Middle Eastern food

A Sugar-Saturated Guide to Middle Eastern Sweets

After Great British Bake Off contestants were left confused by a recipe for ma’amoul, I headed to London bakery Patisserie Patchi to sample some of their most popular Arabic desserts.

by Dalia Dawood
17 October 2018, 2:03pm

Tray of walnut ma’amoul at Patisserie Patchi. All photos by the author. 

I count a total of five cargo lorries that snake into the road in front of me before I can cross to enter Patisserie Patchi, the Middle Eastern bakery you’ve probably never heard of.

To know about or find this shop in deepest West London (what other possible reason could you have to visit North Acton?) is to be part of a secret Arab club. Nobody outside this community seems to know about the cluster of Middle Eastern food shops trading in a secluded industrial estate. That’s how I know it—my family and Iraqi friends would visit when I was a child.

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Patisserie Patchi in Action, West London. All photos by the author.

The location hardly screams “Arabic food haven” (there are more lorries than people and a Topps Tiles next door), but Patisserie Patchi’s popularity with the large Arab community in Acton and beyond has sustained for years. While unassuming on the outside, inside is full of syrupy wonders. Giant chandeliers, golden countertops, and rows of glistening sugary sweets await. The smell alone is enough to transport me back to Lebanon, where family trips often centred around visits to the plentiful bakeries.

Inspired by a recent episode of The Great British Bake Off, in which contestants were asked to make ma’amoul, a biscuit-like sweet filled with walnuts, dates, or pistachios, I decide to visit Patisserie Patchi and sample their best halawiat—the Arabic word for sweets.

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Patisserie Patch sells a variety of Middle Eastern sweets, as well as savoury dishes and mocktails.
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Trays of freshly prepared baklava.

Patisserie Patchi serves savoury meals, shisha, and mocktails, but its specialty is confectionery. Alex Nafa, son of one of Patisserie Patchi’s founders, Eihab Nafa, tells me that when his father moved to London and opened a baklava shop in 1982, he unwittingly started a halawiat revolution.

“My father was a pastry chef in Lebanon and brought his skills to London,” Eihab explains. “He noticed there was an untapped market for baklava, and when he opened his shop, Middle Easterners loved it. Gradually, the menu expanded to lots more varieties of sweets.”

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Ashta, a type of clotted cream used in many Middle Eastern desserts.

Most halawiat are made with a combination of flour, sugar, nuts, and ashta—a type of clotted cream. This ingredient and pastry are the “backbone” of Middle Eastern sweets, says Ibrahim Elwadi, a former pastry chef who swapped baking for balancing the books as Patisserie Patchi’s finance manager. “These are the raw materials to everything we make. Ashta is included in almost 70 percent of the sweets,” he adds.

Indeed, it’s sandwiched between two layers of shredded pastry in traditional Lebanese dish asmaliyeh; it’s the filling in katayef ashta, crispy golden half-moon shaped parcels of dough that are deep-fried and dipped in a sugary syrup; as well as ma’amoul mad ashta, a tray bake of semolina dough and ghee that form a crunchy casing for the fresh cream.

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Asmaliyeh, a Lebanese dish made with shredded pastry and ashta.

To achieve ashta’s curdled consistency and unique taste is a complex process, explains Elwadi. Made only with full-fat milk, ashta is prepared in a special temperature-controlled room. The trick is to put a thin layer of the milk into a hot pan, allowing the liquid to evaporate until only the thick ashta cream is left.

“You have to be very focused because any slight change in temperature can affect the taste. if you overheat it, the milk will give a sharp, ugly taste,” says Elwadi.

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Packaging the baklava.
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Elwadi has an Arab Paul Hollywood vibe: neat beard, crisp shirt, incredibly detailed knowledge of baking techniques—I even get a handshake. Though a qualified accountant now, Elwadi knows his way around a filo dough which, he tells me, is also very intricate to make and forms the basis of another popular dish. As we walk past vast mounds of baklava and ma’amoul, we arrive at the shop’s “showstopper”: knafeh.

Glowing under the counter light are large rectangular trays of pastry and cheese, a staple dessert in the Arab world. Regional differences determine the texture and flavour—Egyptian versions include a pistachio filling, for example—but the two types at Patisserie Patchi are among the most popular.

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Ibrahim Elwadi, finance manager at Patisserie Patchi.

One is knafeh cheese, which is made with fine pastry that’s coated with a layer of soft akawi cheese and a sprinkling of mozzarella. It’s cooked on a hob until the pastry becomes crusty and golden brown and then flipped and soaked in a sweet, sugar-based syrup called attar.

“This is the Lebanese way,” explains Elwadi, “but this one,” he says, pointing to the fluorescent orange version, “is considered the father of all knafeh.”

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Knafeh Nabulsieh, the "father of all knafeh."
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Trays of knafeh on display.

Knafeh Nabulsieh, which derives its name from its roots in Nablus, Palestine, is so bright you could wear it as edible high-vis. The main difference between the two is the Nabulsieh is made using shredded pastry and achieves its tangoed look with added colourings.

It is possible to descend even further into a sweet-induced knafeh coma by stuffing the gooey dessert into a pillowy pocket of warm sesame bread and dousing it in a syrup or ka’ak. Popular in Lebanon where it originates, ka’ak is often enjoyed at celebrations such as Eid.

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Knafeh stuffed in warm sesame bread, then doused in syrup.

I struggle not to salivate as I watch chef Belal Cheaib assemble the carby creation. His 28 years as a pastry chef—22 of which have been at Patisserie Patchi—have made him an expert at making the flaky parcels that gave the bakery its fame: baklava.

Perhaps the most well-known of Middle Eastern sweets, baklava’s origins are often contested, but the distinct flavour of a Patisserie Patchi-made batch isn’t. Crunchy, crumbly, and sweet without being too wet, the detail that goes into perfecting each confection is painstaking.

Consisting of salt, sugar, flour, water, and ghee, the filo dough is placed into a layering machine which transforms it into a large, thin sheet that produces 16 layers of filo pastry. Each individual baklava is made up of multiple separate filo sheets of different thickness; one cube of sticky pastry could contain up to 20 layers.

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Pastry chef Belal Cheaib and Alex Nafa, son of one of Patisserie Patchi’s founders.

“It has to have a specific flavour from the ingredients and the process,” says Elwadi. “We don’t do additives or flavourings, so if the flavour we’re targeting doesn’t come along in the process, if someone missed something, it will affect the end product; it won’t be the baklava that we’re known for.”

As if to prove the point, I’m handed a complimentary tray of baklava as a parting gift. As I leave, the taste and smells of Patisserie Patch linger on my senses. I’m reminded that, whether for a nostalgic trip to your roots or a new experience, you don’t have to leave the country to get a flavour of the Middle East.