In their modern day interpretation, most religious holidays that are about deprivation and/or sacrifice are counterbalanced in their present day celebration with gluttony. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Diwali and yes Ramadan. Newspapers reveled last year in stories about hundreds of people being hoisted onto emergency room stretchers in Qatar, Jordan and elsewhere, due to complications from overeating during this month of fasting. One could even go further and say that there is gluttony in the grab for power and oppression across the Middle East at this time, particularly surrounding Jordan, where I am writing from now.
Part of that greed has resulted in arrival of refugees, rich and poor, from neighboring countries, most noticeably in the past three years of Syrians, who have not only brought their broken hearts—they have brought their Ramadan efficiency. Damascus and Aleppo are known as food capitals in the Arab world, having held that reputation for centuries. However, it’s not the old traditions that got my attention the other day. It’s rather how those traditions have become so much easier to mass produce. Take for example the grandness of the atayif machines, making it cheaper and easier for us all to eat more atayif, machine that can produce 60 atayif a minute. Atayif (qatayif) is the desert of Ramadan. It’s a pancake that is stuffed with cheese or walnuts or a clotted cream sort of thing and dunked in syrup, a basic principle that carries over to many pancake recipes around the world and to Arabic sweets in general. Few nations are without a pancake of some kind, but most of them are made at home. Atayif is rarely made at home—it is bought at bakeries and stuffed and baked at home. They are actually easy to make, but when you’re fasting all day, why bother when they are so easy to buy.
Sometimes you can still find bakers on the sidewalk making them on their griddles. But mostly today, there is the atayif making machines. I wonder where these machines go and hide the rest of the year—they could be used to make some many other semi liquid batters into yummy things, perhaps say crepes. Although, an embrace of former colonial rulers’ baked goods seems to be out of vogue at the moment in Middle East.
I enjoy the watching the larger machines at work—well actually it’s bakers standing in the sun making them work. Batter goes in, atayif come out—orderly, predictable, comforting. The big machines are a big part of the newly opened Syrian bakeries. It’s likely the machines were designed in Taiwan (ANKO), maybe Lebanon, and they dwarf the smaller machines found in Jordan, never mind the griddles.
When baked, atayif is a simple food, not too rich in complications or calories–f you eat only one or two. But the machine makes it so easy to make more faster, and for some of us that means eating more faster.
Sometimes I wonder if maybe we didn’t make food machines so efficient, not only would emergency rooms be less busy, our heads would be clearer, and we’d have time to think of things that were more pressing than our adequately filled stomachs. Beyond hunger, food is an easy, relatively inexpensive way to sedate oneself—or a nation–whether it is to fill up loneliness or as a numbing device to shut out the din around us that asks us for questions that most of us feel helpless to offer, as we have no answers to solve them.
Aatayif (if you want to make a small amoutn)
1 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
13/4 tsp. sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup semolina
6 tbsp. milk
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
10 tbsp. butter, melted
For the filling:
11/2 cups shelled walnuts, finely chopped
4 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
For the syrup:
2 cups sugar
1-2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Orange blossom flower water (optional)
1. For the pancakes: Dissolve yeast and sugar in 2/3 cup warm water in a
small bowl and set aside until foamy, about 10 minutes. Combine flour and
semolina in a large bowl, then add milk and 1 cup water and beat on medium
speed with an electric mixer until smooth, 2-3 minutes. Add yeast mixture
and continue beating until batter is smooth, about 1 minute. Combine baking
soda and 1 1/2 tsp. water in a small bowl and beat into batter on medium
speed. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot until
batter is foamy, about 1 hour.
2. For the filling: Combine walnuts, sugar, and cinnamon in a medium bowl and
3. For the syrup: Put sugar, lemon juice, and 11/2 cups water into a medium
saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring often,
until sugar dissolves, 2-3 minutes. Keep syrup warm over lowest heat. A spoon of rosewater or orange flower blossom water can be added to the syrup at this point.
4. Preheat oven to 350°. Heat a medium cast-iron or other heavy skillet over
medium heat until hot but not smoking. Brush skillet with a thin layer of
oil. Pour 1/4 cup of the batter into skillet and swirl skillet to spread
batter out to a 5″-wide pancake. Cook, undisturbed, until bottom is browned
and top is covered with bubbles and no longer moist, 1-2 minutes. Do not
flip pancake. Transfer pancake to a clean surface and cover with a clean dry
dish towel. Repeat process with the remaining batter to make 12 pancakes in
all, brushing skillet with more oil as needed.
5. Put 1 pancake, browned side down, on a clean surface. Spread 2 tbsp. of
the filling down center of pancake, fold pancake in half, and press seams
shut to enclose filling completely. Repeat process with the remaining
pancakes and filling. Brush both sides of filled pancakes with melted butter
and transfer to a baking sheet. Bake until warmed through and cheese nice and gooey, 5-6 minutes. Dunk
pancakes, 1 at a time, into the warm syrup. Serve with remaining syrup on