Very soon it will be the month of Ramadan, when Muslims around the world fast from sunrise to sunset, not letting even a drop of water go through their lips. After hard days’ fast come nights of feasting and socialising when people visit each other, bearing gifts and sweets. And if there is a sweet that symbolises this month in the Middle East, it is qatayef (pancakes similar to Scottish muffins but thinner).
You can have them plain, topped with qashtah (clotted cream), pinched half-closed to make them look like cones and drizzled with sugar syrup (in the fancy sweet shops they’ll be garnished with orange blossom jam). Or you can have them filled with cream, walnuts or unsalted cheese, then fried and dipped in sugar syrup. I love them fried, especially if I am having them at my friends, the aptly named Ramadan brothers, whose stall is at top of souk Madhat Pasha on Straight Street in Damascus.
I always ask for my qatayef to be fried on the spot even if they have a pile of them on the counter, already fried. They are so much better straight out of the frying pan, with the hot pancake crisp and oozing sugar syrup, and the soft cream inside still slightly cold making for a wonderful contrast. Sometimes, when I feel reckless about calories, I also have one filled with walnuts which is crunchy throughout. Just as delicious although perhaps not as sexy.
And when I get my pancakes there, I get the added benefit of a masterclass in how to make them. The qatayef maker is just behind the sales counter, pouring his batter onto the large hot plate, making hundreds of pancakes in no time at all. Qatayef are cooked on one side, with the bottom smooth and golden and the top pockmarked with lots of tiny holes.
Here are a few photos of the lovely young man in action.
Pouring the batter from a metal funnel.
Within minutes he has covered the hot plate.
A few minutes more and he picks them off the plate, piling them onto a wooden board.
And here you can see the top side full of holes.
You can of course make these at home and I give a recipe below but it’s more fun eating them on the street. If you can’t get to Damascus and you are in London, go to Green Valley in Upper Berkeley street. They have them throughout Ramadan and for Eid. But watch out for the soggy ones. Wishing all those of you who observe this holy month a Ramadan Karim, even if it is still a little early for the wishes.
The Moroccans have similar pancakes called beghrir although theirs are prepared with milk. They make them large to have for breakfast with butter and sugar or honey. Makes 12 small pancakes
for the sugar syrup
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
4 teaspoons rose water
4 teaspoons orange blossom water
for the pancake mix:
1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
For the walnut filling:
scant 2/3 cups ground walnuts
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon orange blossom water
For the cream filling:
3/4 cup Arabic clotted cream
vegetable oil for frying
1 – Put the sugar, water and lemon juice in a saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, and let bubble for 3 minutes. Stir in the rose and orange blossom waters, let bubble for a few seconds more then remove from the heat. Let cool.
2 – Dilute the yeast in 1/2 cup and 2 tablespoons water and let rest for 10 minutes. Add the flour and whisk until you have a smooth batter. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and leave for 1 hour or until the batter has risen and its surface is bubbly.
3 – Combine the walnuts, sugar, cinnamon and orange blossom water. Set aside.
4 – Shortly before the batter is ready, grease a shallow frying pan with a little vegetable oil and place over a medium heat. When the pan is very hot, measure a heaped tablespoon of batter and pour it into the pan, to have a disk about 2 3/4 inches in diameter and 1/4 inch thick. It is best to spread the batter as you are pouring it into the pan as it will be too thick to spread by tilting the pan. Cook on one side for 2-3 minutes or until the bottom is barely coloured and the top is bubbly and dry. Remove to a plate and finish frying the rest of the batter in the same way. Let the pancakes cool.
5 – One at a time, lay the pancakes in your hand, smooth side down. Spread 1 tablespoon of walnut or cream filling in a line down the middle, leaving the edges clear. Fold the pancake, aligning the edges; and with your fingers, pinch tightly shut together — you do not want them to open during frying. Place each filled pancake on a platter and continue filling the rest.
5 – Pour enough vegetable oil in a large frying pan to deep fry the filled pancakes and place over a medium heat. Test the oil by dipping the corner of a pancake in it; if bubbles surround it, the oil is ready. Slide in as many pancakes as will fit comfortably in the pan and fry for about 2-3 minutes on one side and again on the other or until golden all over. Remove with a slotted spoon and drop in the sugar syrup. Turn into the syrup until well-coated and remove to a serving platter. Serve warm or at room temperature the same day. They are really best eaten soon after they are made as they quickly become soggy.
©Anissa Helou from Mediterranean Street Food,