In my family we always eat white foods on New Year’s Day. This is a tradition carried on by my mom; it is how she was brought up in Damascus and it’s part of the existence she pieced together here in Pacific Grove for her family. White symbolizes newness or a clean, fresh start so you eat white foods on New Year’s Day, putting the old year behind you and focusing on the blank page that is the New Year. Growing up we had a spread of white dishes on New Year’s Day and this year was no different.
One of the dishes that my mom always makes—that really has no name—is a layered pudding. She uses Maria biscuits and two flavors—chocolate and orange blossom water—of mhalabeeyay (a milk pudding) with the white (orange blossom water) on top. Every year it’s a little different, depending on her creativity and what’s around the house. This year it was topped with shredded coconut and it was perfect.
Growing up we had mhalabeeyay when we had sore throats. Every culture has opinions and recommendations for remedies when one is sick. I have heard in the US that you shouldn’t have dairy when you have a sore throat, that dairy makes the phlegm in your throat worse but Syrians eat warm milk pudding, saying it will soothe a sore throat. When I lived in Spain my advisor insisted on a cold beer on tap—it had to be on tap—to soothe a sore throat so maybe there’s more than one theory to cold remedies?
Anyhow, my brother liked vanilla and I liked chocolate and my mom was very fair so she would make him vanilla and then gently stir in cacao powder into mine to suit both of our tastes. What I am saying is that this recipe is forgiving and my mom is amazing.
This is also the first dish I ever learned how to make. My mom would light the stovetop for me and I would stand on a stepstool. I learned from a young age how to dissolve cornstarch in water and add it delicately to sweetened warm milk—stirring constantly but gently enough to not splatter and get scolded—to create a pudding.
For New Year’s Day my mom makes this in a rectangular Pyrex. She puts a later of Maria biscuits then chocolate pudding then another layer of Maria biscuits then the orange blossom water, the “white” pudding layer on top. For a little bit of history, the Maria biscuit was created in London by the Peak Freans bakery in 1874 to commemorate the marriage of the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia to the Duke of Edinburgh. Alternatively, you can use Graham crackers instead of Maria biscuits as my mom did many a time in our childhood.
Mhalabeeyay (Syrian milk pudding)
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1-2 tbsp. sugar, to taste
- 2 tbsp. cornstartch
- 1/3 cup filtered water, at room temperature to dissolve the corntarch
- 2 tsp. orange blossom water, you can find this at most grocery stores or at the International Market at 580 Lighthouse Ave. in Monterey
In a saucepan, dissolve the sugar in the milk over medium-low heat. Meanwhile, dissolve the cornstarch in a cup, I use the measuring cup I used to measure the water because it is simpler that way and has a spout for pouring and doesn’t make a mess.
When the milk just begins to boil, reduce the heat to low and slowly add the cornstarch slurry, stirring constantly to prevent clumping. When all of the cornstarch has been incorporated. Turn off the heat and stir in the orange blossom water.
While still warm, pour into dessert dishes. Typically this dish is served with shredded coconut or nuts on top. It can be served warm or cold. If you have children with sore throats, warm is better. I hope you enjoy this treat from my childhood as much as we always do.