Dec 08, 2019 Last Updated 6:31 AM, Nov 9, 2017

A Perfumed Journey

Category: Pastry & Baking

Middle Eastern flavors are making their way into American-style desserts.


Halvah Ice Cream
Alon Shaya's Babka with Halvah Ice Cream. Click image above or link below for recipe.

Making lots of room on the pantry shelf for a wide array of Middle Eastern ingredients, pastry chefs from all over are drawing on sweet traditions from the Arab world, delicately perfuming their often cross-cultural desserts with a whole spice shop of flavors from countries on the Eastern Mediterranean.  Talk to Cassie Piuma, Chef/partner of Sarma (Somerville, MA), about desserts she dreams up to, which are brought around on trays by servers as in the meyhanes (drinking houses) of Istanbul, and she will say: “The name of the game at Sarma is approachability. Our goal is to introduce new flavors without pretension. Some favorites of mine are ouzo, preserved lemon, carob molasses and fenugreek, among many others, all of which find their way into the desserts we serve at the restaurant.” Or Ghaya Oliveira, Tunisian-born pastry chef at Daniel (NYC), who spins flavors into her desserts like a sugary Scheherazade, using ingredients including nuts of all kinds, pomegranate, dates, masfouf (couscous for sweet dishes) and rose water, who says: “I grew up with warm and intense flavors and am constantly reminded of my grandmother’s way with sweets. Luckily, New York’s dining public is very adventurous, ready to experience some of these ingredients modulated by Western techniques. But it is a balancing act between using the delicate refined spices of my upbringing and a respect for the opinions of the clientele who have learned to appreciate what we make here.”   Or Maura Kilpatrick, Pastry Chef at Oleana and Sofra Bakery (Cambridge, MA): “We try to have some really authentic Arabic component on every plate, whether it’s sumac, rose petal jam or a crunchy cylinder of filo, counterbalanced by something familiar such as blueberries or raspberries or ganache.” Ever mindful of her audience, Kilpatrick soaks her desserts in spiced syrups more lightly than might be traditional, but hits a home run every time with faloodeh, the Middle Eastern answer to funnel cake, squiggles of fried batter drizzled into hot oil and then given a dousing of aromatic syrup before serving.

Anissa Helou's Turkish Saffron Rice Pudding
Anissa Helou's Turkish Saffron Rice Pudding. Photo by Linda Pugliese. Click image above or link below for recipe.
Ghaya Oliveira's Ceylon Cinnamon Bavaroise with Hazelnut Financier and Pomegranate
Ghaya Oliveira's Ceylon Cinnamon Bavaroise with Hazelnut Financier and Pomegranate. Click image above or link below for recipe.

Some books to get you on the perfumed road to Araby and the Eastern Mediterranean:

Sweet Middle East: Classic Recipes, from Baklava to Fig Ice Cream by Anissa Helou (Chronicle Books, 2015)

Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean by Ana Sortun (Regan Books, 2006)

The Sultan’s Kitchen by Ozcan Ozan (Periplus Editions, 1998)

Mediterranean Grains and Greens by Paula Wolfert (Harper Collins, 1998)

Rose Water and Orange Blossoms by Maureen Abood (Running Press, 2015)

Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking by Michael Solomonov (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)

Olives, Lemons and Za’atar by Rawia Buishatra (Kyle Books, 2014)


Maura Kilpatrick's Roasted Quince, White Chocolate Labne, Pistachio Kunafeh
Maura Kilpatrick's Roasted Quince, White Chocolate Labne, Pistachio Kunafeh. Photo by Didem Hogsel. Click image above or link below for recipe.

Piuma’s take on Arabic-influenced desserts might include a generous helping of Western elements as in her Honey-Poached Pears with Citrus Curd, with whiffs of the more exotic in a dukkah-flavored crunch of filo alongside. Yogurt ice cream, arguably combining traditions of both East and West, is the mellowing and unifying element on the plate.

Alon Shaya, Israeli-born chef of Shaya (New Orleans, LA), likes to do an ethnic mash-up on his  menu, as well.  “We don’t wish to scare away any of our customers with anything seeming too foreign. Our menus are meant to be just part of a warm and welcoming tradition. Our dishes and ingredients often reflect a finely tuned balance between familiarity and authenticity. On the sweet side, our goal is to make a knafeh (shredded filo layered with thick creamy cheese, drenched in an orange or rose blossom syrup) better than anyone has had, and we like to pair toasted chocolate babka with a halvah flavored gelato,” all of which spells delicious in any dessert eating tradition.

Is it time to open the pantry doors wider or clear the shelves to allow space for new ingredients in your pastry kitchen, shaking up the dessert menu and your guests’ expectations just a little? You would be in good company if you did.

Here’s a list of ingredients to build the many-flavored pantry:

  • Aniseed
  • Cardamom
  • Cinnamon
  • Ginger
  • Mahleb AKA Mahlab –powder made from the kernel of a black cherry
  • Mastic—made from the resin of a relative of the pistachio tree
  • Orange blossom water
  • Pistachios
  • Rose water
  • Saffron
  • Sesame seeds

Find 'A Perfumed Journey' recipes in the Recipe section or click the links below.


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