Om Ali is a popular Egyptian bread pudding which I first encountered at a Ramadan Iftar buffet during my first year in Dubai. Interestingly, I also met an Om Ali or Umm Ali at a brunch buffet onboard the Queen Elizabeth II floating hotel on a sunny December afternoon in 2018. Confused? Let me clarify.
You see, Om or Umm means Mother in the Arabic language. And the name of the dessert literally translates to, ‘Mother of Ali’. Wafa, an acquaintance I met through my colleague on a work event, was introduced as such to me by her husband. Their middle child’s name was indeed, Ali.
As we ate our way through a delicious Middle Eastern buffet spread that afternoon, we asked many questions to our colleagues of Middle Eastern heritage about the dishes on offer. We dunked our fresh pitas in all sorts of dips like Hummus, Muhhammar, Baba Gannouj, Muttabbal and Ful and took bites of tender kebabs and hearty fresh salads. And when it was finally time for dessert, the only thing I remember is the Om Ali.
The dairy loving Punjabi in me relished the creaminess of this bread pudding. With a top layer of crisp croissants or flaky pastry, this dessert was lightly scented with rose and orange blossom water, making me dive in for the next bite and another till I reached the bottom of the bowl. Each bite was satisfying with its newness and yet familiarity.
After a filling lunch and quick chat with father and mother of Ali, I learnt that Om Ali or Umm Ali is a common celebratory bread pudding popular not only in Egypt but in various countries in the Middle East, sometimes with their own iteration.
Story of Om Ali
The story behind the interesting name for this bread pudding comes from folklores from Medieval Egypt. During the 13th century, Shajar Al Durr, a prominent woman figure rose to power and was instrumental in establishing the Mamluk dynasty with Sultan Izz-al din Aybak. The story of her rise is full of deceit, murders, betrayals and ambition where she had a Sultan and his son killed and later married another to ascend to the throne as Sultana or queen.
Eventually she was killed on the order of a certain, Umm Ali or mother of Ali, the former wife of the aforementioned Sultan Izz-al din Aybak.
There are various stories I read while digging deeper into the story behind the name of Om Ali. One account by Dubai based chef Dima Sharif mentions that Shajar Al Durr met a rather brutal end on order of the former Sultana. Another mentioned that Shajar Al Durr took her own life in retribution after all that she did in her life to rise to power. Zahra Hankir in one Vice article also mentions Shajar Al Durr being described as a badass by a millennial Egyptian. The folklore may be hazy but all of them lead to one fact.
This delicious dessert, made with milk, bread and honey was ordered to be distributed amongst the common folk to celebrate the death of Shajar Al Durr. A rather dark history for a dessert that is common in Ramadan and other celebratory events like weddings.
Of leftovers, mums and bread puddings
I wonder what was the instruction given to the cooks at the royal kitchen by Umm Ali when she ordered the dessert. My guess is that she ordered the leftover bread to be used so that it doesn’t go to waste! After all, aren’t all mothers resourceful and clever in making us finish leftovers.
The one chocolate pudding recipe on our blog by Kanika’s mom also uses a secret ingredient – bread! My dad’s doodh wale toast are also made by frying leftover white bread that is first soaked in cardamom scented milk. The Barfi Parathas that I learnt from my mom and grandma also use similar elements – milk solids and bread. The Shahi Toast that cookbook author and food journalist Priya Krishna shares in this video is also her mom’s recipe. The Trifle in a jiffy recipe from Kanika’s mom also uses cake and custard, similar to what most bread pudding recipes now use.
The fact that most bread pudding recipes use the same elements – some sort of bread, dairy and sweetener, makes me think that perhaps Umm Ali or Om Ali is indeed the mother of all bread puddings, at least in my part of the world.
Familiarity in Flavours and Textures
The closest equivalent I can think of in Indian cuisine is Double ka Meetha or Shahi Tukda. This dessert from Hyderabad uses bread fried in ghee, which is then dunked into a flavoured sugar syrup and finally topped with Rabdi or condensed milk. Like most Indian desserts, the Shahi Tukda is not baked. It is however, much more elaborate and richer owing to the ghee fried bread and a much richer Rabdi topping. Saffron, cardamom and rose are flavouring favourites here.
But the simple Umm Ali brings memories of eating Sooji Rusks dunked into sweet milk, or even Pheni or Lachhe, hand stretched fried thin noodles (similar to Kunafa) dunked into milk. Pheni is a common pre-dawn breakfast for Sehri or Suhoor during Ramzan or Sargi during Karwachauth – both fasting traditions in India. I know I shouldn’t be comparing noodles to bread or croissants but the texture and mouthfeel is very similar. Both have something crisp drenched into milk and I can’t help but draw these parallels.
Culturally, the Shahi Tukda, the Lachhe or Pheni and Rusks are all remnants of Mughal or Persian foods from princely states like Hyderabad and Awadh or modern day Lucknow.
Was the Shahi Tukda or Double ka Meetha, just an iteration of the middle eastern bread pudding Umm Ali?
The Modern Om Ali
The original Om Ali from the middle ages used a flatbread with milk and sugar. Present day recipes often use croissants or puff pastry, while some even use palmiers. The idea is to have flaky bread that holds it own to some extent in the sweet scented dairy mixture. Croissants or puff pastry are baked to a crisp while a mix of milk, cream and sometimes butter is heated to dissolve sugar. Common flavourings include cinnamon or even cardamom while rose and orange blossom water remain classics, in my opinion.
When it comes to dairy mix that is poured over the baked croissants or pastry, several recipes mention a mix of milk, cream, condensed milk and a few knobs of butter. After the bread is drenched in the dairy, a final sprinkling of toasted almonds, pistachios and raisins on top brings a fitting finale to this decadent dessert. Generous dollops of Eshta, a middle eastern clotted cream, or whipped cream on top of the arrangement are optional and add even more richness! After a watchful bake of 10-20 minutes based on the size of your Om Ali pudding, the dessert is ready to be enjoyed.
How you can make Om Ali at home
If you have puff pastry sheets in the freezer or croissants, milk and sugar, you can make your own serving of Om Ali. It also does very well as a breakfast bake! The various versions of Umm Ali I have had in my years in Dubai, has always had varied textures and toppings. Hotel buffets probably make use of the croissants and puff pastries from the breakfast buffet – a clever way to repurpose leftovers!
With the month of Ramadan or Ramzan ending, this Umm Ali is the perfect dessert to add to your repertoire and to your Eid menus!
My recommendation is to wing it with the ingredients available at home and roughly follow the below non-recipe! I made Om Ali using store bought mini croissants.
Om Ali in single serving Ramekins
Serves 2, Yields 2 – Can be scaled up!
Equipment and Utensils
- 2 Ramekins
- Baking tray
- Baking paper
Prep Time: 5 mins; Cook Time 10 mins: Total time 20 minutes
- Mini Croissants, 3-4
- Full Fat or Whole Milk, 1 cup or approx 200ml
- Raw Sugar or Honey, 1 tbsp (adjust according to taste)
- Malai or Clotted Cream or Whipped cream (optional), 2 tsp
- Rose Water or Orange Blossom Water, 1 tsp (Substitute with cinnamon/cardamom powder or vanilla)
- Raisins, 2 tbsp (optional)
- Slivered Almonds or Pistachios, 2 tbsp (optional)
- Desiccated Coconut, 2 tsp (optional)
Preheat the oven to 180°C (356°F). Start by slicing the mini croissants into bite sized pieces and arranging on a parchment lined baking tray. Bake for 4-5 minutes or till the croissants are golden brown.
I forgot to slice the croissants and had to cut them when they were warm from the oven.
As the croissants bake, place a sauce pan on medium heat and pour whole milk and add sugar. Add flavourings like rose water or orange blossom water. Stir and keep a watch to bring to a simmer for 2-3 minutes. Some people add a knob of butter here but I find it unnecessary as the croissants have enough butter. Remove from heat and prepare for assembly.
Crush half of the crisp baked croissants to fill each ramekin to half. Pour prepared milk mixture till roughly 3/4 level.
Sprinkle raisins, chopped almonds or pistachios and desiccated coconut, if using. Crush the rest of the baked croissants and layer to fill the ramekins.
Add a teaspoon of malai or clotted cream in each ramekin.
Bake at 180°C (356°F) for 10-12 minutes or till top looks caramelised. Take out ramekins and if needed, top with more cream.
Let the ramekins cool down enough to handle. If you want you can garnish with more almonds, pistachios or even edible rose petals. Enjoy Om Ali warm and savour the history of this delicious bread pudding in its purest form!
- 2 Ramekins I used 100 ml capacity Ramekins
- 1 Baking tray
- Baking paper cut to size
- 3-4 Mini Croissants
- 1 cup Full Fat or Whole Milk approx. 200 ml
- 1 tbsp Raw Sugar or Honey (adjust according to taste)
- 2 tbsp Malai or Clotted Cream or Whipped cream (optional)
- 1 tsp Rose Water or Orange Blossom Water (Substitute with cinnamon/cardamom powder or vanilla)
- 2 tbsp Raisins (optional)
- 2 tbsp Slivered Almonds or/and Pistachios (optional)
- 2 tsp Desiccated Coconut (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 180°C (356°F). Start by slicing the mini croissants into bite sized pieces and arranging on a parchment lined baking tray. Bake for 4-5 minutes or till the croissants are golden brown.
- As the croissants bake, place a sauce pan on medium heat and pour whole milk and add sugar. Add flavourings like rose water or orange blossom water. Stir and keep a watch to bring to a simmer for 2-3 minutes.
- Crush half of the crisp baked croissants to fill each ramekin to half. Pour prepared milk mixture till roughly 3/4 level.
- Sprinkle raisins, chopped almonds or pistachios and desiccated coconut, if using. Crush the rest of the baked croissants and layer to fill the ramekins.
- Add a teaspoon of malai or clotted cream in each ramekin.
- Bake at 180°C (356°F) for 5-10 minutes or till top looks caramelised. Take out ramekins and if needed, top with more cream.
- Let the ramekins cool down enough to handle. If you want you can garnish with more almonds, pistachios or even edible rose petals. Enjoy Om Ali warm and savour the history of this delicious bread pudding in its purest form!