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Love pistachios? Try these sweet recipes from Salma Hage, the grande dame of Lebanese cooking – from tahini cheesecake to rose water friands.
Born in Lebanon in the 1940s, Salma Hage relocated to London as a young woman. She built a successful career as a chef in the UK, cooking mostly British and European-inspired dishes – but at home, she almost always made the Middle Eastern food she remembered from childhood.
It wasn’t until she turned 70 that Hage found fame as a Middle Eastern cook. Her first book, 2012’s The Lebanese Kitchen (now published as The Lebanese Cookbook) was a bestseller. Her second, The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook, won the prestigious James Beard Award in 2017, with The Mezze Cookbook following one year later. And now, Hage has published her first book dedicated entirely to desserts.
Out this month, Middle Eastern Sweets is packed with recipes for desserts, pastries, treats and drinks. Many of the dishes in the cookbook are versions of traditional recipes that have been handed down by generations of Hage’s female ancestors in Lebanon.
Others are drawn from different Middle Eastern cultures: think Egyptian om ali (bread and butter pudding), Turkish candied pumpkin and Persian marzipan sweets.
Throughout the cookbook, certain ingredients appear again and again. Orange blossom and rose waters are used to flavour Arabic pancakes, Turkish delight and vegan baklava. Tahini is swirled into chocolate truffles and rice pudding. Mahleb, a marzipan-esque spice made from the seeds of the St Lucie cherry, lends its delicate taste to cardamom cakes and saffron cookies.
But one of the star ingredients of Middle Eastern Sweets has to be the pistachio. The tender green nut, which is native to the Middle East, appears throughout Hage’s cookbook in various forms – from buttery Syrian biscuits to rich date brownies.
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Below, Hage shares five of her best Middle Eastern-inspired pistachio dessert recipes. All of these dishes use raw pistachios, rather than the roasted or salted variety – if you can’t find them in a shop near you, order raw shelled pistachios online (£4.99 for 125g, Farmdrop). The other ingredients should be available in your local supermarket or Middle Eastern grocers, but you can also try Arabica, Sous Chef and Ottolenghi’s online shop.
“Food, and particularly sweet things, is one of the most ubiquitous languages of love, transcending countries, generations and dialects,” Hage writes. That’s a cooking philosophy we can get on board with.
Syrian sesame and pistachio biscuits (barazek)
Salma says: “These thin, crisp cookies have the best elements of shortbread, baklava and crunchy ginger snap cookies all in one. With gently toasted nuts and seeds, laced with aromatic honey coating a buttery, light cookie, these are enjoyed all over the Middle East dunked into strong hot tea or Arabic coffee.
“They’re thought to have their origins in Syria, probably because the bakeries in Damascus were historically famous for their barazek, sold in decorative tins. Do try to track mahleb down – it’s really what makes these cookies taste as though they could be sold in a souk, or indeed a Damascene bakery.”
Makes about 25
Prep: 45 minutes
Rest: 20 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes (may need to be cooked in a few batches)
- ½ tsp fast-acting dried yeast
- 125g unsalted butter, softened
- 150g icing sugar
- ½ tsp mahleb
- 200g plain flour
- 150g sesame seeds
- 100g raw pistachios, roughly chopped
For the syrup:
- 100g caster sugar
- 25g runny honey
Place the yeast in a small mixing bowl and cover with 50ml of warm water. Set aside for 10 minutes until the liquid begins to foam and smells active (not unlike a brewery).
Beat the butter and sugar together with an electric whisk until pale and fluffy.
Add the yeast and water and beat again.
Sift the mahleb, then the flour, into the bowl, 50g at a time, beating each time to combine.
Shape the dough into a ball and cover with cling film. Place the dough in a cool spot (not in the fridge) for 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4.
While the dough is resting, make the syrup. Measure the sugar and honey into a medium saucepan and add 125ml of water. Bring to the boil, without a lid, then turn the temperature down so the liquid is at a vibrant simmer. Allow to bubble for 8 minutes, until reduced in volume by a third and just starting to thicken. Remove from the heat.
Have a bowl of water ready nearby. Sprinkle the sesame seeds on a plate and cover with syrup. Mix to distribute the syrup evenly.
Arrange the pistachios on a separate plate.
Take a teaspoon of the rested dough and roll it into a ball between slightly wet palms (use the water from the ready prepared bowl). Flatten the dough into a thin disc between your hands – it will be difficult to work with, but water between your hands and the dough will prevent everything from becoming too sticky.
Press one side of the dough into the pistachios, then flip it on to the sesame seed plate. Try to make sure the cookie is generously covered in the nuts.
Put the coated cookie on a baking sheet lined with baking paper, sesame seed side up.
Repeat with the remaining dough, coating either side with pistachio and sesame seeds. Leave about 3cm between the cookies on the baking sheet and use two sheets if you need to.
Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, until deep golden at the edges.
Allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheet before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.
Store in an airtight container for up to a week.
Tahini and chocolate date brownies
Salma says: “While brownies might not sound like a typically Middle Eastern sweet treat, the addition of tahini blends the culinary traditions of the Levant with more familiar Western flavours.
“I use medjool dates in this recipe to allow for less processed sugar. Dates also add a warm bass-note sweetness that’s absent from white sugar. These brownies will keep for up to three days in an airtight container, and also freeze well.”
Prep: 15 minutes, plus 30 minutes for soaking
Cook: 30–40 minutes
- 12 pitted medjool dates
- 300g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
- 350g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), broken into chunks
- 4 large eggs
- 200g caster sugar
- 1 tbsp vanilla paste
- 1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
- 175g plain flour
- 50g raw pistachios, roughly chopped
- 8 tsp tahini
Soak the dates in warm water for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4.
Grease a 20 × 30cm baking pan and line it with baking paper.
Drain the dates and blitz them in a food processor until a paste forms. Scrape into a mixing bowl and set aside.
Place the butter and chocolate in a heatproof bowl and set over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Stir frequently until the chocolate is half melted, then take the saucepan off the heat and continue to stir until the chocolate is completely melted. Set aside to cool.
Put the eggs, sugar, and vanilla into the mixing bowl of dates and whisk with an electric whisk until the mixture is light and fluffy.
Fold the cocoa powder and flour through the egg mixture until completely combined. Then, stir in the melted chocolate and butter along with the pistachios.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, then dot the tahini on top, in random spots around the pan. Drag a skewer through the tahini to create an attractive lighter swirl on top.
Bake the brownies in the centre of the oven for 30 minutes, until firm to the touch but still soft and gooey in the centre – they may need an extra 5 minutes, depending on your oven. The brownies will continue to cook as they cool.
Allow the brownies to cool completely, then remove them from the pan and cut them into 30 squares.
Rose water and quince pistachio friands
Salma says: “Friands are typically individual almond-based cakes, light as clouds, which use egg whites as the raising agent. I use a mixture of pistachio and almonds to give an intriguing flavour, which pairs well with the quince paste and rose mixture.
“Quince paste, or quince cheese or membrillo, is a coral-coloured set quince preserve typically served with cheese. I love using it to glaze cakes and in baking for its intense orchard fruit flavour. It’s available year-round from most supermarkets and specialist food stores.”
Prep: 35 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
For the cakes:
- 200g unsalted butter, melted, plus 25g for greasing
- 100g raw pistachios
- 100g blanched almonds
- 200g icing sugar
- 85g plain flour
- 6 medium egg whites
- 75g red berries (I like strawberries and raspberries) and/or pomegranate seeds
For the quince filling:
- 100g quince paste
- 2 tsp rose water
Grease a 12-hole muffin pan with butter and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4.
Put the pistachios and almonds into a food processor with the icing sugar and blitz until a fine crumb forms. Remove a couple of tablespoons of the nut mixture and set aside. Decant the rest into a large mixing bowl, add the flour, and combine.
Froth the egg whites lightly with a fork until bubbly throughout, then fold them into the nut mixture with the melted butter until no dry patches are visible.
Pour the mixture into the prepared muffin pan, stopping 1cm below the top edge of each hole.
Measure the quince paste and rose water into a small saucepan and add a couple of tablespoons of water. Cook over a low heat for 2–3 minutes, until the quince paste is soft and pliable.
Mix the ingredients in the saucepan with a spatula until smooth and combined. Divide the quince between the muffin tins, placing just shy of a teaspoonful in the centre of each hole.
Top with berries or pomegranate seeds (slice any large raspberries or strawberries) and the reserved nuts.
Bake in the oven for 20 minutes, until the cakes have risen above the tops of the moulds and a skewer inserted comes out clean.
Allow to cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then cool completely on a wire rack.
Yoghurt and honey ice pops
Salma says: “Healthier than ice cream and incredibly fun (and easy) to make, these frozen yoghurt ice pops are a light way to round off a meal or to enjoy on a hot afternoon. I dip the frozen ice pop into ground pistachios, which adds a pleasing crunch and flavour that pairs perfectly with the yoghurt and honey.
“When my favourite berries are in season, I sometimes mix them through the yoghurt and honey before freezing. Blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries all work well.”
Prep: 5 minutes
Freeze: 5–6 hours
- 100g honey
- 500g Greek yoghurt
- 80g raw pistachios
You will need:
- 100ml ice pop moulds
Mix the honey and yoghurt together and divide between the moulds. Freeze for 5–6 hours, or overnight.
To serve, blitz the pistachios to a fine crumb and place in a bowl. Dip the end of each ice pop into the pistachios to half coat them.
Salma says: “This no-bake cheesecake (apart from a quick blast in the oven to crisp up the base) is the ultimate sophisticated dessert, with a slight bitterness from the tahini that also adds a deep richness.
“Date syrup is available from larger supermarkets and health food stores, and is a natural sweetener which has none of the sharpness associated with pomegranate syrup. The dark, glossy appearance of date syrup could almost be mistaken for chocolate sauce (which would also work extremely well drizzled on top!).”
Prep: 15 minutes
Chill: 4 hours
Cook: 10 minutes
For the base:
- 150g digestive biscuits
- 50g butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
- pinch of fine sea salt
For the cheesecake filling:
- 250ml double cream
- 150g tahini
- 500g full-fat cream cheese
- 100g Greek yoghurt
- 150g caster sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
For the topping:
- 1 tbsp date syrup, for drizzling
- 40g halva
- raw pistachios, roughly chopped
Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4 and grease a 23cm springform pan with butter.
Pulse the digestive biscuits, butter, and salt in a food processor until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
Tip the mixture into the pan and press down with a glass to compact it.
Bake the base in the oven for 10 minutes.
Remove and allow to cool completely, then place in the freezer to chill for at least 20 minutes, and up to 12 hours or overnight.
While the base is in the freezer, beat the cream with an electric whisk in a mixing bowl until stiff peaks form.
Use a spatula to scrape the cream from the whisks into the bowl, then in a separate large mixing bowl, combine the tahini, cream cheese, Greek yoghurt, sugar and vanilla. Use the electric beaters (no need to wash) to beat again until smooth.
Use a spatula to fold the cream through the tahini mixture until completely smooth. A spatula is needed here rather than a whisk, to ensure that the cream stays light and airy.
Use the spatula to scrape the filling on top of the chilled base, and use a spatula to even out the top.
Drizzle over the date syrup, then drag the spatula around the top gently to create an attractive marbled pattern.
Crumble over the halva and sprinkle over the pistachios, then cover with cling film and chill in the fridge for a minimum of 4 hours.
Use a flat knife to loosen the cake from the sides before releasing the springform pan. Slice into portions.
The cake will keep covered in the fridge for up to 5 days.
Middle Eastern Sweets: Desserts, Pastries, Creams & Treats by Salma Hage (£24.95, Phaidon Press) is out now
Photography: Haarala Hamilton Photography