From Beirut to London in 100 Dishes

Assafiri/Atayef bil jibneh — Lebanese pancakes with cheese

DSC_0786Little birds come in different shapes and sizes.  There are the ones my uncles used to catch and roast in the Bekaa.  Or those my brother still hunts from time to time in north Lebanon in an area he describes as a kind of Shangri La — a valley that no one goes to, that has been preserved from the random half-finished buildings that now blight so much of Lebanon.  The reason for its pristine beauty?  It’s where drug lords grow their fields of hashish, safe from interference.  But birds can be scarce in other parts of the country.  My husband was once sitting in a small, rundown cafe by the sea in the south just near the Israeli border.  The owner came to chat.  At one point, he stopped talking and asked my husband to listen.  There was silence.  What is it? my husband asked him.  You hear that? the owner asked.  My husband said he couldn’t hear anything.  Exactly, the cafe owner said.  We killed them all, he added.  We shot all the birds and now there are none.  DSC_0399In Beirut — in downtown — kids come to play with the pigeons that cluster there as they do in most big cities, under the watchful eyes of the soldiers guarding the not exactly overworked parliament building on the other side of the square.  But the birds I am thinking about right now don’t fly, although they are equally if not more delicious.  Another Ramadan treat, Assafiri ( or little birds) is a small soft pancake brimming with syrup and stuffed with cheese.  My little twist on it is to use mascarpone. It’s clearly on the non-austere side of Ramadan rituals.  Again, I used to make these little cakes for my friends at university, who came to visit me in the dying days of the civil war, as my mind was moving secretly more and more towards new adventures — which ended up involving elopement and a kind of exile.  Tasting the Assafiri now, I am reminded of those strange days when I was privately contemplating the possibility of a future that had nothing to do with my past.  I didn’t know at the time that I would take more with me than a few dated dresses and an eighties bouffant from one of the surviving hairdressers around Hamra.  The little birds I am serving my friends this Ramadan at iftar are part of the Beirut I brought with me.


200g of plain flour

300ml of semi skimmed milk  or waterDSC_0840

1 tea spoon of yeast

1/2 tea spoon of sugar

a pinch of salt

1/2 tea spoon of bicarbonate of soda



200g of mascarpone cheese

100g of double cream

1 large spoon of icing sugar

1 tea spoon of lemon juice

100g of pistachio nuts and two spoon of Rose Petal jam for garnish



200g of sugar

200ml of water

1 tea spoons of lemon juice

1 tea spoon of rose water

Atayef 1

  • Prepare the syrup first
  • Put all the ingredients in a small pan, stir until the sugar is dissolved then place on the hob on a medium temperature
  • Stir from time to time until the syrup is no longer watery, this will take around 20 – 30 minutes
  • Leave aside to cool down
  • Whisk the flour, milk, yeast salt and sugar together and leave aside for 2 hours
  • When ready, sprinkle the bicarbonate of soda on the runny dough and mix well. Please note the consistency is similar to pancaked dough.
  • Use a large non stick pan with a thick bottom to cook the atayef
  • Put the pan on a medium heat — once hot reduce temperature to minimum
  • Take 1 large spoon from the runny dough and pour in the pan in a small circle to make a small size atayef ( the size depends on your taste)
  • Fry the atayef on one side until golden, this will only take 1 minute or less, remove and leave to cool down
  • Do the same with the rest of the dough but make sure you don’t pile them on top of each other once ready
  • Meanwhile prepare the filling, mix all the cheeses and cream together, add icing sugar and lemon juice and mix well
  • Fill each atayef with 1 tea spoon of the cheese mix and close the two sides together only half way
  • Put the atayef on a serving plate, garnish with pistachio nuts and drizzle with 1 tea spoon of syrup on each one
  • Serve immediately. It will make around 30 atayefDSC_0784

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