x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Sweet and salty - the perfect combination

Traditionally, during Ramadan, when the sunset call for prayer fills the air, many Muslims take a few dates with either a glass of water, a glass of laban or buttermilk, then proceed to eat the rest of the meal after prayer. Qamr el-din, a sweet nectar made with apricot leather, is often sipped alongside the meal. Every family has their own Ramadan traditions, and ours were the desserts that mounted our table after iftar; kunafeh to honour our Levantine heritage, and qatayef to represent our Gulf constituency.

Qatayef are small yeasted pancakes folded around a filling of either cinnamon-spiced walnuts, cream or sweet, stretchy sweet cheese brightened with orange flower water, fried until crispy on the outside and squishy within, and then doused with honey or syrup. Kunafeh, which is named after the Arabic word for 'velvet', is a slab of salty-sweet cheese blanketed with a layer of either moist semolina cake or vermicelli-thin shreds of pastry, baked until golden, and for the last word in lily-gilding, doused in syrup. When in the US, I often crave both kunafeh and qatayef, and have learnt to make an approximation of the impossible to find Nabulsi cheese used in both desserts by combining fresh ricotta and mozzarella.

This week, I learnt about - and ate - dahi vada for the first time, and it got me thinking. Many of my favourite foods combine sweet and salty flavours in a manner similarly to kunafeh. There's bisteeya, the famed pie of Morocco; rich and gamy with stewed pigeon, then softened with a mantled crust of pastry, powdered sugar and cinnamon. There's labne, a strained yogurt cheese of the Levant, which I like with olives and mint leaves as readily as with fresh or dried fruit, nuts and honey. There's burek, a pastry eaten throughout the Mediterranean, and beyond, and which is typically filled with salty cheese in Turkey, and can be stuffed with sweet citrus custard in Greece and Cyprus.

These days, my favourite sweet-salty recipe is an adaptation of a recipe for pull-apart cheese rolls by May Bsisu, author of The Arab Table. An itinerant, multicultural woman after my own heart, Bsisu was born in Jordan to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese-Jordanian mother. She was raised in Lebanon and now lives in the US. These rolls are transcendent. I've never had anything like them anywhere.

Savoury cheese rolls For the dough 1½tsp active dry yeast ¼tsp sugar 1 cup warm water (between 40°C and 45°C) ½tsp salt ½ cup (8tbsp) powdered whole milk 1 large egg ½ cup (8tbsp) vegetable or olive oil Olive oil, for coating bowl and pan For the filling 150g halloumi or akawi cheese 150g good mozzarella ¼ cup (4tbsp) finely chopped fresh parsley 1tbsp finely chopped fresh oregano or thyme leaves

¼ cup (4tbsp) sesame seeds 1tbsp nigella seeds ¼ cup olive oil (4tbsp), plus extra for drizzling Preparation: To make the dough, mix the sugar and yeast into the warm water in a bowl. Stir until dissolved. Set aside for about five minutes, or until the mixture is foamy. In a large bowl, mix the egg and vegetable oil into the flour. Salt and give the mixture a good stir. Add the yeast mixture and mix until incorporated, then begin kneading dough in the bowl until it comes together. Turn out on to a floured work surface and knead until very smooth, elastic, and no longer sticky, adding more flour by tablespoonfuls as needed for about 10 minutes. Coat a glass or ceramic bowl with oil, place the dough in the bowl and roll it around to coat it with the oil. Cover with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap, and set aside in a warm, draught-free place until it has doubled in size, about one hour.

To make the filling: Soak the halloumi or akawi in cold water, then drain. Repeat three times. Cut cheese and mozzarella into small pieces or grate them, then combine in a bowl with the herbs and mix. Set aside. To bake the rolls: Preheat the oven to 475°F (245°C). Punch down the dough. Combine the sesame and nigella seeds on a flat surface or a dish. Fill a small bowl with the ¼ cup olive oil. Coat the inside of a 30cm cake pan with olive oil. Liberally coat your hands with oil.

Pull off a small handful of dough and squeeze to make a fist, until a golf ball-sized wad of dough comes through the opening between the thumb and index finger. Pinch it off, then flatten the dough in your palm, stretching it to fit. Spoon 1tbsp of the filling in the centre and pinch the edges around it to seal, forming a little beggar's purse. Dip the smooth side of the roll into the olive oil, then dip it into the seed mixture before placing it, seed side up, in the cake pan. Repeat, arranging the rolls in tight concentric circles in the pan, beginning with the outermost ring and working towards the centre. Spoon a bit of olive oil over the rolls and bake until they are golden. This will take about 25 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool.

Before serving, run a knife around the edge of the rolls to loosen. Invert a plate over the pan, flip the plate and pan together. Remove the pan. Then flip them again onto another plate so that they are seed side up. Let your guests pull rolls - one, two, or three- at a time - from the loaf. Sweet cheese rolls Proceed with the dough as above. For the filling, simply eliminate the herbs and add 100 grams of ricotta cheese; more if you prefer to sub ricotta for one of the other two cheeses in the recipe. Bake as directed.

To serve: Once the rolls are baked and while they are still hot, drizzle with attar syrup. To make the syrup, stir together one cup of sugar and one cup of water in a saucepan over a medium heat until sugar is dissolved and mixture has thickened to coat the back of a spoon. Add the juice of half a lemon and a few drops of orange-flower water. Store in a glass container and chill. Pour the syrup over the still-warm cheese rolls.