Sweet Middle East: Anissa Helou

I have a strong sweet tooth and often say it’s because my family name, Helou, means “sweet” in Arabic. In truth, that has nothing to do with it. Most people in the Middle East and North Africa have a serious penchant for all things sugary. Sweets occupy an important place in our lives, and every important occasion, rite of passage, or religious event has a specific sweet associated with its celebration. In fact, any occasion is a good enough reason to visit the sweets maker, whether to enjoy a snack while going about your daily business or to buy a treat to take to friends or family.

It’s possible that this love of sweet things is a result of the Muslim prohibition against alcohol, with sugar from sweets replacing the sugar derived from alcohol. Perhaps sugar (from the Arabic word sukkar, derived from the Persian shakar) was so plentiful in the Middle East that a tradition of candy and pastry making was established. Sugarcane was originally grown in the tropical Far East; from there it was taken to India and China and on to Persia in the fifth century. After the Arabs invaded Persia in the seventh century they carried sugar with them to Egypt, North Africa, Sicily, Spain, and other places they conquered. When the Crusaders left the Middle East, they brought sugar with them back to Europe. Sugar was not the only sweetener available in the Middle East (honey and molasses from grapes, dates, and carob were and still are used as well), though it was plentiful there long before sugar became common in the West.

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The sugar industry started in Egypt in the eighth century, and the Egyptians were considered pioneers in refining sugar. They’re still major growers and producers of sugar, with more than three hundred million acres given over to growing sugarcane, which does not include the land on which sugar beets are grown. Iran is another country with an important sugarcane growing and refining industry.

Sweets are an essential part of the legendary Middle Eastern and North African hospitality, and they are ever-present in people’s homes, stored in beautiful glass or metal boxes and placed on coffee tables in living rooms so hosts can offer them to guests with coffee, tea, or a refreshing drink. Everyone brings a gift when invited to someone’s home, and sweets are often what visitors bring with them.

Wherever you go in the region, whether in the souks, bazaar, or the modern parts of cities, you find confections of all kinds. Some are piled high on carts by the roadside, others delicately arranged on huge metal trays in shops of sweet makers. Don’t assume that sweets sols on streets aren’t as good as those displayed in elegant stores. Some may be of lesser quality, but others will have been lovingly prepared by the vendors in their homes and match those available at the finest shops.

Most people in the Levant still cook elaborate meals at home, though few home cooks prepare their own desserts, even if they know how. In North Africa, home cooks are very proud of their pastry-making skills. Apart from a few sweets such as ma’mul and various puddings that are considered the preserve of the home cook, most Levantines buy their dessert and pastries from such specialty shops- just as many French and Italians do. In the Middle East and North Africa, however, these delicacies are enjoyed not so much for dessert at the end of the meal, when fruit is usually served, but rather for breakfast or between meals with coffee or tea.


As a child in Beirut, I often went with my mother or sometimes my father to buy sweets, simply as a treat for us to have at home or to take to my grandmother who lived in East Beirut, the Christian part of the city. We lived in West Beirut, the Muslim part, and it was there that all the great confectioners had their stores. They were mainly Muslim, with many having been in the business for generations. In the 1960s when I was growing up there, the most famous were the Samadis and the Bohsalis in Beirut and the Hallabs in Tripoli (the last two are still going strong, though Samadi sweet shop may have lost its shine). I speculate that most confectioners are Muslims because Christians had to be austere during the forty days of Lent. Muslims, on the other hand, enjoyed a feast every night during Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting), with sweets taking center stage throughout that month as well as for the feast celebrating the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr (known as Şeker Bayramı, Sugar Feast, in Turkey), and the even bigger feast a month or so later, Eid al-Adha. Christians celebrate with sweets as well, especially at Easter, but not so extravagantly.

What I never noticed when I lived in Beirut was the lack of access to the confectioners’ kitchens. It was never a problem peeking into restaurant kitchens or watching bakers at work, but it wasn’t until I started writing about food that realized I had never been inside any sweet-makers’ kitchens. That mysterious world was out-of-bounds to everyone except professionals. The very first time I visited Güllüoğlu’s baklava kitchens in Istanbul, it felt like walking into an enchanted world: everything was cloaked in clouds of white dust (created by the cornstarch, which is used to keep the phyllo from sticking as it is rolled out). Men in white moved gracefully and dexterously, rolling out incredibly large, diaphanous sheets of phyllo dough, which they then flapped one by one before laying them on large metal trays, building layers interspersed with chopped nuts to make different types of baklava.

Later, I was fortunate enough to be allowed inside the kitchens of Pistache d’Alep in Aleppo, and there I finally discovered the art of making cotton candy (ghazl al-banat in Arabic), an extraordinary confection made by stretching caramel and coating it with toasted flour. As the caramel is stretched again and again, it separates into millions of incredibly fine strands that are then coiled into balls that melt on your tongue as you eat them, as if you were eating sweet air. Later still, I visited the kitchens of İmam Çağdaş in Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, where the atmosphere was positively medieval. The wood fire in the oven cast a warm orange glow over the men, who made the baklava “dance” by pouring hot syrup over it. The syrup made the top layers of phyllo bob up and down, though never strongly enough to fly off the tray.

The repertoire of sweets is vast, from puddings to syrupy pastries to cookies to ice creams to candied fruit, nuts, and even some vegetables such as eggplant. From these I have chosen an exciting selection of recipes that can be made by amateur home cooks. The satisfaction of making a perfect m’hanncha, or almond spiral (or even an imperfect one), is empowering; serving your own homemade ice cream allows you to experiment with unusual flavors and combinations as well as impress whoever is lucky enough to eat it; and the cook will, like the best leavened pastry, puff up with pride.

Some ingredients may not be readily available in supermarkets, but you will have no problem finding them online or at specialty stores. And most of these ingredients have a long shelf life; so to achieve superior results, it is worthwhile to source the best-quality products you can find. Another compelling reason to make your own sweets is to experience the pleasure of eating these desserts, because it’s unlikely that there’s a master baker in your neighbourhood equal to those in Beirut, Tripoli, Istanbul, or Gaziantep. Finally, there’s great satisfaction to be had in mastering these intriguing confections.

And with that, I wish you happy sweets making – and eating.

A note about Metric measurements

Recipes in this book use both U.S. and metric measurements. When converting U.S. weights and volumes to metric, I have opted to round to an amount that can be easily measured. For example, the exact metric equivalent of 1 ounce is 28.35 grams, but I have made 1 ounce equal to 30 grams. As weights get heavier, I have adjusted my conversions accordingly, and as a result, it is sometimes nearer to the exact weight in ounces. All recipes have been tested using both U.S. and metric measurements.

Organic Eggs, Milk and Sugar

I always use organic eggs and milk, mainly because I know that they come from properly raised animals, and also because they taste better. Of course they are more expensive, but the superior results are worth that extra cost. I also specify organic cane sugar in many recipes because it has a more distinct flavor than granulated white sugar. Because it is unrefined, organic cane sugar is golden hued, which slightly affects some dishes, making them a little darker in color, but I don’t mind this. However, feel free to use standard white sugar if organic cane sugar is hard to come by where you live or if you are concerned about the cost.




For the pastry:

  • 1 cup [175 g] semolina (regular, not fine)
  • 2 tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp superfine sugar
  • ⅛ tsp fast-acting (instant) yeast
  • 5 tbsp [75 g] unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1½ tbsp orange blossom water
  • 1½ tbsp. rose water

For the filling:

  • ¾ cup [100 g] hulled unsalted pistachios
  • 2 tbsp superfine sugar
  • ¾ tsp orange blossom water
  • ¾ tsp rose water

Confectioners’ sugar or sweet soapwort dip


To make the pastry:

  1. Mix the semolina, flour, sugar and yeast in a mixing bowl.
  2. Add the butter and with the tips of your fingers, work it in until fully incorporated.
  3. Add the orange blossom water and rose water and knead until the pastry is smooth and elastic. (Add a drop more rose water if you find the pastry a little dry.) Place in a lightly floured bowl.
  4. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest in a cool place for 1½ hours.

To make the filling:

  1. Using a spice grinder or small food processor, grind the pistachios to a medium-fine texture. Mix the ground pistachios and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the orange blossom water and rose water and mix well.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400°F [200°C]. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
  3. Pinch off a small piece of pastry and roll it into a ball the size of a walnut. Place it in your palm and flatten with your fingers, until you have an oval about 3 in [7.5 cm] long, about ¼ in [6 mm] thick. Place 1 tsp of pistachio filling in a line down the middle lengthwise and pinch the dough together to close it over the filling.
  4. Carefully shape the filled pastry into a finger with a fat middle and if you have a tabe’, lightly press the pastry into it, leaving the pinched side on the outside (so that when you invert the molded pastry, it is on the bottom). Place the fingers of your other hand under a work surface with your palm protruding. Invert the mold over your hand and tap the mold lightly against the work surface to release the pastry into your palm. Slide the pastry onto the prepared baking sheet, Fill and shape the remaining pastry in the same way. You may have to scrape the inside of the mold every now and then in case some pastry sticks to it. If you don’t have a tabe, gently shape the pastry between the palms of your hands to create a flat oval; bottom, mounding the ma’mul into a rounded sloping shape. You should end up with about 15 pastries, each measuring about 3 in [7.5 cm] long, 1 in [2.5 cm] wide in the middle, and 1¼ in [3 cm] high.
  5. Bake the pastries until cooked and barely colored, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack. Let cool, and then sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar before serving.




  • 1¼ cups [225 g] semolina flour (regular, not fine)
  • 6 tbsp [85 g] unsalted butter’ at room temperature
  • ¼ cup [50 g] superfine sugar
  • 1½ cups [360 ml] whole-milk yogurt
  • ¼ tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp tahini
  • 1/3 cup [50 g] blanched almonds
  • 1/3 cup [50 g] hulled unsalted pistachios
  • 1/3 cup [50 g] walnut halves
  • 1/3 cup [50 g] unsalted cashews
  • 1½ cups [360 ml] fragrant sugar syrup*, at room temperature


  1. Put the semolina, butter, and superfine sugar in a mixing bowl and work together using a spatula until well blended. Add the yogurt and baking soda and mix until you have a firm batter.
  2. Using the tahini, grease a 10-in [25-cm] round cake pan with sides about 1¾ in [4.5 cm] high. Spread the batter evenly across the prepared pan. Flatten it gently with the back of a spoon. Cover with plastic wrap, taking care not to let the plastic touch the top of the batter, and let rest in a cool place for 3 hours.
  3. Preheat the oven to 44°F [200°C] for about 20 minutes. Scatter the nuts all over the surface of the batter and bake until the cake is golden, 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and pour the syrup all over. Don’t worry if the cake looks as if it is swimming in the syrup; it will absorb it all. Let the cake stand for 30 minutes to soak up the syrup. It may seem like too much syrup, but the cake needs it all. Of course, if you lack the Middle Eastern sweet tooth, you can decrease the amount. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 day.




  • 2 tbsp cornstarch
  • 2 cups [480 ml] whole milk
  • Good pinch of saffron threads
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • ¾ cup [150 g] organic cane sugar
  • ½ cup [120 ml] crème fraiche
  • 1 tsp rose water
  • 1/3 cup [50 g] slivered or chopped pistachios


  1. Whisk the cornstarch into ½ cup [120 ml] of the milk.
  2. Put the remaining milk in a saucepan and add the saffron and salt. Let the saffron infuse in the milk for 30 minutes.
  3. Put the saffron-milk over medium-high heat and whisk the cornstarch-milk into it. Keep whisking until the milk comes to a boil, at which point it will start to thicken. Turn the heat to medium-low. Add the sugar and continue whisking for another 10 minutes.
  4. Take the milk off the heat and pour into a 2-qt [2-L] measuring cup. Whisk in the crème fraiche and rose water. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let cool. Whisk the milk regularly at first to prevent a skin from forming. Let cool completely, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for a couple of hours, until thoroughly chilled.
  5. Transfer to an ice cream maker and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to an airtight container and put in the freezer; leave the container uncovered for the first 10 minutes of freezing to avoid the formation of ice crystals. Store, covered, in the freezer for up to 1 month. Serve sprinkled with the pistachios.




For the filling:

  • 3¾ cups [500 g] blanched almonds
  • 1¼ cups [150 g] confectioners’ sugar
  • ¼ cup [60 ml] orange blossom water
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 6 to 8 grains mastic, finely ground in a small mortar with a pestle to yield ½ tsp powdered mastic
  • One 14-oz [400 g] package phyllo pastry (the sheets I used measured 11½ by 16¾ in [29 by 42 cm])
  • ½ cup plus 2 tbsp [150 g] unsalted butter, melted


To make the filling:

  1. Place the almonds in a heatproof bowl; pour in enough boiling water to cover and let sit for 1 hour. Drain the almonds well and dry them with a clean kitchen towel.
  2. Combine the almonds with the confectioners’ sugar in a food processor. Cess until very finely ground, about 2 minutes. Add the orange blossom water, butter and mastic and process until well blended. Transfer the paste to your work surface and roll into a sausage shape. Divide into 20 equal pieces and shape each piece into first a ball and then into a thin cylinder measuring about 9 in [22.5 cm] long. Cover with plastic wrap.
  3. Preheat the oven to 400°F [200°C]. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
  4. Lay one sheet of phyllo on your work surface and brush with a little melted butter. Lay one almond cylinder about ½ in [12 mm] away from the edge nearest you, and about ¾ in [2 cm] away from the edges of the phyllo. Flap the phyllo over the almond cylinder and roll, keeping the phyllo very close to the filling as you roll the pastry over it. Brush with butter and with the seam side down, fold one empty end over the almond roll and roll into a spiral, sliding the other empty end under the coil.
  5. Transfer the coil to the prepared baking sheet and press lightly on it to make sure it doesn’t unroll during baking. Make the remaining spirals the same way. When you have finished them, poke each one here and there with a toothpick to keep the pastry from puffing.
  6. Bake until golden, 25 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.




For the pastry:

  • Pinch of saffron threads
  • 2 tbsp orange blossom water
  • 1¼ cups [125 g] sesame seeds
  • 1⅔ cups [250 g] unbleached all-purpose flour
  • Pinch of fine sea salt
  • 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp fast-acting (instant) yeast
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp [100 ml] warm water

For the syrup:

  • 4 small grains mastic, crushed in a small mortar with a pestle to yield ¼ tsp powdered mastic
  • 3 cups [750 g] good-quality runny honey
  • 2 tbsp orange blossom water


To make the pastry:

  1. Crush the saffron threads between your fingers or in a small mortar using a pestle. Put the crushed saffron in a small bowl and add the orange blossom water. Set aside to infuse.
  2. Put the sesame seeds in a non-stick frying pan and place over medium heat. Toast the seeds, stirring continuously, until golden, about 10 minutes. Let cool, and then put half in a coffee or spice grinder reserved for nuts and seeds, or use the small bowl of your food processor and grind until very fine (this will take a few minutes). Reserve the other half for the garnish.
  3. Put the flour in a mixing bowl. Add the ground sesame seeds, sea salt, cinnamon, and yeast and mix well. Add the saffron, water, egg, vinegar, and melted butter. Work them into the flour mixture using the tips of your fingers. Gradually add the warm water and knead well for about 10 minutes until you have a smooth dough. If you have a stand mixer, by all means use it. I do this by hand.
  4. Butter your work surface and rolling pin. Pinch off a piece of dough the size of a tangerine and roll it out thinly, about 2 mm thick. Cut into strips measuring about 4 in [10 cm] long by 1 in [2 cm] wide. Lift three strips and press the tops together. Braid the strips loosely and press the bottom ends together. Shape loosely into a round and press the ends together well so that the pastry does not unroll during cooking. Place on a plate and continue shaping the pastries, making sure you use up all the loose pieces.

To make the syrup:

  1. Stir the crushed mastic with the honey and orange blossom water in a deep saucepan. Place over medium heat, bring to a gentle bubble, and immediately turn the heat to very low to keep the honey hot and liquid.
  2. Pour enough sunflower oil into a large, deep frying pan to reach a depth of 1½ in [4 cm]. Place over medium-high heat. Check the temperature by dropping a piece of dough into the oil; if the oil bubbles around it’ it’s ready. (A candy thermometer should register 350°F [180°C].) Drop in as many pastries as will fit comfortably without crowding.
  3. Fry until browned all over, about 3 minutes, turning them several times.
  4. Remove the pastries using a slotted spoon and drop them into the hot honey. Leave them for a few minutes, and then transfer to a serving dish. Repeat the process, making sure the oil does not get too hot. Sprinkle both sides of the finished pastries with the remaining toasted sesame seeds and let cool before serving.




  • 1½ cups [360 ml] fragrant sugar syrup*
  • ½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • For the fritters:
  • 1/3 cup [8- ml] whole milk
  • 6 tbsp [85 g] unsalted butter
  • ½ cup [120 ml] water
  • 1 cup [150 g] unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp semolina (regular, not fine)
  • ½ tsp fine sea salt
  • 1 tbsp arrowroot
  • 3 large eggs
  • Sunflower oil for frying


Heat the sugar syrup in a saucepan over medium heat and add the vanilla bean. Let the vanilla infuse the syrup while cooling.

To make the fritters:

Put the milk, butter and water in a saucepan; place over medium heat and bring to a boil. Stir the flour, semolina, salt and arrowroot together in a mixing bowl and add to the milk mixture as soon as it comes to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir quickly and vigorously until you have a smooth paste. Return the pan to low heat and cook, stirring all the time, for a couple of minutes. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let cool for about 10 minutes.

Add the eggs, one by one, whisking until each is incorporated. The mixture will soften and become glossy. Spoon it into a pastry bag fitted with a medium star-shape tip. Pour enough sunflower oil into a large, deep frying pan to reach a depth of 1½ to 2 inches [4 to 5 cm]. Place over medium heat. Check the temperature by dropping a little batter into the oil; if the oil bubbles around it, it’s ready. (a candy thermometer should register 350°F [180°C].) Pipe the fritters in 2-inch [5cm] sections directly into the hot oil. You can also pipe them out in rings as they do on the streets of Turkey.

Fry, turning them so that they color evenly, for a few minutes on each side, until they turn a deep brown.

Remove the fritters using a slotted spoon and drop them into the cooled syrup. Let them soak in the syrup for a few minutes, and then transfer to a serving dish. Repeat the process, making sure the oil doesn’t get too hot. The fritters are best served immediately or soon after frying, but you can store them in an air-tight container at room temperature for up to 1 day. They will soften but will still be good.



Each Middle Eastern country has different ways of preparing tea, and each has a particular fondness for one type of tea leaf. Iranians use Assam tea, often flavoring it with spices. Iranians also prize their own local tea, which is grown on the Northern slopes of Gilan province not far from the Caspian Sea. It is the custom in Iran to sweeten tea by sipping it through sugar cubes. Of course, you can also simply stir granulated sugar into the tea. This recipe is for a cinnamon and cardamom tea- a heady brew.


  • 4 tsp Assam tea leaves
  • ½ cinnamon stick, broken into 2 or 3 pieces
  • 4 green cardamom pods, pounded in a mortar with a pestle
  • 2½ cups [600 ml] boiling water


Put the tea leaves, cinnamon, and cardamom pods in a teapot. Add the boiling water and let infuse for a few minutes. Serve in typical Middle Eastern glass teacups.


Makes about 1½ cups [360 ml]


  • 2 cups [400 g] superfine sugar
  • 1½ tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • ½ cup [120 ml] water
  • 1 tbsp rose water
  • 1 tbsp orange blossom water


Put the sugar, lemon juice and water in a saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally and place over medium heat.

Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to help the sugar dissolve. Boil for 3 minutes, and then add the rose water and orange blossom water. Mix well and remove from the heat. Let cool before using unless the recipe instructs otherwise. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Bring to room temperature before using.

Source: Sweet Middle East: Classic Recipes from Baklava to Fig Ice Cream by Anissa Helou.

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