There are so many iterations of Middle Eastern desserts that involve pastry, cream, and sugar that after a while they start blurring together. Myriads of types of kunafe, aish el saraya, shaaibiat, baklava muhallabia, othmallia, halawet el jibn, and on and on it goes until I stop paying attention. I'd heard of an Egyptian bread pudding recipe called Umm Ali (literally, Ali's Mother), but I'd never investigated. But when someone raved about a version they had recently, I thought I'd try my hand at yet another Middle Eastern bread and cream iteration.
Umm Ali (the dish) dates back to Ottoman era Egypt, when legend has it the sultan stopped in a poor village looking for something to eat and the village's best cook, named Umm Ali, made something akin to this dish. There are other legends too, about a British nurse named O'Malley who may have invented the recipe.
History aside, do not be off-put by the "bread pudding" label, I almost never like bread pudding since many versions are eggy and rich and about the weight of small livestock. But this is just the opposite- light fluffy pastry bathed in sweet milk, sprinkled with tangy dried fruits and nuts. Many versions include toasted coconut but I prefer it without. It's good enough not to get lost in the shuffle of all those other Middle Eastern desserts.
Umm Ali (Egyptian Bread Pudding)
You can choose to stuff the pudding full of dried fruit, nuts, and coconut, or you can have a more simple version with just a slight scattering of fruit and nuts. I prefer the latter, but many people prefer the former. You could also use 3 cups half-and-half in place of the milk/cream.
1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
1/3 cup mixed fruits and nuts (such as raisins, dried cherries, chopped dried apricots, pistachios or pine nuts)
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup sugar
slivered almonds for serving
1. Preheat oven to 425F. Spread pastry on a greased baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes until puffed and golden. Set aside.
2. Meanwhile, heat milk, cream, sugar, and vanilla in a saucepan until small bubbles form around the edge of the pan. Turn off heat and let sit while you proceed with the next step.
3. Raise oven heat to 475F. Grease a baking dish, crumble/tear apart the pastry and scatter in the baking dish. Scatter the dried fruit and nuts over the dish. Pour the milk/cream mixture over the dish. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden on top and set. Let cool somewhat before serving.
4. Lightly toast almonds and scatter over top before serving.