Image courtesy of Amy E. Robertson/NPR
In regions of the Middle East, a shortbread cookie known as maamoul is a buttery treat after months of fasting for holidays of Ramadan or Lent.

Muslims will eat maamoul at night during Ramadan, while Arab Christians will consume them in the days before Lent and on Easter Sunday. The cookies are also popular in Jewish communities, where they will be eaten for holidays like Purim, Rosh Hashanah, and Hanukkah.

The dough for maamoul is made with wheat flour or semolina (sometimes both), then pressed into special molds, traditionally carved in wood. The cookies often have a date, walnut, or pistachio filling. They are often covered in powdered sugar.

In Beirut, the sweet shop  Helwayat Al-Salam is famous for its maamoul. In an interview with NPR, owner Mitri Hanna Moussa says that they are in high demand. “I also make maamoul in the winter, but it's a must for Easter,” he says.

Why are the cookies associated with religious holidays? Palestinian-Jordanian food blogger Sawsan Abu Farha speaks to the symbolic nature of the treat. “Some say the cookies are meant to remind you that though fasting is hard, within it is a sweet reward, exactly like maamoul's outer shell is bland but the core is sweet,” she says.

Maamoul has yet to become a prevalent pastry in the United States, but versions of it do exist. The recent spotlight on it may inspire local bakeries to produce it for their religious customers who are looking for a special treat before, after, or even during these important religious seasons. They would likely be popular in concentrated areas with Middle Eastern populations, but the taste and texture of these cookies translates to any culture.