During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drink for as long as the sun is shining. When the fast is broken at sunset, iftar is served, ushering in a rich spread of savory food polished off with a sweet ending. In Lebanon, while some of the local pastries are readily available year-round, others emerge exclusively for Ramadan. Let’s explore the many desserts that keep the four-week cycle of fasting and feasting sustainable!
In Ramadan, several pastry shops pitch tents outdoors to fry kellaj. Filo pockets are stuffed with fresh dairy cream, submerged in oil, dipped in syrup and finally drizzled with crushed pistachio and candied rose petals to boot. Akin in composition to another Lebanese pastry called znoud el sitt, kellaj are only available during the holy season and particularly popular among those fasting.
Atayef resemble blinis or miniature pancakes and come in two varieties. Traditionally, they’re filled with cheese or crushed walnuts, folded into crescents and fried before being doused in syrup. Atayef asafiri don’t require baking: shaped like cornucopia, they come brimming with cream, blanketed in ground pistachios and kissed with sugar water. Good luck trying to restrain yourself from a second (or fifth) helping.
If you don’t know knefeh, you don’t know Levantine pastry. And man, oh man, are you missing out! Revered as the national cheesecake of Lebanon, knefeh makes for the perfect iftar dessert or equally a dawn dish served at suhoor. The base is crafted from semolina and atop it, a blanket of molten cheese. After baking, knefeh can be packed into a sesame pouch and drizzled with syrup to taste.
Also fashioned from semolina, nammoura, or basbousa, are baked in rectangular sheets and slice up into small squares or rhombuses. Blanched almonds crown each piece, which comes wafting with both orange flower water and rose water. Don’t let the deceptively small size of nammoura mislead you—these babies pack in a lot of punch!
Common to both Ramadan and Easter, maamoul are semolina domes caching crushed walnuts, pistachios, or date paste. Some pastry houses are innovating with fillings as creative as honey, caramelized rose petals, candied orange, and even Nutella. Maamoul madd converts the shortbread cookie to sandwich form, layering the filling between top and bottom crusts. A number of famous strongholds in Beirut, Tripoli and Saida have been baking these wonders for over a century, and their expertise is undeniable.
Danielle was born into a Lebanese household in Southern California. Growing up, she constantly found herself living between two realities: outwardly, she was an American girl who loved swinging on the monkey bars and reading The Baby-Sitters Club. Inwardly, she was Lebanese, speaking Arabic at home and forbidden from attending sleepover parties.
With age comes awareness and self-confidence, and Danielle learned to embrace these differences. She accepted that she'd forever be suspended between two worlds, and that she'd be like a tapestry, one culture woven into the other. As she grew older and worldlier, Danielle promised herself she would one day settle in Lebanon.
And here she is. Three college degrees and a few consulting gigs later, she is now in her parents’ homeland, working in strategy management, fleshing out her blog Beirutista, and contributing to Bitfood. Danielle gets her hair coiffed several times a week, like any proper Lebanese girl, and she loves the traditional mezze. But she still prefers peanut butter to Nutella. And her American accent is unmistakable.