Al Bohsali: Middle Eastern Pastries

arab pastries

It’s too bad that so many people are only familiar with Middle Eastern pastries that aren’t so well made. If you sample them far from where they originate, often they’re made with old or stale nuts, they’ve sat around too long in plastic packages, or the cheeses aren’t exactly fresh. While it’s true that some of them can be a bit sticky-sweet for Western tastes, but when they’re made correctly, they’re just as lovely to look at as they are to eat.

semolina pastry

At Al Bohsali in Beirut, all the pastries are made on the premises. As you get ready to sip your coffee, you can gaze at all the lovely pastries resting in a shiny glaze, presented in wide stainless-steel trays on the counter. Then make yourself a little plate to try a few, which I was happy to do.

arab pastries pastries

interestingly, I was never served pastries like these after lunch or dinner in Lebanon, which leads me to think that people consume them in the morning or in the afternoon with coffee or tea. However the shop sells gift boxes of pastries and I’m sure if you brought a host or hostess a gift of these treats, you’d be served them for dessert – whatever time it was! And believe me, some meals I had seemed to last long enough to bridge both lunch and dinner.

Further advancing my theory that Arabic pastries are often gifted, there wasn’t much to eat, but the two kiosks at the Beirut airport that sold Arabic sweets were very scraping up pastries and packing up plenty of boxes for departing passengers.

(On a related note, the restaurant offerings at the airport were rather unfortunate for a country that has such wonderful food, but you could buy boxes of fresh tomatoes, green almonds, fava beans, za’atar, and choose from a copious selection of Lebanese and Middle Eastern cheeses to travel with.)

arab pastries pastry
knefahknefah b ka'ak

At Al Bohsali, their most notable pastry is Knafeh (knefeh), which is traditionally eaten for breakfast (for those with a sweet tooth!) The base of the pastry is a soft cheese baked in a semolina crust. And because the cheese is soaked in a mahlab (sour cherry pit powder) syrup, it has the light taste of bitter almonds to cut through the sweetness. It’s sandwiched between kaak, flat sesame seed bread that makes it easier to eat, and less of a struggle to deal with the warm, stringy cheese that oozes out when you bite into it.

nougat

I was going to describe the sweets in better detail, and had some help from my friend Bethany, but looking at the Al Bohsali site, they’ve done a better job of it than I could do.

arab pastries

There were domes called Ma’amoul, ground almonds or walnuts, or date paste with orange flower water and cinnamon. Ma’amoul Mad (below), layers of semolina pastry with bright-green pistachios as a filling.

pistachio pastry

And there were plenty of baklawa (baklava), a general name given to Arab sweets layered with filo dough, whether in sheets or cut into thin threads. Then baked. Then eaten.

nut pastry

Al Bohsali
Riad el Soih Square
Beirut, Lebanon

baklava


Recipe Links

Knefeh (Taste of Beirut)

Kaak (Phoenician Gourmet)

Ma’amoul (The Food Blog)

Ma’amoul (Dirty Kitchen Secrets)

Basboosa/Semolina Cake (The Cookie Shop)

Baklava Daisies (Kolofagas)

Baklava (Anissa Helou)

Pistachio and Almond Baklava (Dirty Kitchen Secrets)

-If you come to Paris, I recommend La Bague de Kenza and Masmoudi for top-quality Arab and North African pastries.

58 comments

  • i used to refuse middle eastern pastries as they always looked too sweet for my taste, but then a friend made me try künefe (or kanafeh) at a really good turkish restaurant: it looked like some kind of noodle nest, filled with mozarella cheese, baked with sugar sirup and lots of butter. i thought it was divine!!

  • I just bought some fresh baklava from a turkish place in London yesterday – the difference between fresh made and that stuff in the supermarket is worlds apart. Supermaket baklava is hard, the honey-syrup so hard-sticky you could stick your teeth together and never get them apart, and don’t get me started on the hardened filo – you could slit wrists with it. Fresh is just divine. Soft, crumbly, runny honey, the filo flaky, light and crispy.

  • I adore middle eastern sweets, I am going to catch up with your blog and read from this delicious entry backwards. My understanding is that these sweets are eaten as a treat with guests at any time they visit your home, that is how I remember my grandmother offering them… Though she plied me with them everytime I visited as her first born favourite grandchild! So a sweet tooth was born!

  • I do agree with you that Middle Eastern sweets can be very sweet, but when made with fresh ingredients they truly are delicious!
    I also love how they make them, they look like beautiful patterns spread out in huge cooking sheets.

    xo Quinn

  • What is the large flat round pastry that the chef is standing behind in your photo — it looks kind of like a flan?

    • That’s knafeh, the cheese filled treat surrounded by pastry, that’s flavored with sour cherry pits – you can kind of see the cheese oozing out! – and in the picture next to it, sandwiched in the kaak (sesame bread.)

  • Gorgeous! I remember the first time I had a “real” Lebanese baklava – it was rolled into a small cylinder, stuffed with a delicious pine nut filling, and more buttery than sticky-sweet. Divine. Too bad there are so many poor examples of these kinds of pastries in the world.

  • I must admit I find this sort of pastry too sweet for me despite them looking so appetising. I have never tried cheese ones though so I’d be interested in tasting the knafel. Do you have a special tool for cutting such perfect squares or are the pastries all cut using a knife?

  • I love this – I wan to eat it all!!! I wonder what kind of wine would pair well with these beauties…

  • My absolute favourite place in Lebanon and one of my last stops before flying back so I can stock up on so many goodies :) If you ever make it to Montreal, we have a Bohsali here ;)

  • To take the edge of the sweetness, have your coffee very very strong :)
    The cheese for the knafeh, is it kind of a cream cheese?

  • I used to love those,but they are just too sweet for me now.-I remember that you enjoyed a good knafeh also at the Haj Kahil restaurant in Yaffa,where I have also had my best knafeh this far.

  • Oh these look wonderful. Also there’s a guy at the Sunday market in the tenth near Rue Marie et Louise (Métro Goncourt, Jacques Bonsargeant, or République) who makes wonderful lebanese mezza. His hummus had quite a lot of tahini, but he makes great little pita sandwiches (he calls them galettes for the French) that are grilled and filled with either vegetables, lemony chicken, or meat. He also always had a few of those desserts lying around, but they were more expensive than his other items so I don’t think I ever tried any sadly. He did say he made them himself however, although that could just be him boasting.

  • Wow!!!
    When i used to live in Lebanon, i rarely visited Bohsali because honestly these are super sweet and super fattening! But now that i left Lebanon, and after seeing these amazing pictures and read the text….i can’t but crave for “Baklava”….my favourite though is “Nammoura” (the second picture…. yummy!!!!
    And surely Bohsali has all the best!

  • Us allergic to nuts and almonds have a hard time in Middle East.

  • David – Do you have any recommendation on a good book on how to make these middle eastern pastries?
    Thanks!!

  • Lovely to look at? A tad too monochromatically tan to my eye – with that pistachio green thrown in at the last moment. Back in the day, I lived in Astoria, Queens, and sampling the Middle Eastern pastries in the Greek cafes made me a fan. Not the prettiest of desserts, but I love their bite-size syrupy, filo-y, nutty goodness!

  • Many years ago, in another life, I used to go once a year to a big party celebrating one of my (ex) husband´s best friends birthday. All the food was lebanese and armenian, and made by the mother, grandmother and cooks that had been in their houses for ages. You wouldn´t believe how good that buffet table was!! Both the sweet and the savory. It´s sounds a bit ridiculous, but it was one the the highlights of the summer, to eat that well prepared food. It´s almost a different cuisine from what I can get in armenian bakeries here. And they´re not bad bakeries, but there´s no comparison.

  • These look amazing, so much attention to texture.

    There are a handful of recipes for basbousa in Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food. I made one years ago and loved it, and recently picked up a fresh bag of semolina intending to make it again. I’m planning a variation with almonds, orange blossom water, and some delicious muscat grapes I have — I devoured a giant bag of them and promptly went back to buy some more. I haven’t decided yet whether to roast them and scatter them over the top of basbousa, or do something else with them. They have a floral, honeyed taste, and would probably make a great sorbet, too.

  • it all looks so good – I’ve really enjoyed all of your food reporting from Lebanon and now I want to go visit…lol

    many thanks
    Emily @ TownAndCountryShuffle.com

  • Would love to try. I want to know about ground sour cherry pits.
    Are those what we would call in the Pacific N W ‘pie cherries’?
    Are the really digestible ground? Are they commonly used? More!
    Loving your posts.

    • Mahlab comes from the Mahaleb cherry (lat prunus mahaleb). I wouldn’t tinker with using anything other than the actual thing. It’s available online.

  • Such meticulous attention to detail–the pastries look as scrumptious as they taste. I like that they are drenched in sweetness as a little goes a looooong way.

  • I’ve not had many of these, although while in Morocco I did get to try a few outside the standard Baklava. I make my own at home, which is way cheaper and tastier than the stuff sold at supermarkets. Using local honey and toasted mixed nuts. Yum.

  • I usually buy fresh baklava and some of the pastries featured above from a wonderful Turkish bakery in Green Lanes, London called Antepliler. Quite wonderful. It is worth crossing town for.

    Never thought to try my own baklava until I came across a recipe for Istanbul vanilla and orange baklava by Silvena Rowe. It is superb. I have made it to whoops of delight from many dinner guests over the years. It is surprisingly easy to make and scores loads of brownie points with friends.

  • I am jealous that you get to eat all these yummy looking pastries!

  • Wonderful. Did you come across many different versions of ka’ak in Lebanon, David? I’m coming to discover that there are several kinds. You’ve noted the sesame bread version here, and there’s a biscuit-style cookie, as well as a traditional Easter sweet bread (with mahleb) dipped in a rosewater glaze. Perhaps others too!

    Thank you for the links to the recipes for these special pastries. Also find many Lebanese pastry recipes and all kinds of Lebanese dishes, with photos and stories, at Rose Water & Orange Blossoms, http://www.maureenabood.com.

  • Oh my Gosh…Last few days Im avoiding to visit your blog especially after you have started your beruit posts.But Im not able to, its just irresistible. Im going crazy seeing your posts. After reading about saj I tried making it at home here in Germany and which was a success. After your post on Mezze I had to make few of them. And now this post

  • What? No one offered you sweets after a meal? now that is not proper Lebanese hospitality!Those pictures are amazing. Knefeh or kanafa (depending on which region of Lebanon you are from) is a breakfast item. but other sweets are enjoyed anytime of the day. Maamoul and Baklawa are the best host(ess) present..especially the Baklawa. I love making Maamoul at home. I am teaching my 3 year old daughter how to make it to keep the tradition alive.Have you tried Sfoof? it is a semolina turmeric cake…pretty much the underdog but delicious.

  • Pam: They are what’s called sour cherries in the US, which probably are referred to as “pie” cherries since they’re often used in pie (!) You can get the kernels at Chinese herbalists, sometimes called apricot kernels.

    Samruddhi: Congrats on mastering the saj! After watching those guys (and the older woman) at work, I don’t think I could ever live up to them. My dream it to live in that village and learn to make the bread – which probably sounds more fun that it actually is ; )

    Madeleine and annie: Thanks ~ I don’t know of any books that are just about Middle Eastern pastries in English; it’s probably not a subject too many US publishers want to take on – likely because there isn’t enough of an audience. La Bague de Kenza in Paris published a book, in French, but I wasn’t able to link to it on their site because they use the dreaded “flash” so it can’t be linked to.

    • David: not to be a stickler, but are you certain that the cherries are the same and/or interchangeable? I looked them up in a botanical encyclopediae (I’m an amateur botanist). Sour cherries goes under the latin name of prunus ceranus, whereas mahlab is prunus mahaleb.

      • There are many varieties of sour cherries; in French, there are griottes, cerises anglais, and Montmorency – which I’m told are all different, yet are “sour” cherries. The Lebanese woman I was traveling with, who was raised in the US, called them “sour cherries” and that’s what they tasted like to me. Although botanically, I don’t know.

        • Prunus mahaleb are often referred to as St Lucie cherries whereas sour cherries, prunus ceranus, is Montomorency.
          Edible fruits and vegetables seldom offer problems with consuming the whole fruit. Some do but it’s rare. Still, I’d buy mahlab from a spicery.

        • Addendum: I sounded too categorical. there are, indeed, many different kinds of fruits within the same family. It’s not like there’s just one kind of apples or plums available (or whatever fruit). You can probably just grind up the kernels of sour cherries and try them out.

  • Oh, I think I say this to all your posts, but- these are my favorites!!!!
    I learned how to make pistachio baklava with rose water (my cousin had an Arabic mother) and it is a frequent request from friends.

    Recently at a restaurant where the chef/owner is from Algeria we ordered the baklava and it was good. When he came out to chat and discovered we were really into it, he revealed he saved the pieces made with pistachios and rose water for those who really knew and promptly brought out another plate with the “house” version- how delightful!! He said some folks thought the rose water tasted like they were eating perfume… that’s ok, I’ll eat their pieces!

  • @Pam – you can buy mahlab online at Penzey’s. :)

    David, I was so excited to see the first picture in your post—finally! I would learn what all of them are called so I could find recipes and make them! But none of the links mention these baklava-like variations. I tried the Al Bohsali website, and I could find the names, in the very least, but the recipe results from this were scattered at best. Any recommendations?

  • I do find most of these too sweet but would not mind trying the knafeh!

  • Kunefe is absolutly the best thing ever.. kunefe made the turkisch way with cheese & Kaddayf (tin vermicellie look a like) or kadayf and a milky puddinglike filling.

    But the most arabic styles of baklava are too sweet for me. So i just make my own.

  • David!!!!!! My entire life my mom has put mahleb in the brioche she’s been making!!!! It is THE thing that makes my mom’s brioche the best in the world. Yes, it might be not truly originally French, but! Swear if you have a packet of mahleb with you to try it & then let me know how you like it!!!! It is THE brioche that I love, the one that all the others measure against! ;) I am being only 10% biased here ;) I swear!
    Also, I love love love! the cigarette à la frangipane et fleur d’oranger from Murciano on 16, rue de Rosiers. Mmmmm…..

  • I remember Ramadan in Aqaba a couple of years back. 30 feet of sweets!

  • french food is cuter..how long are u in the middle east?

  • These shots just killed me! Same scenery in Turkey as well. Miss it so much. I am not sure what you wrote on this post but I really did not read anything , focused on pictures too much!

  • My personal favorite is pistachio borma (sometimes written burma, not to be confused with the country).

    I’ve spent a lot of time looking for an instructional video on how to make these at home, but haven’t found it. There’s a description here http://www.albohsali.com/sweets/borma/, but the devil is in the details, especially when it comes to forming the roll.

    A good burma is very dense and tightly rolled. I suspect that they cheat by using machines to do this part. My mom makes Konafa rolls all the time, but they end up looking more like this: http://i149.photobucket.com/albums/s63/zainaba22/DSCN0001-20-2.jpg

    Does anyone know how to get an al Bohsali style result?

    p.s. a good source in the US for mail-order trays of arab pastries is http://www.shatila.com/ The only better gift would be if you made them yourself!

  • Such attention to detail…and I can only imagine how delicious they must be. Your pictures are amazing, as usual). Wish I could try them.

  • Those pastries seems delightful. I love the way they are presented, also. Arabian pastries are most of the time divine. I use to bake some horn gazelle and montecao. A part of my family comes from Algeria when Algeria was french. So we use to eat arabian cake time to time and we like it.

  • We have dear friends who were born in Palestine and then raised in Lebanon. Whenever they come over they bring dessert. I now wonder if it’s a cultural thing. They are visiting for Derby Day when I’ll cook something middle eastern from Katherine Martinelli’s blog so I’ll have to ask them about the tradition of eating and gifting sweets. Maybe I’ll even try my hand at one of the recipes you have listed here. Thanks for always writing such inspiring and thought-provoking posts.

  • Wow! These sweets look absolutely unbelievable, and now I’m anxious to get my hands on some.

    Does anyone know of a high-quality and authentic Middle Eastern sweet shop in the DC/Virginia area who will ship regionally?

  • For a fancy dinner the progression is fruits, then the baklava-type sweets for dessert. When I have work events I always dread that, after they ply you with mezze and then a main dish, you get, “eat an apple, it’s good for digestion” and then they tray of baklava. Obviously, for more casual meals, just some lightly poached fruits or cookies/cake are offered.

    Also, not everyone puts mahlab in the kunafe syrup, some people just use lemon juice to cut the sweetness of the syrup. (Mahlab is great to have though, it’s nice in breads).

  • I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being a laptop traveler alongside you in Lebanon and want to thank you for an unexpected experience. In one of your early Lebanon posts, in passing you mentioned LA’s Zankou Chicken. I happened to be traveling to LA and made a note to check it out. I’m so glad I did. Someone on a review website somewhere compared the chicken to the “love child of Stevie Nicks and Jesus.” I’m not sure I would have characterized it thusly, but it was mighty good.

    So thanks for the recommendation. You have impact beyond what you may have imagined.

  • My husband’s family is Greek and his mom makes delicious baklava, so much better than store bought stuff. She often makes it with toasted almonds, rather than walnuts or pistachios, and her syrup has honey in it while I think Middle Eastern baklava uses a sugar syrup usually (although I may be wrong). Sometimes, if the mood strikes, she’ll scent the syrup with some cinnamon or a little orange.

    It is traditional to have an afternoon coffee (Turkish style, strong and thick) with sweets like these, with a glass of water alongside. A bit of sweet pastry, a sip of bitter coffee, a dash of water to clear the palate, then go again.

    My Greek father-in-law used to love to “pop in” in the afternoon unannounced looking for coffee. If I dared serve him coffee without something sweet to go along with, woe betide me!

  • Their desserts seem so ancient and foreign…but I love how everything is in such tiny squares – really makes it seem special. I grew up with a German hippie mom who made the best baklava ever, deep in suburban Alabama. For me the key is finely ground nuts – definitely not just chopped, the way I usually see it in American stores. Finely ground pistachio’s – mmm… Anyway, she was very into ethnic foods so we would often have that for dessert after say, kimchee and rice with barbeque for dinner, lol!

  • I’ve never tried Middle Eastern pastries. But I think by the look of it, it’s so delicious. Gotta taste all of them soon! :)

  • arabian sweets + pastries tend to be rich with all the nuts and dried fruits and overwhelmingly sweet with sugar syrup and honey so you can’t have too many of them in one go…

  • I have always loved Middle Eastern pastries, couldn’t be able to eat more than one small piece though, as they are excessively sweet. Tried to make baklava once, with bought pastry, wasn’t that much of success, they turned kinda dry so I think I should learn some secrets of doing my own pastry. Anyway, big fan of your books and articles!

  • You explain everything so well and pair the stories with beautiful pictures David :-)

    Kunefe is made completely different in Eastern Turkey, I was really surprised to see that they use different ingredient (but same concept). As far as I know, it has to be kadayif (shredded dough they call in US) and special unsalted stringy cheese cooked with butter in wood fire oven and after cooked they put syrup on it. It is really a special desert that certain ‘chefs’ knows how to do it properly :-)

    Mahlep is a condiment Middle Eastern people cannot live without it I think. You should try to add to your savory cookies or bakeries recipes. My mom used to say that, aside it gives a distinctive flavor it also makes the cookie or pastry flakier. I especially like the combination of mahlap and nigella seeds.

    Lastly, I am not sure if they serve Sahlap with it in Lebanon but in Turkey a sahlep cannot be served without mahlep and cinnamon.

  • I never really thought much of Lebanon as a holiday destination, but the tour you did looks fantastic and my friend Maria and I were discussing today the option of going to Lebanon for a taste tour like you did as you make and write everything look DELICIOUS!!! and she loves the taste tour as a few years ago she went on a Turkey Taste Tour and loved it. Thanks for a Great Blog or Blogs. (Always look forward to reading them).

  • Thank you for this lovely article! I adore lebanese and middle eastern sweets. I’ve followed a few of the recipe links and can’t wait to try a few. It seems I return to your blog when musing about food or thinking hmm…I have 3 pounds of kumquats to use. What has David got to say about this? Whether searching out pickle recipes, tarts, or candied french fruits, I find myself returning. Thank you!