Mahlab is an aromatic spice made from the seeds of a species of cherry, Prunus mahaleb (the St Lucie cherry, aka the Mahaleb cherry). The cherry stones are cracked to extract the seed kernel, which is about 5 mm diameter, soft and chewy on extraction. The seed kernel is ground to a powder before use. Its flavour is similar to a combination of bitter almond and cherry. It is used in small quantities to sharpen sweet foods.
It has been used for centuries in the Middle East and the surrounding areas as a flavoring for baked goods. In Greek American cooking, it is the characteristic flavoring of Christmas cake and pastry recipes. Thanks to renewed interest in Mediterranean cooking it has been recently mentioned in several cookbooks.
In Greece it is called μαχλέπι (mahlepi) and is used in egg-rich yeast cakes and cookies such as Christmas vasilopita and Easter tsoureki. In Cyprus it is called μέχλεπι (mehlepi) and is used in a special Easter cheese pie or cheese cake called φλαούνες (flaounes). In Turkey it is used for pogača. In the Middle East and Anatolia it is used in Ramadan sweets including çörek, kandil simidi, ka'kat and ma'amoul. In Egypt powdered mahlab is made into a paste with honey, sesame and nuts, eaten as a dessert or a snack with bread. In Armenia it is used to flavour the traditional Easter bread, cheoreg.
There are many alternative spellings of this spice: محلب, مَحْلَب, mahlab, mahalab, mahleb, מהלב, mahaleb, mahlep, mahalep, μαχλέπι, μέχλεπι, mahlepi, machlepi or makhlepi. The final 'b' of the original Arabic word becomes 'p' in Turkish due to the phonologically regular unvoicing of the final 'b'.
- MacMillan, Norma, ed. (October 2010), The Illustrated Cook's Book of Ingredients (1st American ed.), Dorling Kindersley, p. 354, ISBN 978-0-7566-6730-6
- Levitt, Barbara, ed. (November 2008), Edible: An Illustrated Guide to the World's Food Plants, National Geographic Society, p. 294, ISBN 978-1-4262-0372-5, Preview, p. 294, at Google Books