Recipes: Middle Eastern Sweets

Baklawa And Other Feast Pastries From The Middle East

Recipes: Middle Eastern Sweets

By Habeeb Salloum

The delicious pastries of the Arab Middle East are not the invention of today or yesterday. They have a history that goes back thousands of years. Their roots can be traced to the many civilizations that flowed then ebbed, in that part of the globe.

Arab pastries are very different from the cakes and pies of the western world. In many cases, they are paper-thin layered pastries filled with nuts, spices and butter, then soaked in qatar, a syrup of sugar or honey. Their tempting-juicy-gratifying taste has inspired poets and men of letters through the centuries. Poems have been composed, songs have been sung, and legends born wherever these marvellously delicate pastries have been served.

An Arab poet once said, “With our exquisite and luscious sweets, can the beauty of any woman compare?” Another bard asserted, “To eat the pastries of the Arabs is to make a person’s life serene and happy and keep away evil.”

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Golden colored when baked and oozing with syrup, their irresistible appeal makes the mouth drip. Many travellers who have tasted the sweets of the Arab countries have had the taste of these succulent dishes linger for many days or even months. The Arabs themselves quickly forget about diets as they devour these calorie-laden delights.

A housewife in the Arab countries always prepares her pastries with diligence and pride. After they are prepared, in most cases, the pastries are carried, a short time before the meal, to the local bakery to be baked. After they are returned, and when still hot, orange blossom syrup is poured over the top just before serving.

In the homes of the wealthy or in those of the middle class, no self-respecting host will prepare a feast without trays of Arab pastry. In the Middle East they are served with tiny cups of piping hot strong Arab coffee. For the host, the ideal setting for serving these pastries is in attractive surroundings. At any of these feasts, baklawa (also known as baklava), the king of Arab pastry, was always to be found.

When our family emigrated and homesteaded in southern Saskatchewan during the early 1920s they brought the art of making baklawa with them. The day that my mother made this pastry was the highlight of life in my early youth. I remember this episode well.

The cold prairie winter wind in the early 1930s was biting cold as I struggled with two pails of well-water up the hill, yet I felt elated. The water was needed for the morrow—a day before Christmas and our yearly baklawa (baklava) making-day.

Every year for Christmas and Easter my mother Shams would make baklawa for the holidays and for me; the holidays were synonymous with baklawa. Even though my parents, who were Eastern Orthodox Christians, descendants of the first Christians in the world, tried to imbue in their children the religious significance of these holidays, for me, year after year, it meant baklawa.

In those days on our family homestead where the goodies of the modern age were only like Buck Rogers stories, it took mother, with some help from us children, a full day of back-breaking work to make two large pans of baklawa.

Very early in the morning mother would make the dough. While the dough was resting, she would spread white sheets over pillows placed atop a large table. She would then form the dough into balls, roll them out then stretch them out by hand gently on the white sheet until paper-thin. She would then, quickly, cut the stretched dough into sheets the size of the pans that would be used to bake the baklawa.

My mother’s special dough for the baklawa is what is know as strudel or phyllo (filo) dough, that today can be purchased from supermarkets for a few dollars. If mother only knew that her descendants would be making baklawa with hardly any work, I wonder what she would have thought?

Mother was proud of being able to make excellent baklawa and other Arab-Canadians who came to know her handiwork took pride in her accomplishment. Even today when I visit friends out west, I still hear older Arab-Canadians say: “Shams (my mother) used to make the best baklawa in southern Saskatchewan.”

Working at a fast pace, as the dough was cut and placed in a pan, each sheet was slightly buttered until about half the pans were filled. A stuffing made of walnuts, sugar and spices was then spread over top and the same amount of buttered sheets placed on the filling. The baklawa was then cut into squares and baked in the oven for 40 minutes. Once baked a sugar-syrup already made was spooned over top.

The aroma of the baked baklawa now filled the house. As I went to sleep that night I was in a world of ecstasy anticipating that Christmas Day’s sweet. I thought about bakalwa’s delicate sheets of phyllo oozing with syrup and its baked heavenly smell, Santa and his sleigh had been forgotten. To me Christmas meant baklawa.

In Syria from where our family hailed, it used to be said that no young lady would make a good wife unless she knew how to make baklawa dough. Fortunately, today, not only in the Arab countries but also throughout the Western world, this dough is prepared commercially and the young ladies are spared the ordeal of proving their suitability for marriage. With the commercially produced dough, any man or woman can easily make baklawa.



In the lands of the Fertile Crescent during the bygone ages, when the rich held their banquets, Arab sweets reached their height of magnificence. At any of these feasts, pastries similar to baklawa, the king of Arab pastry, were always to be found made from this paper-thin dough. This dough, with the shredded version known as kunafa, is the base of the many varieties of syrup-soaked-sweets found on the tables of these ancient lands and Eastern Europe to where they were introduced by the Ottoman Turks. Today baklawa and similar sweets are found in many large urban centers throughout the world. Try this recipe. It requires hardly any work at all:1 1/4 cups sugar1 cup water2 teaspoons lemon juice2 teaspoons orange blossom water – found in all Middle Eastern stores2 cups walnuts, chopped1 cup sugar2 cups clarified butter (1 pound or 454 grams), melted1 teaspoon cinnamon1 tablespoon orange blossom water1 package phyllo (filo) sheets

Place sugar and water in a pot, then place over medium heat and stir constantly until sugar is thoroughly dissolved and mixture comes to a boil. Lower heat to medium/low and allow to simmer for 12 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and continue to simmer for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the orange blossom water. Allow to cool somewhat but keep warm until pastry is ready.

Combine walnuts, sugar, 1/4 cup of the butter, cinnamon and orange blossom water; then set aside.

Butter well a 9×13 inch baking pan; then set aside.

Remove phyllo (filo) sheets from the package, unroll and spread out on a towel. Be careful to cover the unused sheets with a very lightly dampened towel or cling-wrap to prevent it from drying out as you work. Take one sheet and place in the baking pan, folding back any overlap, then brush with butter. Keep repeating the procedure until one-half of package is used. Place walnut mixture over buttered layers then spread evenly.

Take one sheet of phyllo (filo) and spread over walnut mixture and gently brush with butter. Continue this procedure until remainder of the dough is used.

Heat remaining butter then pour evenly over dough.

Preheat oven to 400°F.

With a sharp knife, carefully cut into approximately 2-inch square or diamond shapes. Bake for 5 minutes, then lower the heat to 300° F and bake for 45 minutes or until the sides turn light brown.

After the sides of the baklawa turn golden, place under broiler, then turn pan around until top of baklawa turns evenly golden brown. Remove from oven, then spoon syrup over each square or diamond. Allow to cool before serving.

Syrup of Qatar

What gives baklawa and the majority of other Arab pastries their mouth-watering taste is a syrup made from this basic recipe.

1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon orange blossom water

Place sugar and water in a pot, then place over medium heat and stir constantly until the sugar is thoroughly dissolved. Remove from heat then stir in the lemon juice. Return to heat and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in the orange blossom water then allow to cool but keep warm until pastry is ready.Note: If less sweet syrup is desired use only half the sugar.

Besides baklawa, the following are some of the other Syrian Arab pastries that I often prepare and enjoy when I am not counting the calories.


Deep-Fried Sweet Balls: Awamee


As a child growing up on an isolated prairie farm, I often watched my mother make this simple dish. Even today, the mouth-watering taste of these syrupy balls that I often prepare, has never left me.

2 cups flour
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 oz. package yeast, dissolved in 1/4 cup of warm water
2 cups warm water
1 syrup (qatar) recipe
2 cups cooking oil

Combine flour, cornstarch and salt in a mixing bowl, then pour in yeast and mix well. Add water then stir until mixture resembles texture of pancake batter, adding more water if necessary. Cover; set aside for 1 hour.

In the meantime, prepare syrup, set aside, but keep warm.

Heat oil in a saucepan, drop 1 tablespoon of batter into hot oil. Cook over medium heat until awamee turns golden brown, then remove with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels for a minute to drain. Dip awamee balls into warm syrup, then remove with a slotted spoon and arrange on a serving platter. Continue until all the batter is used.

Sesame Cookies: Barazek


A speciality of Damascus, barazek has been peddled on the streets of that city for centuries.

3/4 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pistachios
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups flour
2 cups wheat hearts or semolina
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Place sesame seeds, honey and pistachios in separate bowls, set aside.

Place eggs, butter and sugar in a food processor, then process into a paste. Transfer to a mixing bowl, add flour, wheat hearts or semolina, baking powder and salt. Knead into a dough, adding a little water if necessary.

Form into large walnut-sized balls, then dip balls, one at a time on one side only, into the pistachios and flatten with fingers, pistachios side down, on greased baking trays. Continue until all the balls are finished then brush each cookie with honey and sprinkle with the sesame seeds.

Bake in a 350˚F preheated oven for 15 minutes or until the cookies turn golden brown, then remove and allow to cool before serving.


Arabian Shortbread: Ghurayba


Children in the eastern Arab world look forward to this delicious shortbread often made by their mothers in the family kitchen.

The Spaniards inherited this mouth-watering dish, which they call Polvorones a la Andaluza, from the Arabs. The ingredients of both versions are still basically the same.

1 1/2 cups butter
1 3/4 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon orange blossom water (mazahar)
1 egg yolk
3 cups flour
40 blanched almonds

Place butter, 1 1/2 cups of the confectioner’s sugar, orange blossom water and egg yolk in a blender then blend for 1 minute. Transfer to a mixing bowl then gradually add flour while mixing with fingers, until smooth dough is formed.

Form dough into 40 balls, a little smaller than a walnut, then place on an un-greased cookie sheet and flatten slightly to about 1/2-inch thickness. Press an almond on each piece, then bake in a 300˚F preheated oven for 20 minutes or until bottoms turn light brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Sprinkle with the remaining confectioner’s sugar; then serve or store.

Note: The ghurayba may feel soft at the end of baking time, but they will harden as they cool.


Whips of Aleppo: Karabij Halab


1/2 cup finely ground pistachios
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon rose water
1 pound fine semolina
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon mahlab (found in Middle Eastern grocery stores)
1 package yeast dissolved with 1 tablespoon sugar in 1/4 cup warm water and allow to sit for 10 minutes until frothyWhipped cream (optional)

Combine pistachio, 1/4 cup of the sugar, 2 tablespoons of the milk and rose water to make a filling then set aside.

In another bowl, mix together semolina, butter, remaining sugar and mahlab with fingertips, making sure that butter is mixed well. Form a well then pour in remaining milk and yeast. Knead into dough, adding a little more milk if needed, then cover with plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Form dough into walnut-sized balls, then take one ball and with index finger, form a hollow. Place 1 teaspoon filling in hollow, pinch to close. Shape into cylinder, place on greased baking tray and pat down into oval shape.

Continue process until all balls are done.

Bake in 300° F preheated oven for 20 minutes or until they slightly brown. Allow to cool then place on serving dish.

Serve with whipped cream, allowing each person to dip the cookie into the cream.


Shredded Dough Cheese Cake: Knafa bil-Jibn


In the Middle East, knafa bil-jibn is a traditional breakfast dish. However, it is also an excellent dessert.

1 package knafa dough (1 lb. or 454 g), available in Middle Eastern stores
1 cup melted butter
1 pound ricotta cheese, broken down with a fork
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
1 syrup (qatar) recipe recipe (previous page)
1/4 cup crushed pistachios or crushed blanched almonds

Thaw the dough if frozen then mix it with butter and place in a baking pan. Place pan over very low heat, then gently rub dough with hands for about 15 minutes, ensuring that every part of the dough is moist. Divide dough into two halves then flatten half of dough by hand into an 9-by-13-inch well-buttered baking pan that is 2 inches or more deep.Combine cheese and orange blossom water; spread on dough in the pan. Spread the other half of dough on top.Bake in a 325˚F preheated oven for 35 minutes or until surface of dough becomes golden brown. If surface is not golden brown in 35 minutes, place pan under broiler and turn it around until the top of knafa is evenly golden brown.In the meantime, prepare syrup using only half the sugar listed in the syrup recipe.

Remove knafa from the oven and, while still hot, pour syrup evenly over top. Garnish with pistachios or almonds; then cut into 8 pieces and serve while hot.

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