Syrian cuisine is an amalgamation of the ancient influences in the Levantine region, also known as the greater Syria.
Throughout history the Levantine region has been occupied by various foreign settlements including Greeks, French, Arabs and the Ottoman Turks. Hence the culinary styles of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, the Palestinian Arab territories and Syria have a lot in common. It is generally difficult to assign geo tags to many Levantine dishes as they are well interspersed throughout the region.
What is halawet el-jibn?
One such recipe, a dessert, which is popular throughout the Greater Syrian region, is halawet el-jibn. In the Arabic language, halawet means sweetness and el jibn means confection.
Famous in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, these sweet cheese rolls are delicate and melt-in-the-mouth type desserts. This delicate confection originated in the city of Hama in Syria but it became so popular and famous in the city of Homs. Halawet el-jibn incorporates all the major Middle Eastern flavors like rose water, orange blossom water, rose petal jams, pistachios and the quintessential cream filling in Middle Eastern pastries: ashta.
Preparation of halawet el-jibn can be divided into 3 major steps; preparation of (i) the semolina cheese dough, (ii) the cream filling and (iii) the sugar syrup and toppings.
While the sugar syrup is a simple-syrup made of sugar and water, the outer dough and the cream filling form the crucial part of the recipe. It has all the ethnic ingredients that give this dessert a unique Levantine flavor.
Akkawi & Majdouli cheese – Levantine local cheeses
Akkawi & Majdouli, the popular Middle Eastern speciality cheeses are added with semolina to form the outer dough.
Akkawi is named after the Israeli city Akka from where it originated. In Arabic, akkawi means “from Akka”. Akkawi is a brine cheese made from pasteurized cow’s milk and is not left to age or mature unlike other popular cheeses. This Levantine speciality can be served as an appetizer or as snacks, with fruits or as a part of the main course.
On the other hand, majdouli is a slightly salty string type cheese, which is hand braided. In Lebanon, majdoul means “string” and hence the name majdouli.
The importance of cheese in this recipe is to provide elasticity to the dough. The texture of both akkawi and majdouli cheese are very similar to that of mozzarella. Hence mozzarella is the best substitute in this recipe if you reside outside the Middle East and are unable to find this regional speciality.
Ashta – The Middle Eastern clotted cream
This popular Lebanese/Arabian cream is the star ingredient of this spectacular dessert. It is used as filling in many Middle eastern pastries like halawet el-jibn, qatayef, kanafeh, or znoud el sit. It is a vital ingredient in the Middle Eastern cuisine and it can also be used as a topping in pastries along with honey and jam.
It goes by different names such as ashta, eshta, or ishta depending on the regional dialects. These variations are derived from the Arabic root word kashta. Kashta or kishta in Arabic means a “layer of thick cream”.
Ashta is traditionally prepared by boiling raw whole milk and then skimming off the layer of cream that forms on the surface. This collected cream is clotted and delicately flavored with orange blossom water or rose water.
Even though ashta is quite simple to make, the process is expensive and time consuming. Hence, the locals mostly prefer store bought ashta or resort to an alternative method of preparation. The easy homemade ashta contains milk, cornstarch and bread to get the taste and texture closely imitating the authentic cream. For those living abroad, ashta can be found in most Middle Eastern supermarkets.
Halawet el-jibn is a delicacy that can be easily prepared at home. It is a known fact that the Middle East region celebrates and takes pride in its delectable confectionaries and sugar drenched pastries. Aish as-saraya, qatayef, basbousa, harees, kanafeh, baklava, ka’ak, sfouf and maamoul are few of the Levantine highlights.
- 2 cups caster sugar
- 1 cup water
- ½ teaspoon lemon juice
- ¾ teaspoon orange blossom water
- ¾ teaspoon rose water
- 1½ cup water
- ¾ cup caster sugar
- 1 cup fine semolina
- 8 oz. akkawi and majdoola cheese
- 1 tablespoon rose water
- 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
- 14 oz. ashta Lebanese cream
- Crushed pistachios
- Rose petals jam optional
- In a saucepan on medium-high heat, add the sugar, water and lemon juice.
- Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce the heat and simmer on low heat for 12 minutes. The syrup should thicken slightly. Make sure to use a timer because if the syrup cooks longer, it may thicken too much.
- Stir in the orange blossom water and rose water at the end of cooking.
- Transfer to a glass bowl and let cool to room temperature.
- In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, cook the water and sugar together, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves.
- Bring to a boil then add the fine semolina, stirring constantly with a spatula until it is well mixed and slightly thickened (about 30 seconds).
- Reduce the heat then add the cheese and rose water, and mix well over low to medium heat until the cheese has melted and the mixture forms a soft and homogeneous dough.
- Allow to cool until the mixture is warm enough to handle.
- Divide the dough into 2 equal parts.
- Take one first half of the dough and reserve the other half in a cloth.
- Place the dough on a sheet of parchment paper and cover with another sheet.
Using a rolling pin, roll the dough between the 2 sheets into a rectangle of about 9 x 13 inches (23 x 33 cm).
- Remove the top sheet.
- Using a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut the uneven sides of the dough to obtain a neat rectangle. You can use a ruler or the edge of an object to help you get straight sides.
Add the ashta into a piping bag and cut about 1 inch (2 cm) from the tip.
Spread the ashta on the long side closest to you, about 1 inch (2 cm) from the side.
- Using the edge of the parchment paper under the dough, lift the dough and wrap it over the cream, until the cream is completely covered. The sealed dough looks like a thin log.
- Using a sharp knife, make a cut along the log to cut it from the rest of the dough.
- Repeat this procedure to create 2 additional logs.
For cleaner cuts, place the logs in the freezer for about 20 minutes to firm them up a bit. Then, using a sharp knife, divide the logs into 2-inch (5 cm) pieces, to obtain about 30 pieces.
- Repeat the exact same procedure with the second piece of dough reserved in the cloth.
- Arrange the semolina rolls on a serving tray, sprinkle each with a little ground pistachios in the center and rose petal jam.
- Serve alongside the syrup, drizzling each piece before eating.
- Store in the refrigerator in an airtight metal box.