Monday, August 5, 2013

Helwayat Belah (Egyptian Date Sweets)

In the summer of 2013, I had the privilege of visiting Luxor, Egypt during Ramadan. Ramadan is a month of fasting (including no beverages according to strict Islamic interpretation) from sunrise to sundown. Every night around 6:45 sung prayers would float across the Nile, and at 7pm the sleepy streets of Luxor would fill with people breaking their fast together. The nightly meal is called iftar, and is begun by eating dates and drinking sweet drinks (in Egypt it was date juice and mango juice). The meal that follows tends to be rich to provide enough energy for the next day, and it always includes dessert.

This was the view from my room on the East Bank of Luxor around 7pm when the sun was setting and people were singing their prayers before breaking fast
Somehow when planning my trip, I screwed up and booked my plane ticket back for June 18 rather than July 18. (To this day I have no clue why EgyptAir was willing to sell me a plane ticket for a date in the past!) Luxor was not offering any direct flights to New York for another 3 days. I was getting pretty sick of traveling at this point, so I opted to fly that day from Luxor to Cairo, spend the night in Cairo, and then fly from Cairo back to the United States the next day. I spent the night at LeMeridien hotel in Heliopolis, and one of their restaurants offered a traditional Ramadan buffet. Holy Moses was that food amazing! It was probably my best meal while in Egypt.

In this recipe, I have tried to funnel my knowledge of Egyptian desserts (Egyptians love phyllo and dates) to make a gluten-free and cane-sugar-free dessert to send back to my parents. To save time and money, you can also make this recipe using store-bought phyllo and white sugar. The name literally means "Date Sweets" (thanks to my friend Micah Schuurman for translating that!), and I think the results are worthy of being served at LeMeridien. (Okay, to be honest, the gluten-free version is probably not good enough to be served at a hotel. It's just too damn hard rolling out your own phyllo. But the filling is excellent, as is the syrup, so made with some normal phyllo it would be good enough to serve at LeMeridien.)

Just for kicks, here's a gratuitous photo of me in front of the Avenue of Sphinxes

Helwayat Belah Instructions

Time beginning to end: about 4 hours
If using pre-prepared phyllo: a little over 3 hours

1) Prepare the phyllo dough.  You can either buy this pre-made (normal, not GF) and defrost it, or make the gluten-free version up to the point where it sits by following the recipe from Glutenfreeda. To make the gluten-free phyllo dough, I used King Arthur bread flour (omitting the yeast), available at most health/natural food stores such as Whole Foods.  You'll need 2 boxes as this recipe definitely requires more than 3 cups of flour, and you need a TON of flour for flouring your rolling surface.

     4.5 cups GF bread flour, divided into 3.5 cups for the dough and 1 cup for dusting
     2 cups egg
     1 cup milk (reduced fat is fine, non-fat is not)

2) Make the first filling, maraba tamer. I used an edited version of the recipe found at First, I was trying to make this whole recipe free of cane-sugar (my parents don't eat that). Second, the recipe cited uses fresh dates, which I have never seen in the States. (Maybe in Hawai'i. Certainly not in Connecticut.) So I've listed the changed recipe below:

     3 cups water, divided into 1.5 cup measurements
     2 cups date sugar (available at health/natural food stores such as Whole Foods)
     2 cups chopped dried and pitted dates
     1+ tsp. ground cloves
     1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts
     1/4 cup finely chopped blanched almonds
     3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

     a) Boil 1.5 cups water in heavy-bottomed saucepan.
     b) Add date sugar and stir continuously until water comes to a boil a second time.
     c) Add the dates and turn heat to the low side of medium-low.
     d) Stir continuously until the dates form a paste. Add water as needed when the mixture becomes too thick. This will take 20-30 minutes.
     e) Add the nuts and lemon juice and let cook 4-5 minutes more.
     f) Remove from heat and let cool.
     g) Save 1.5 cups of the jam/paste (it will look more like a paste when you use the date sugar and dried dates) for the pastry and put the rest in the refrigerator or preserve by following proper canning procedures.

The leftovers make impressive gifts

Yeah, so the date sugar makes it look not so much like jam, but it tastes delish

3) Make the second filling, spiced walnuts.

     1 cup finely chopped walnuts
     1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
     1 tbsp. orange blossom water (available at Middle Eastern grocery stores or in the Caribbean or Middle Eastern section of your local grocery store)

     a) Mix all ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.

4) After the dough has sat for 2 hours, start to assemble your dessert.

     1 stick butter
     Corn starch or tapioca starch

     a) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Take out a 9x13 inch pan and butter it.
     b)Melt the remaining butter in a small saucepan on the stove.  Turn heat to low to keep butter melted but not browned.
     c) Wrap your dough in a large sheet of plastic wrap and flatten it into a smooth disk.  Unwrap and (using a very sharp knife) cut into 8 portions.  Take out one portion and re-wrap the rest. Re-wrap the dough after each portion you remove to keep the remaining dough moist.
     d) Turn the portion of phyllo dough out onto a VERY well floured surface. Make sure to cover all sides of the dough with flour and work it into a small oblong shape.
     e) Rub some corn starch or tapioca starch into your rolling pin, and then roll your dough into a 9x13 inch rectangle, flouring as needed. Don't worry about if the edges are rough because you'll be layering dough. I found it difficult to lift the dough when it was so flat and thin, so I would sometimes use my sharp knife to cut the dough into sections and then reassemble them in the pan. Once you have a sheet of dough in the pan, brush it all over the top with melted butter.
     f) Repeat with another layer of dough and butter.
     g) If you've been successful with rolling out the phyllo (I screwed up on my first try and had to throw away a section) then you can add a 3rd layer to your bottom to make it sturdier.
     h) Once you have your botton put together, spoon in half of the maraba tamer and spread it smooth.
     i) Place a layer of phyllo and butter over the maraba tamer.
1 layer of phyllo, marabar tamer spread thin, a second layer of phyllo, then butter

     j) Spread your walnut mixture over the phyllo and butter. It will be pretty well packed.
     k) Layer phyllo and butter over the walnut mixture.
The walnut filling under a layer of phyllo

     l) Spread the rest of your maraba tamer over the phyllo and butter.
     m) Finish up with 3 layers of phyllo and butter.  Make sure to butter every single layer so that they don't dry out.
     n) Use a very sharp knife to cut 4 long columns in your helwayat belah. Then cut either 9 rows or 9 diagonals to make 36 tiny squares or diamonds. (I made squares; diamonds confuse me.)
     o) Pop your uncooked helwayat belah in the oven for 50-60 minutes, until the top is golden brown.

5) Prepare the syrup (sharbat) while your helwayat belah is baking.  I used an authentic Egyptian recipe that I found at the Egyptian tourism website and which you can find here. Use the recipe for the Egyptian style syrup (sharbat) rather than the Greek style syrup.

     1 cup water
     1.5-2 cups sugar (I used beet sugar because my parents don't eat cane sugar, available at I also used 1.5 cups sugar rather than 2 cups because the syrup looked thick enough and I like to cut back on sugar where possible)
     2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
     2 tbsp. orange blossom water

6) Once the helwayat belah is done baking, evenly spoon your cooled sharbat over the helwayat belah to make sure that the sticky goodness gets on all portions of the top phyllo. You will fill the whole pan and it will look like there's too much syrup-- this is okay. Let cool for several hours and the syrup will be fully absorbed. Once the syrup is absorbed, re-cut (just to make sure nothing gets stuck) and eat!

You can see how the sharbat comes all the way up the sides, but it is absorbed after a few hours

Shukran!  Translation: nom nom nom

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