The desserts of the Middle East, rich with sweetness and texture, often sticky with honey and syrups made from flower petals and filled with nuts tucked between sheets of flaky phyllo dough or topping cakes made with harina flour, are different from American sweets like chocolate cake and cookies, but ever so delicious.
But like American desserts such as fruit pies which were popular in medieval England, Middle Eastern sweets also harken back to an earlier time, though their names -- except for baklava -- such as qata'if, ghouribeh and mushabak aren't commonly known.
"In all of the Arabic source cooking manuals that we used for our recipes, from the 10th to the 13th centuries, qata'if are listed in the index of sweets," says Muna Salloum who with her sister Leila Salloum Elias wrote the recently released cookbook "The Sweets of Araby: Enchanting Recipes from the Tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights" illustrated by Linda Dawal Sawaya (Countryman Press, 2011; $19.95) "They are packed full with a stuffing made of nuts and sweetened with sugar. After they are cooked, they are then immersed in a sugar syrup. They continue to be a popular sweet even on our tables at home."
The sisters, who are Middle East scholars and grew up with both these sweet desserts and stories from their Syrians grandparents, perused century old recipes and paired them with stories from Aladdin and his magic lamp and other tales too.
"Often Arab sweets are made with such ingredients as clarified butter, sugar or honey-based syrups and a variety of nuts like almonds, walnuts and pistachios," says Wesam Mohammed, co-owner of Aladdin Pita, a family-owned restaurant in Merrillville. "Middle Eastern foods including desserts have a lot of flavor."
At Aladdin Pita, Middle East sweets include Hareesah Cake made with farina flour topped with almonds, baklava, muhallabia -- a vanilla and coconut custard flavored with orange blossom water and rice pudding with cinnamon.
According to Mohammed, spices like cinnamon as well as saffron, anise and cardamom are often used in desserts as our chopped dates. Phyllo dough, besides being used in sheets for desserts like baklava, is sometimes shredded and dates, either whole or chopped, are common as well. Flavoring also comes from -- and helps distinguish Arab sweets from those we typically eat --- rose petals and orange blossoms made into both waters and syrups. In medieval times, lavender, violet and jasmine were also used for syrups and waters.
"It's odd that rose water lost its use in Western cooking in that the Crusaders brought back the Damask rose and distilled rose water to Europe upon their return from the Middle East, inspiring a number of dishes in Southern Europe and even in England," says Elias. "The Arabs used it as a perfume, medicine and culinary ingredient."
The following recipes are from "Sweets of Araby."
34 pound fresh, pitted dates
2 cups finely ground bread crumbs
4 ounces ground almonds
4 ounces chopped pistachios
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon light sesame oil
DIRECTIONS: Place the dates, bread crumbs, almonds and pistachios in a food processor and process for two minutes. Pour the sesame oil evenly over the mixture and process for a further few minutes. Press a small of the mixture in the palm of the hand to make sure it sticks together. If it doesn't, process the mixture a little longer until it begins to bind. Form the mixture into balls that are about the size of a walnut. Roll the balls in the confectioners' sugar and place on a serving plate.
Makes 35 balls.
4 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in ½ cup cold water with pinch of saffron
1 cup honey
1 tablespoon light sesame oil
4 tablespoons toasted ground almonds
DIRECTIONS: Place the cornstarch mixture in a saucepan. Over medium-low heat, bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and stir in the honey. Return to low heat and constantly stir until mixture thickens becoming similar in consistency to a thick pudding. Stir in oil and blend well; remove from the heat. Stir in the almonds. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Baqsamāt bi Sukkar
2 cups flour
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1 package yeast diluted in 1/4-cup warm water
DIRECTIONS: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Mix flour and sugar together. Work the butter into the dry ingredients by rubbing them together by hand. Make a well and add the yeast mixture. Mix together by hand to form a dough. Break off a piece of the dough and roll it into the shape of a golf ball. On a flat surface, roll out the dough to form a six inch rope and place on an ungreased baking tray and loop together both ends of the rope to form a ring. Do the same with the remaining pieces of dough. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 15 minutes. Return to the oven and bake an additional 20 minutes. Remove again and cool.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
1/2 pound dried dates (about 20)
20 large blanched almonds
1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons vinegar
1-1/2 cups water
1/8 teaspoon saffron, dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
14 teaspoon ground cloves
1-1/2 tablespoons rosewater (recipe below)
DIRECTIONS: Place dates in a bowl, cover with hot water and allow to sit for 10 minutes. Strain. Remove the pits from the dates and replace with blanched almonds. Set aside. Place the honey, vinegar and water in a medium sauce pan and bring to a boil, removing any white scum that appears on the edges. Carefully add the dates, then cook over medium-low heat until the liquid boils, about 15 minutes. Gently stir in remaining ingredients and cook for 10 more minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl and allow to cool before serving.
Qatr (Sugar Syrup)
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon orange blossom water or rosewater
DIRECTIONS: In a saucepan, stir together sugar and water, then bring to a boil. Continue simmering for 10 minutes, then stir in lemon juice and simmer for 1 minute. Stir in orange blossom water or rosewater. Reduce heat and keep warm.