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.