The dessert that is best eaten one month a year
Mohammad Ahmed Mattour has run Halawiyat Al-Bustan, one of the most famous pastry shops in Ramallah, West Bank, since he took it over from his father in 1994. Giant platters of desserts, from baklava to knafeh to the basbousa and the kullaj, line the windows and shelves all year round. But then comes Ramadan, the balance of business changes, and qatayef, stuffed semolina pancakes, take center stage.
“We sell around 200 a day,” said Mattour, 43. “Not coins. Kilos. Throughout the month, especially around the time of iftar – the breaking of the daily fast – the queue outside the store spills out into the street, with at least 30 people walking are waiting anytime.
Mattour’s shop is not alone: the scene is the same in other patisseries in Ramallah and in the cities of the Arab world. Today, there are two common varieties of these pancakes, which are cooked only on one side. One is stuffed with cheese or nuts, folded into a half moon, then fried or baked and dipped in syrup. The other, smaller, is stuffed with cream and half closed. It is then drizzled with a thick sugar syrup and eaten chilled. People usually buy the pancakes to take home, but it’s also possible to buy them stuffed and ready to fry or bake, or even stuffed, fried, dipped in syrup and ready to eat.
What really sets qatayef apart from other desserts is the fact that it’s a treat usually reserved for Ramadan, which begins later this week, and is a sign that the holy month has arrived. .
“They just taste different during Ramadan,” said Eman Al-Ahmed, a fashion designer who lives in Jordan. Al-Ahmed, 47, prepares her qatayef at home and explains that she could prepare them throughout the year, given their ease of preparation. But like most Arabs, she and her family only eat qatayef during Ramadan, and they do so every night of the month.
“Perhaps it is the nostalgia and the tradition of several generations,” Al-Ahmed said. “But the qatayef are this ritual that brings together all members of the community.”
Qatayef probably dates back to the Middle Ages. Although they are intimately linked to the practice of Muslim fasting during Ramadan, they transcend religion. As the treats appear in stores, everyone eats them.
Jenny Haddad Mosher, 47, a Palestinian Christian whose family does not observe Ramadan, said that growing up in Kuwait, where she was born, everyone felt the change in the air during the month of Ramadan. But it is the qatayef that her father regularly brought home that she remembers the most. “We would go crazy when Baba walked through the door with that package,” she said. “It came on a large cardboard tray, wrapped in paper and tied with string, all the qatayef beautifully arranged around the qatr container.” (Qatr is the sugar syrup used to sweeten stuffed pancakes, either by dipping them in or drizzling them over them.)
The tradition is just as strong for Arabs in the United States. Rawan Shatara, 34, a pastry chef in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who emigrated from Jordan as a toddler, used to make the two-hour drive to Dearborn several times with her parents during Ramadan to buy qatayef. “It’s such a grounded part of the month,” she said.
Now she makes qatayef herself, but she still enjoys making the trip to Dearborn, where, she says, “you really feel the Ramadan vibe, just like being back home.”
At Mattour Patisserie in Ramallah, sales typically fluctuate throughout the month, peaking during the first and last days of Ramadan. This year, he had to raise the prices of qatayef, as inflation affected staple foods after Russia invaded Ukraine.
“Maybe people will reduce quantities, maybe they will buy 1 kilogram instead of 1.5 kilograms, or maybe they will buy it less often and not every night,” he said. – he said, adding that there is “no way, absolutely no way, that Ramadan can pass without anyone eating qatayef.
Recipe: Qatayef Asafiri
By Reem Kassis
Qatayef is synonymous with Ramadan. It is during this month that bakeries start making the batter for these stuffed pancakes, and queues spill into the streets as people wait their turn to buy them. Golden on the bottom and speckled with bubbles on the top, the qatayef are only cooked on one side. They can be big or small. Large ones are normally stuffed with nuts or cheese and folded over, then fried or baked and dipped in sugar syrup. The little ones, called qatayef asafiri (or little qatayef bird), are stuffed with a creamy filling, half-sealed, then dipped in pistachio and drizzled with a thick, slightly floral sugar syrup. The dough is very simple; the key is to make sure it’s the right consistency, like that of heavy cream.
Yield: About 30 pieces
Total duration: 45 minutes
For the syrup:
1/2 cup/100 grams granulated sugar
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon orange blossom water or rose water, or a combination
For the dough:
1 cup/125 grams all-purpose flour
1/4 cup/40 grams fine semolina flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon instant or quick-rise yeast
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 tsp ground mahlab (optional, see tip below)
1/4 teaspoon orange blossom water or rose water (optional)
For the filling:
1 cup/8 ounces mascarpone
1/2 cup/120 grams heavy cream
3 tablespoons icing sugar
1 teaspoon orange blossom water or rose water, or a combination
1/4 cup/about 1 ounce finely ground, unroasted and unsalted pistachios, preferably Turkish, for garnish
1. Prepare the syrup: In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, lemon juice and 1/4 cup of water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Let cool completely, then stir in 1/2 teaspoon orange blossom water and 1/2 teaspoon rose water.
2. Prepare the batter: add 1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons of water to a blender or food processor. Add all the ingredients for the batter and mix until smooth. The batter should be quite loose, similar to heavy cream in consistency. Let stand 15 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: place the mascarpone, heavy cream, icing sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of orange blossom water and 1/2 teaspoon of rose water in a small bowl. Use a handheld electric mixer to whip into stiff peaks. Refrigerate until use.
4. Cook the qatayef: Place a medium nonstick skillet or griddle over medium heat until hot. Mix the batter to make sure it is smooth, then pour separate 1 tbsp portions of the batter into the pan, adjusting about 4 circles. Cook the qatayef until the entire surface is covered with small bubbles and the center loses its shine, about 30 to 45 seconds. (You may be able to cook more at once once you determine the right temperature and batter consistency.) If the bubbles are large and sparse, your batter is too thick; stir 1 tablespoon of water into the batter to thin it out. Qatayef only cooks on one side; the base should be evenly browned and the top covered with small bubbles. If the discs brown too quickly – or unevenly – on the bottom before the dough loses its shine on top, lower the heat slightly.
5. Transfer each cooked qatayef to a large tray lined with a kitchen towel and cover with another kitchen towel while you cook the rest of the dough.
6. Fill the qatayef: fold each into a half moon, bubble side in, and pinch to seal the edges halfway. Using a teaspoon or piping bag, fill the opening with the cream, then dip the exposed cream filling into the ground pistachios.
7. Arrange the garnished qatayef on a serving platter. These can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for several hours until ready to serve. To serve, pour the cooled syrup over the qatayef and offer guests more syrup to add to their individual plates, if desired.
Tip: Mahlab, the pit found inside the pit of a cherry, adds a floral, nutty aroma to candy and gives Arabic cheese its distinct flavor. It’s available whole or ground at grocery stores in the Middle East, but goes rancid quickly, so buy it whole and grind it as needed, storing the rest in the freezer until needed.