Qatayef Asafiri, Ramadan’s Sweetest Treat

Qatayef asafiri (aka little birds)—petite pancakes folded around a creamy filling, edged with nuts, and drizzled with honey—are the holiday’s most anticipated confection.

Published Feb. 6, 2023.

Every year in the Arab world during Ramadan, bakery lines start to wrap around street corners as dusk approaches. Excitement fills the air—along with the delicate scents of orange and rose blossoms—as patrons wait for the fragrant, colorful desserts of iftar, the breaking of the fast that occurs daily after sunset. One of the most cherished treats of the monthlong holiday is qatayef asafiri, handheld dazzlers perfumed with spices and floral extracts. They’re made by stuffing small semolina pancakes with a creamy filling, folding them to create a beak shape (“asafiri” means “little birds”), adorning the exposed filling with chopped pistachios, and drizzling on attar (sugar syrup) or honey.

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The smell of it reminds you of your mom . . . your childhood.
Jordanian cook Suhaila Daoud

Whether to celebrate Ramadan or soothe a longing for home, the highly anticipated dessert is also prepared in U.S. kitchens like that of Suhaila Daoud, a Jordanian home cook who sat down with me on a friend’s patio to discuss the confections over a pot of Turkish coffee. “Being here in this country . . . you miss home,” Daoud said. “[So,] you cook the food, [and] the smell of it reminds you of your mom, of where you grew up, and your childhood.”

Wholly Delicious

Regardless of the cook’s whereabouts, most qatayef batters are made with a blend of nutty-sweet semolina flour, all-purpose flour, milk, a leavener, and aromatic spices such as mahlab (ground cherry seed kernels that evoke bitter almond and stone fruit), ground anise seed, and cinnamon. Fresh, floral rose water and herbaceous, lightly bitter orange blossom water feature prominently, too. I also add a measure of honey for pancakes that taste well balanced on their own as well as with their accompaniments. 

Pancakes to Go

Qatayef (the name refers to the pancakes and the assembled dessert) likely date to the Middle Ages, when they are said to have been dreamt up for a caliph who craved a substantial finale for iftar, the meal that breaks a long day of fasting. Today, supermarkets sell the pancakes by the kilo or half kilo to take home and stuff (the filling is sold separately); bakeries and street vendors tend to offer ready-to-eat treats.

Qatayef can be small or large. Little ones, called qatayef asafiri, receive a creamy filling, a pale-green pistachio garnish, and a sweet drizzle; larger qatayef are folded around jibneh (a sweet, firm cow’s milk cheese) or nuts and/or raisins in a half-moon shape, fried or baked, and doused in sugar syrup. 

Some recipes lighten the cakes with yeast, others, chemical leaveners. I like a combination of baking powder and baking soda; the acidity from a touch of yogurt helps the latter react. (Fear not if your batter initially seems quite thin; after the standard 30-minute rest, the flour will hydrate and the mixture will thicken.)

The batter is portioned onto a hot griddle or into a nonstick skillet to create disks about 4 inches in diameter. Importantly, the springy cakes are cooked on only one side, until bubbles cover the pale top surface and the bottom is golden brown. These tiny pockets become the moist, tacky suction cups that seal the pancake partway closed and cradle the luscious cream and syrup.

It’s vitally important to not dry out the holey tops of the pancakes: “If you overcook [them], the edges of it will dry up . . . and [they] won’t shut completely,” warned Daoud. Layering the cooked cakes between sheets of parchment paper helps keep them moist so that their pinched edges hold fast.

Filling in the Blanks

For the filling, ashta—lush dairy made by boiling raw milk, skimming off the cream that collects on the surface, and then clotting the cream with acid—is traditional. Like the pancakes, the milky ashta is sweetened and infused with spices and intensely floral rose and orange blossom waters.

Arab cooks in the United States often use ricotta or mascarpone in place of ashta. I prefer mascarpone, which is made in a similar way to ashta, by coagulating cream or milk with acid and then cooking it until it reaches a spreadable consistency. The fresh, velvety cheese can be loosened with a little milk, if needed. 

Step-by-Step: Atayef Asafiri (Little Birds)

If you can make pancakes and a simple mascarpone filling, you have what it takes to produce these impressive holiday treats.

Spoon 2 tablespoons of batter into skillet in 3 places. Cook until entire surface is covered with bubbles, top is no longer raw, and bottom is golden brown. Do not flip. 

With browned side facing out, fold 1 pancake in half and pinch edges together to seal, leaving quarter of pancake open for filling. 

Insert pastry tip about 1 inch into opening and squeeze gently until mascarpone mixture fills cavity and starts to appear around opening, about 2 tablespoons per pancake. 

Dip exposed mascarpone into pistachios. Place filled pancake on serving platter. Repeat to make 24 filled pancakes. Drizzle with honey.

To assemble the dessert, it’s common to spoon some filling onto the honeycombed side of the pancake and then press and partially close its edges around the filling. But I like the efficiency of a pastry bag: Seal the disk into a beak shape first and then use the bag to load the sweet cheese into the opening. 

To finish, I lightly dip the plump pancakes into a bed of crushed pistachios before arranging them prettily on a platter (they’re often plated in a circular pattern like spokes of a wheel); and drizzling them generously with honey. (I favor the simple mellowness of honey over attar, which is typically scented with the same flower extracts contained in the pancakes and filling.)

The vibrant colors, scents, and tastes of these pillowy delights may transport you to a new setting—or offer a chance to taste home again.

The semolina pancakes and mascarpone filling are scented with richly sweet and floral rose and orange blossom waters, as well as heady anise seeds, cinnamon, and mahlab (ground cherry pits).

Qatayef Asafiri (Little Birds)

Qatayef asafiri (aka little birds)—petite pancakes folded around a creamy filling, edged with nuts, and drizzled with honey—are the holiday's most anticipated confection.
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