultanas, currants or mixed dried fruit
Creme fraiche to dollop on top
- While the puff pastry is cooking according to the packet’s instructions, pour the condensed milk, vanilla essence or extract and rosewater into a saucepan and warm through over a low heat. Set aside.
- Mix the coconut, flaked almonds, pistachio nuts and dried fruit in a separate bowl.
- Remove the pastry from the oven and cut into one-inch bite-sized pieces. Leave the oven on – 180 degrees C is perfect for umm ali.
- Grease a shallow baking dish – I use a rectangular dish that’s about 25cm x 17cm.
- Put a layer of pastry on the bottom of the dish, pour over some of the rosewater custard and sprinkle some of the fruit-and-nut mix. Do this in layers until everything has been used up.
- Garnish the top with the extra coconut, almonds and pistachios. and dollop heaped teaspoons of creme fraiche at one-inch intervals. Alternatively, whole almonds and pistachios can be used on top and you can be more generous with the cream, as per the photo.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes and, if possible, serve immediately.