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Middle Eastern Desserts

July 20, 2011

MARCH 2011 — My friend once asked my what my favorite cuisine was, and I had to think for a long while, because as someone who has tried so many things, every cuisine has some limit to its flavor palette. I decided eventually that I’ve a Mediterranean culinary personality. I always gravitate towards Greek or Middle Eastern food, because the flavors are distinct and strong, but refreshing and light. There aren’t huge, heavy sauces like alfredo or cornstarch goo that appears in stir-frys.

Aside from baklava (bahk-lah-VAH), I was, however, pretty unfamiliar with the dessert menu of the region when I went to Israel for spring break.

On my first day in Tel Aviv, my brother took us to a really popular Middle Eastern bakery in Jaffa, an old seaport that has been absorbed by the larger Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality. Desserts usually involved light, thin dough, nuts, and honey.
We purchased this blue plate here. I didn’t learn the names of each one. The tiny light-colored rectangle in the front is baklava, layers of phyllo dough and nuts soaked in honey. It’s incredibly, incredibly dense, which surprised me because phyllo dough is a very thin and light dough, and so it’s a great ingredient to replace dough, for people trying to watch their weight… except this was as solid as chewy fudge, and then rolled in crushed pistachios.
The orange thing is called knafeh, thin, noodle-like pastry in a soft mixture of sweetened soft cheese.
The thing at the left is some honey cake.
The nest-like confection in the back is that noodle-like pastry, held together by syrup.
The pointy one behind the cake is a shortbread-like cookie with date filling.
That brown one, I mistook for chocolate, but is actually a fluffy praline-like confection. I liked this one especially because it wasn’t so dense.

I personally prefer desserts that don’t condense their sweet flavor into a few bites. Though these desserts look pretty small, one little square of baklava is a generous portion.
However, I discovered halva, which I purchased on impulse at Jerusalem’s famous souk, or outdoor market, called Mahane Yehuda, just off of Jaffa Road. Though the halva was my favorite, it is no less rich or dense than the other pastries. It’s a confection made from crushed sesame seeds and sugar, with a texture that I described as “cotton candy meets toffee.” As you can see, it’s made in huge rounds, often with some toppings stirred in. (I was recommended to get a slice with candied nuts swirled in, but there were even halva where portions of the halva were chocolate-flavored, or halva with crushed bits of hard fruit candy.) Is it spreadable? Hard to say. I preferred just to eat it straight.

If you want to see a little more about Israel, you can see my travel documentary here.

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