Other Names: Abrunheiro-bravo or esgana-cão (Portuguese); agriokerasia or machalepi (Greek); cerezo de Santa Lucía (Spanish); cerisier de Sainte-Lucie (French); ciliegio canino or ciliegio di Santa Lucia (Italian); English cherry; habbul malan (Farsi); idrisağaci or mahlep (Turkish); rock cherry; St. Lucie cherry; steinweichsel or türkische kirsche (German); tunda la mahaleb (Swahili); vishnya makhalebka (Russian).

General Description: The stones of St. Lucy’s cherries (Prunus mahaleb) contain small beige kernels called mahlab, which are about the size of a large peppercorn. Native to southern Europe, the small tree grows wild in the Mediterranean region across to Turkey. Mahlab has an aroma reminiscent of cherry, almond, flowers, and rose water, with a nutty yet surprisingly bitter aftertaste. First used for perfumes and medicine, mahlab later became a popular culinary spice, especially for flavoring breads. Mahlab is used in Middle Eastern and eastern Mediterranean cooking to give an intriguing fruit flavor to sweet pastries, cookies, confectionery, and Nabulsi cheese (a white, brined cheese from Jordan). In Greece, the kernels go into tsoureki, a briochelike braided sweet bread eaten only at Easter time. Iran is the most important grower of mahlab, followed by Turkey and Syria.

Season: Mahlab may be easiest to find around Easter.

Purchase and Avoid: Look for mahlab in Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, or Arabic markets. Buy whole mahlab kernels and crush them just before using. Although mahlab may sometimes be bought ground, once powdered it goes from creamy white to yellow and loses its flavor and aroma rapidly.

Storage: Store in an airtight container to prevent the aroma from penetrating other foods, or freeze.

Preparation: Grind mahlab by mixing the kernels with a little of the sugar or salt called for in a recipe. Use a mortar and pestle or clean coffee grinder to grind the two together; the salt or sugar granules will help break the mahlab seeds into powder.

Serving Suggestions: Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon freshly ground mahlab per cup of flour in recipes for sweet yeast breads like brioche. Add ground mahlab in small quantities to rice pudding and other creamy desserts.

Food Affinities: Butter, honey, milk puddings, pastry dough, pistachio, rose water, semolina, sugar, Turkish rice, walnut.

from Quirk Books: