Mohammad Ahmed Mattour has been running Halawiyat Al-Bustan, one of the most famous pastry shops in Ramallah, West Bank, since he took it over from his father in 1994. Giant platters of desserts, from baklava and knafeh to basbousa and kullaj, line the windows and shelves year-round. But when Ramadan arrives, the balance of business shifts and qatayef, filled semolina pancakes, take center stage.
“We sell about 200 a day,” said Mattour, 43. “No pieces. Kilo.” Throughout the month, especially around iftar hour – the daily breaking of the fast – the line outside the store spills onto the street, with at least 30 people waiting at any given time.
Mattour’s shop is not alone: the scene is the same in other patisseries in Ramallah and cities across the Arab world. Today there are two common varieties of these pancakes, which are only cooked on one side. One is stuffed with either cheese or walnuts, folded into a crescent, then fried or baked and drenched in syrup. The other, smaller one, is filled with cream and only half sealed. It is then drizzled with a thick sugar syrup and eaten fresh. People usually buy the pancakes to take away and such, but it’s also possible to buy them filled and ready to fry or bake, or even filled, fried, soaked in syrup and ready to eat.
What really sets qatayef apart from other desserts is the fact that they are usually reserved for Ramadan, which begins later that week, and are a sign that the holy month has arrived.
“They just taste different in Ramadan,” says Eman Al-Ahmed, a Jordan-based fashion designer. Al-Ahmed, 47, makes her qatayef at home and explained that since they are so easy to prepare, she can make them all year round. But like most in the Arab world, she and her family only eat qatayef during Ramadan, and they do it every night of the month.
“Maybe it’s the nostalgia and the generations of tradition,” Al-Ahmed said. “But Qatayef is that ritual that brings everyone together in the community.”
Qatayef probably dates from the Middle Ages. Although closely related to the Muslim practice of fasting during Ramadan, they transcend religion. When the treats show up in stores, everyone eats them.
Jenny Haddad Mosher, 47, a Palestinian Christian whose family does not observe Ramadan, said that growing up in Kuwait, where she was born, everyone felt the change in air during the month of Ramadan. But it was the qatayef that her father regularly brought home that she remembers most. “We would go crazy if Baba walked in the door with that package,” she said. “It came on a large cardboard tray, wrapped in paper and tied with string, the whole qatayef neatly arranged around the qatr container.” (Qatr is the sugar syrup used to sweeten the filled pancakes, either by placing them in soaks or drizzles over.)
The tradition is just as strong for Arabs in the United States. Rawan Shatara, 34, a pastry chef in Grand Rapids, Michigan who immigrated from Jordan as a toddler, has taken her parents two hours to Dearborn several times during Ramadan to buy qatayef. “It’s such a ingrained part of the month,” she said.
Now she makes qatayef herself, but she still enjoys going to Dearborn, where she says she “really feels the atmosphere of Ramadan, like coming home again.”
At Mattour’s pastry shop in Ramallah, sales typically fluctuate throughout the month and spike on the first and last days of Ramadan. That year, he was forced to raise prices for qatayef as inflation after the Russian invasion of Ukraine hit pantry staples.
“Maybe people are reducing the amounts, maybe they’re buying 1 kilogram instead of 1.5 kilograms, or maybe they’re buying it less often and not every night,” he said, adding that there is “no way, absolutely no way, Ramadan.” walk by without people eating qatayef.”
Recipe: Qatayef Asafiri
By Reem Kassis
Qatayef are synonymous with Ramadan. This month, the bakeries start making the pastries for these stuffed pancakes, and the lines line the streets as people wait their turn to buy them. Golden on the bottom and speckled with bubbles on top, qatayef are cooked on one side only. They can be big or small. The large ones are usually stuffed with nuts or cheese and folded up, then fried or baked and drenched in sugar syrup. The small ones, called qatayef asafiri (or little bird qatayef), are stuffed with a creamy filling, only half-closed, then dipped in pistachios and drizzled with thick, slightly floral sugar syrup. The dough is very simple; The key is to make sure it’s the right consistency, like cream.
Yield: About 30 pieces
Total time: 45 minutes
For the syrup:
1/2 cup/100 grams of granulated sugar
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon of orange blossom water or rose water or a combination of these
For the dough:
1 cup/125 grams all-purpose flour
1/4 cup/40 grams fine semolina flour
1 tablespoon of granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon instant or high-speed yeast
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground Mahlab (optional, see tip below)
1/4 teaspoon orange flower water or rose water (optional)
For the filling:
1 cup/8 ounces mascarpone
1/2 cup/120 grams heavy cream
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 teaspoon of orange blossom water or rose water or a combination of these
1/4 cup/about 1 ounce finely ground unroasted, unsalted pistachios, preferably Turkish, for finish
1. Prepare the syrup: In a small saucepan, combine sugar, lemon juice, and 1/4 cup water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool completely, then stir in 1/2 teaspoon orange flower water and 1/2 teaspoon rose water.
2. Make the batter: Place 1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons water in a blender or food processor. Add all the ingredients for the dough and knead until smooth. The batter should be fairly fluffy, similar in consistency to cream. Leave to rest for 15 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: In a small bowl, combine mascarpone, heavy cream, powdered sugar, 1/2 tsp orange blossom water and 1/2 tsp rose water. Use an electric hand mixer to beat stiff peaks. Refrigerate until ready to use.
4. Cook the Qatayef: Place a medium non-stick skillet or griddle over medium-high heat until hot. Mix the batter to make sure it is smooth, then pour separate 1-tablespoon portions of batter into the pan, making about 4 circles. Cook qatayef until the entire surface is covered with small bubbles and the center loses its shine, about 30 to 45 seconds. (You may be able to bake more at once once you determine the correct temperature and consistency of the batter.) If the bubbles are large and sparse, your batter is too thick; Stir 1 tablespoon of water into the batter to thin it. Qatayef only cooks on one side; The base should be evenly golden, and the top should be covered with small bubbles. If the bottom of the slices are browning too quickly—or unevenly—before the top of the batter loses its shine, turn the heat down a little.
5. Transfer each cooked qatayef to a large tray lined with a tea towel and cover with another tea towel while you cook the remaining batter.
6. Fill the qatayef: fold each into a crescent, blister side in, and pinch to seal the edges halfway. Using a teaspoon or piping bag, fill the opening with the cream, then dip the exposed cream filling into the ground pistachios.
7. Arrange the filled qatayef on a serving plate. These can be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated for several hours until ready to serve. To serve, drizzle the cooled syrup over the qatayef, offering guests more syrup to add to their individual plates if they wish.
Tip: Mahlab, the pit of a cherry, imparts a floral and nutty flavor to sweets and gives Arabic cheese its distinctive flavor. It’s available whole or ground in Middle Eastern grocery stores, but goes rancid quickly, so buy it whole and grind as needed and store the rest in the freezer until you need it.