A Ramadan Guide to Buying the Best Sweets in Lebanon
Ramadan is a holy time for Muslims who, in their spiritual catharsis, abstain from food as long as the sun is up. When the fast is broken at sunset, a wide array of comfort food is served in what is known as Iftar. Equally important as the main dishes are the desserts. Several of these pastries are exclusive to Ramadan, while others are available year-round.
Let’s take a bite into the traditional Lebanese pastries that define this season. I guarantee that after this tour, you’ll be petitioning to have them linger the whole year through!
Perhaps as quintessential to Ramadan as it is to Easter, maamoul is a must. A semolina pastry stuffed with the usual suspects like crushed walnuts, pistachios, or softened dates, maamoul are starting to be redefined by more creative fillings like honey, caramelized rose petals, and even candied orange. There’s also a tray form of this pastry, called maamoul madd, which sandwiches the filling between two crusts. Safsouf Sweet’s stronghold in Tarik el Jdideh has been baking these babies since 1931, and their expertise is irrefutable.
Nammoura, basbousa, hareesa — a rose by another name would smell just as sweet! This Levantine pastry is fashioned from semolina and coconut and soaked in orange flower water or rose water syrup. Decorated with blanched almonds, nammoura is usually served in small square or diamond shapes. But don’t let its deceptively slight size fool you—these babies are intensely sweet and a warehouse of calories! Try Kasr el Helou’s deluxe edition, which comes smothered with pistachios and pine nuts.
Atayef can be described as delicate miniature pancakes that come in two varieties. The regular ones are usually stuffed with a cheese or nut filling, then sealed in the shape of a crescent and either baked or fried before being drizzled with syrup. Atayef asafiri, on the other hand, are served without cooking: they are filled like miniscule cornucopia with cream, dipped in ground pistachios and touched with sugar water. Rafaat Hallab’s is a supreme crowd-pleaser, and you’ll have trouble restraining yourself from seconds, thirds, fourths—you get the picture.
Easily the most recognized Levantine pastry after baklawa is knefeh, which varies from region to region—and country to country—and is prepared with either cheese or ashta. Hailed as the national cheesecake of Lebanon, it is just as readily a breakfast item served at suhoor as it is a dessert for iftar. The crust indeed resembles crushed graham crackers but is in fact semolina, and once this dessert emerges piping hot from the oven, it is stuffed inside a sesame pouch and doused in syrup. Singling out one knefeh specialist would be heresy in Lebanon, as every neighborhood’s got their favorite, but for those willing to exact the pilgrimage to Saida, Al Anwar is a must.
During Ramadan, several pastry shops erect stand-alone tents where they churn out kellaj. Fresh dairy cream is layered between phyllo dough in the form of a pocket, fried, dipped in syrup and sprinkled with pistachio and candied rose petals. Resembling an achta-filled turnover and similar to znoud el sitt in composition, kellaj is only available during the holy season. Al Baba, a pioneer in Lebanese sweets with roots in Saida, makes an incredible kellaj and even proposes inventive fusion desserts like baklawa with cheese and chocolate warbat with ashta.