Inspired by The Silk Road Gourmet’s Mesopotamian Cookoff, I went a little crazy in the kitchen today and made not one, not two, but three versions of Mersu.
The sum of the Mersu recipe was “Ingredients: dates and pistachios”. The rule was that one couldn’t go too far beyond the ingredients listed, and should stick to ingredients found in the Near East in ancient times. My personal rule was that the first two recipes I thought of were too easy and so I had to make something really insane for the third one. Hence, we have dates stuffed with saffron and honey pistachios, date sweetmeats with pistachio and coriander seed, and something I’m going to call a pistachio and honey macaron with date curd. But I’m lying a bit about the macaron part, because I’m pretty sure you can’t make a proper macaron without using sugar (not commonly available in ancient times), so the biscuit part has a texture and flavour somewhere between meringue and nougat. Nothing to dislike there. Though if I weren’t doing a Mersu challenge, I would probably have made a dried cherry filling rather than a date one.
All of these recipes could have been made in Ancient Rome or the Near East. None of them include ingredients or techniques that would have been inaccessible to ancient cooks, though all that pounding and pulverising of nuts and dates would have got very boring very fast. Having said that, my totally uneducated bet would be that the sweetmeats are probably quite close to the original Mersu, the stuffed dates could well have been made as an occasional treat, and no ancient Mesopotamian cook in his or her right mind would have made the macarons. Maybe an Antonin Carême of the ancient world, but that’s about it. I’m not even sure I’m in my right mind, and I have a microwave and electric beaters.
As for dietary requirements, the sweetmeats and stuffed dates recipes are gluten-free; and the filling of the macarons has a tiny amount of wheat flour that may actually not be necessary and would definitely be replaceable with cornflour. None of the recipes contain sugar, and the sweetmeats and stuffed dates are actually pretty low GI. I’m not so sure about the macarons, though. The sweetmeats are vegan, the stuffed dates are vegan if you are allowed honey (I suppose you could use agave nectar, but that would be highly un-Mesopotamian of you), and the macarons are really not vegan at all. It’s possible you could make the filling with a non-dairy milk, but I’m really not sure about that (I haven’t tried making non-dairy custards because I don’t really like custard that much). You’re definitely stuck with the eggs, though. And if you wanted nut-free cooking, I presume you wouldn’t be looking at a set of recipes involving pistachios as one of the two key ingredients.
Your shopping list for the Stuffed Dates with Pistachios and Saffron9 large dates, preferably mejdool (about 250 g) 75 g pistachios 30 g honey 30 g water a few strands of saffron 1/4 tsp orange flower water (optional)
Now what will you do with it?
Carefully slit the dates and remove the stones.
Put pistachios, honey, water and saffron in a saucepan and cook briefly, until the pistachios have absorbed most of the moisture. Pound or blend them to a coarse paste with the orange flower water. For a smoother paste, add a little more water or a little more honey.
Stuff the dates with the pistachio paste, and serve.
You could swap out the pistachios for almonds, and use rosewater instead of orange flower water. In fact, it would be lovely to serve a platter of some of each. Or you could go all subtle and just use the pistachio paste to replace the date stone and close the date up again so that it looks like an ordinary date, until you bite into it and find the filling. Something tells me that this is how the ancient Romans would have done it.
Your shopping list for the Date and Pistachio Sweetmeats200g dates, preferably mejdool (about 8 large dates) 1-2 tbsp ground coriander seed about 12 pistachios
Now what will you do with it?
Remove the stones from the dates, and pulverise in a food processor (or mortar and pestle, if you are completely loony) until they form a sticky purée. This is much more of a pain than you might think. With wet hands, collect the purée into a ball and roll into a cylinder using clingwrap.
Sprinkle ground coriander onto a plate. Slice the date purée into about 12 thick ‘coins’ about the size of a fat 10 cent piece (they will squish when you slice them, but you can use wet hands to re-shape them). Coat the discs with the coriander, then toss from hand to hand so that the thinnest possible dusting of coriander remains on the sweetmeat. Press a pistachio into the centre of each coin, and serve.
This works with dried figs instead of dates. If you are feeling creative, you can add a little rosewater or orange flower water to the purée, but I don’t think it needs it. You could also dust the coins with cinnamon instead of coriander, and of course you could make a larger cake and cut it into thin slices.
Your shopping list for the Pistachio, Honey and Date Macarons
Now what will you do with it?
Pour boiling water over the pistachios and leave for five minutes, then drain the pistachios and slide them out of their skin. Or don’t. It’s up to you. Grind the pistachios coarsely.
Beat the egg whites until foamy, add 150 g of honey, and continue beating until peaks form and are stiff enough that when you lift the beaters they remain peaky. Fold in the pistachios and pipe little 20 cent piece-sized meringues onto baking paper on a baking sheet. Bake at 120°C for an hour, or until they are a little beige. They will be strangely rubbery and sticky on top when you take them out, but will crisp up as they cool (which they do very fasy). These taste strangely nougat-like, actually, and the texture is also a bit reminiscent of nougat. Yum.
A word of warning – make these little meringues at the last possible minute before serving, because they do go soft and sticky on top within a few hours (edited to add: and by the next day, you have nougat-flavoured marshmallow). They still taste good and hold together, but they will stick to your hands and each other like you won’t believe.
For the filling, heat the milk with the dates and cinnamon, if using, slowly until almost boiling. Beat the yolk, honey and flour together until smooth, then pour in the milk, whisking madly as you do. A Mesopotamian cook would not use the microwave to make this curd, but I do – 50% of power, about 3 minutes, whisking every 30 seconds or so, until very thick. Let it cool in the fridge.
Assemble the macarons by putting about 1/4 teaspoon of filling onto the base of one meringue and topping with another. Frankly, I gave up on authenticity at this point, and put them on a bed of powdered sugar to counteract the stickiness. Serve as soon as you can!
For heaven’s sake, unless you are being Mesopotamian or Roman, don’t use honey in the meringues! It makes your life needlessly difficult! Actually, that’s not really fair, because they do taste lovely, and quite different to ordinary meringues, and they aren’t hard to make, they just go sticky at the drop of a hat. Actually, I think a honey meringue would be an absolutely lovely topping for baked fruit, and it wouldn’t matter if it got sticky, because you eat it hot anyway.
I do think the honey-nougat flavour of the meringues would be even better combined with a filling made from dried sour cherries or cranberries. I’d be inclined to reconstitute them with boiling water in a saucepan for a few minutes, then puree them and add some arrowroot to thicken the mixture. Which would make the whole thing dairy free and gluten free – bonus!