There are a lot of Middle Eastern pastries you’re better off not trying at home. Here is one exception. It’s a crunchy little packet of ground walnuts dripping with syrup; add a cup of coffee and you’re ready to face a winter morning.
Yes, a Middle Eastern pastry for breakfast. Why not? This one is actually a pancake, a deep-fried pancake. By the way, it’s one of the oldest pastries in the world. There are recipes dating from the ninth century. This was the kind of thing you got to eat if you were the Caliph.
Its Arabic name is qataif mahshiyya, which literally means “stuffed pancakes” (in Turkish, it’s dolma kadayif; same meaning, though it’s a little surprising to see the word dolma, which generally refers to a stuffed vegetable or grape leaf). You start with a simple yeast batter and fry up smallish crêpes, on one side only. The idea is that you leave the top side half-raw. It remains tacky so you can fold it around the filling. This being a Middle Eastern treat, the filling is always ground nuts, but I suppose somebody might try a slice or two of peach.
In effect, these are sweet samosas, being folded over a filling in much the same way. (Medieval samosa recipes actually sometimes call for this sort of pancake as a wrapper.) The difference is that they’re made with leavened batter rather than kneaded dough, so they absorb syrup like a bandit. First they crunch in your mouth and then they spurt syrup, and that’s before you even get to the nut filling part.
Messy, but forgiving
These little pancake bombs are relatively forgiving for the cook. (In fact, some people don’t go to all the trouble of making the traditional leavened batter and just use pancake mix.) They’re homey-looking; nothing fancy, sort of like miniature Portuguese-men-of-war with syrup oozing out of them.
However, they do make something of a mess in the kitchen, like many a fried food. In the first place, you ought to remember that Russian proverb, “The first pancake comes out as a lump.” So even though the measurements given below should technically give you 12 qataif, don’t count on quite that many. And you’ll go through a substantial amount of oil.
As this pastry is made today, the syrup is usually flavored with rose water, or a mixture of rose water and orange blossom water. I’ve given up trying to get my fellow Americans to overcome their irrational distaste for rose-flavored pastries, so I’m recommending only the orange blossom version. You could also flavor the syrup to your taste with orange oil flavoring or a bit of fine orange or lemon zest.
For the batter:
In a mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in 2 tablespoons warm water. When the yeast starts to bubble and give off a fermenting smell, dissolve in the remaining ¾ cup warm water and add the flour. Whisk until smooth, cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let ferment 1 hour.
For the syrup:
Place the sugar, water and lemon juice in a small saucepan and bring to a full boil. Remove from the heat.When the bubbles subside, the syrup should be clear. Add the orange blossom water.
For the filling:
Put the walnuts, sugar, cinnamon and optional clove in a food processor and pulse until ground medium fine.
- Put 2 tablespoons oil in a small frying pan. When very hot, whisk up the batter and pour2 tablespoonsinto the pan, coaxing it with the measuring spoon into a 4-inch circle. Fry until the surface of the cake is bubbly and has lost its wet look. Try to avoid getting the edges of the cake oily.
- Immediately remove the cake with a spatula — without turning it over — and place on a cookie sheet or work space. Repeat with the rest of the batter, adding oil as needed. Theoretically you can end up with 12 half-done pancakes, tacky on top.
- Put 2 teaspoons of nut filling on a pancake and fold it over. The edges should stick (since you’re not deep-frying them, they’ll cook up all right if they don’t stick but won’t look so neat). Pinch the edges tightly shut and repeat with the rest of the pancakes and filling.
- Put enough oil in a 10-inch frying pan to barely cover the pancakes. Heat the oil until the edge of a pancake will sizzle if dipped into it. Fry the pancakes in batches of 3 or 4 until crisp and golden brown on both sides, turning over as needed.
- As the qataif are done, transfer them to paper towels to drain excess oil and then to the syrup, soaking both sides for at least 1 minute. Remove to a serving dish.
- If you want to be fancy, grind a couple of tablespoons of pistachio and sprinkle on the qataif.
Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.
Photo: Pancake bombs. Credit: Charles Perry