Qatayef (Sweet Stuffed Pancakes for Ramadan). Photo by Matan Choufan.
These sweet, stuffed pancakes fried in butter and doused with simple syrup, are perhaps the food most closely associated with Ramadan. In many Arab areas, the sweet is reserved exclusively for the holiday. They are called qatayef locally, but that name is pronounced “atayef” or “ataif” in other regions, Asif culinary columnist Muzna Bishara explains.
Qatayef is also one of the oldest desserts documented in writing; a detailed recipe very similar to the one prepared today appears in al-Warrāq’s 10th century cookbook “Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ.” A 13th century cookbook the “Best of Delectable Foods and Dishes from al-Andalus and al-Maghrib” says: “The batter was made with sourdough and milk instead of water, and it was fried in a special pan made of glazed clay with embossed circles to create the perfect qatayef circles.”
Those circles are velvety and soft (the name of the dish translates to velvet in Arabic), and have bubbles like a crumpet on one side. Historically, the dessert was made slightly differently than it is today, with the perforated side of the pancake facing outwards instead of inwards. And, traditionally, the pancakes were stuffed with walnuts and almonds seasoned with cinnamon. Overtime, kishta-ashta, a home-made ricotta-style fresh cheese filling, also gained popularity. Today you can find various chocolate and halwa fillings, and even savory versions.
There are two other styles of qatayef to know: In the asafiri variety, the dough is fried before it is filled with a sweetened kishta cheese filling and drizzled with a thick simple syrup. In silat, a Syrian version, the qatayef is prepared flat, similar to a pancake, and sprinkled with cinnamon, nuts, simple syrup or even chocolate syrup.
During Ramadan, pre-made pancakes are sold everywhere in Arab communities — even at small pop-up stands alongside the road. Families can buy them and fill them with their preferred filling, saving on time. This recipe included the preparation of the dough, but if you have ready-made qatayefs, feel free to skip directly to the filling step.
Muzna Bishara’s offers three different fillings, including traditional offerings and a more modern cream cheese and coconut one, so you can pick and choose whichever you like. If you opt for the more classic cheese filling, look for jibneh at Middle Eastern grocery stores or substitute low-moisture mozzarella. If either are salty, soak the cheese in cold water before using it.
1½ cups (360 ml) lukewarm water (can also be flavored with a cinnamon stick or geranium leaves)
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
For the batter:
1½ cups (210 grams) flour
¼ cup (50 grams) semolina
½ teaspoon yeast
½ teaspoon baking soda
1½ cup (360ml) water + ½ cup (120ml) milk (or 2 cups/ 480ml water)
1 tablespoon (10 grams) sugar
A pinch of salt
2 cups samneh, clarified butter, or vegetable oil, for frying
For the cheese filling:
150 grams (5 ounces) sweet, crumbled jibneh cheese (available online and in Middle Eastern grocery stores). If the cheese is a little salty, soak for a few hours in cold water
⅓ teaspoon cinnamon (or 2 Mastika crystals)
For a slightly less traditional filling:
125 grams (4.4-ounces) cream cheese
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons ricotta
½ tablespoon ground coconut
For the nut filling:
¾ cup walnuts/ almonds/ pecans/ pistachios/ or a mixture, chopped
½ tablespoon cinnamon
½ tablespoon sugar
a pinch of ground ginger (optional)
½ tablespoon ground coconut (optional)
Prepare the sugar syrup (as it needs to cool down): place the sugar and water in a pot (and any additional flavoring agents, if using), and bring to a boil over a medium-high heat. Simmer for 7 minutes. Add the lemon juice, simmer for 2 minutes, remove from the heat and cool. Refrigerate. The syrup needs to be cold in order for the qatayef to maintain its crispness.
Prepare the batter: Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl. Transfer half of the mixture to the bowl of a food processor (or to a separate bowl- if using with a stick blender), add the liquids and mix 2 minutes, until smooth. Add the remaining dry ingredients and mix to a smooth and uniform batter, 5 minutes. Let rise at room temperature for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the fillings: mix the ingredients of each of the fillings in separate bowls and set aside. To prepare one type of stuffing – double the ingredients’ quantities.
Prepare the qatayef: Heat a non-stick skillet over a high heat. Transfer the batter to a squeeze bottle or a jug. Reduce to medium heat, and pour ¼ cup of the batter to form small circles, each measuring 8cm (3-in) in diameter and 5mm (0.2-in) thick. When bubbles appear on the surface and the batter is completely dry do not be tempted to flip them over- transfer to a tray, bubbles-side facing up, and cover immediately with a clean towel to prevent drying. Repeat these steps with the remaining batter.
To fill the qatayef: place a tablespoon of filling in the center of each qatayef (perforated side facing up), fold to a semi-circle and pinch the edges well to seal.
Heat the samneh in a heavy skillet and fry the qatayefs on both sides (you can also shallow fry the qatayefs on both sides in oil). Transfer immediately to bowl with the cooled sugar syrup and, using a slotted spoon, transfer to a colling rack to drain any excess syrup.