I guess my blood sugar must be getting low by now because I am desperately craving something sweet. I would usually head straight for chocolate, but come Ramadan all I want are sticky, aromatic Arabian pastries. Sweets in the Arab world go hand in hand with one thing, a’asel, qatar, atar, or sugar syrup. This thick form of inverted syrup (similar to golden syrup), made by boiling sugar and water, can be infused with different flavors depending on the region. Honey, cinnamon, rose, orange blossom or geranium water are all popular additives.
In most Libyan recipes, the quantities of ingredients used are simple, either measured by the eye or in a simple ratio. As a basic rule of thumb you would use two parts sugar to one part water to make atar of a good consistency; for example for two cups of sugar you would add one cup of water. Add or reduce the water, if you are after a thinner or thicker syrup, which depends on whether you are aiming to coat (thick syrup) or soak (thin syrup) your dessert. The final consistency also depends on how long you leave the atar to simmer. The trick is to use hot syrup on cool pastries and vice-versa. Bea in mind that sugar syrup further thickens as it cools.
The other crucial ingredient is lemon juice. The addition of citric acid accelerates the conversion process and prevents the sugar from crystallizing as it boils in the water. This chemically breaks down the sucrose into two components, glucose and fructose, giving it its sweet smooth consistency. The average boiling time to achieve this would be about 20 minutes.
Atar has a fairly long shelf life and can be kept from a few weeks to a few months in an air tight jar depending on weather conditions. So if you are planning on making several types of pastries throughout Ramadan, it may be a good idea to make a large batch at your first sitting. Pre-made atar can be restored to its liquid state but gently heating it in a water bath with the jar lid open until it is pourable. You could also spoon out the amount needed into a saucepan over gentle heat. If necessary add warm water, a few teaspoons at a time, to reconstitute it to the desired consistency.
Atar Recipe (Makes 1/2 cup)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tsp lemon juice
To flavor: 1 tsp orange blossom, rose or geranium water; or a cinnamon stick; or two cardamom pods; or a vanilla pod; or a combination of any of the above, as desired.
Place the sugar, water, and lemon juice in a saucepan on a medium flame and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to prevent the sugar from crystallizing on the sides. Add the cinnamon stick, cardamom pods or vanilla pod if using. Allow the mixture to simmer until it reaches the desired consistency where it coats the back of the spoon. Stir in your choice of extract or essence and remove from the heat. Allow to cool slightly before use.
Now that we have mastered the art of making atar, we will need a pastry to try it out with. A quintessential Ramadan delight enjoyed here is dibla very similar to the Greek diples. The simple crispy, crunchy fritter dough is made in a similar way to fresh pasta, and is deep fried until golden, before being dipped in orange-blossom infused atar. There is awider more symmetrical version of dibla known as diblaj , but as it takes a bit more skill to make, I’ll leave it for a future post.
Dibla Recipe (Makes 12)
1 cup all purpose flour
A pinch of salt
1 egg, room temperature
1 tsp butter, soft at room temperature
1 tbsp water
Sunflower or corn oil for frying
1 portion sugar syrup (see above)
1/4 cup sesame seeds or ground almonds or sprinkles
Sift the flour and salt into a medium bowl. Make a well in the middle and crack in one egg and add the butter. Using the tips of your fingers, combine the contents of the bowl well until you reach breadcrumb consistency. Add the water and knead until a smooth pliable dough is achieved (similar to play-doh or plasticine). If the dough is still dry add another tablespoon of water. Cover with cling film and allow to rest for about thirty minutes in a cool place or fridge.
Meanwhile make one portion of the sugar syrup as above, infusing it with orange blossom water, if you don’t have any readily available.
Lightly dust your work-surface or countertop with flour. Remove the dough from the cling film and flatten it onto the surface with the palms of your hand. Roll the dough as thin as you can achieve, using a rolling pin, or a pasta machine if available.
Using a knife or pizza cutter cut the pastry into strips 1 to 3 cm wide, depending upon your preference. Shape the strips into spirals and place them on a dusted kitchen towel on a baking sheet. Cover with another towel until ready to fry.
Fill a large deep pot with up to 3cm of oil. Place on a high heat. You can test the temperature by dropping a small piece of scrap dough; if it floats and immediately begins to bubble, you can begin to fry the dibla pastry. If the dough sinks to the bottom, the oil isn’t hot enough.
Carefully add the dibla one at a time, taking care not to overcrowd the pot. Once it is golden on the bottom, flip over using two forks or draining spoon. This will only take a minute on each side. Remove and drain in a colander or on paper towels.
Dip the fried dibla in the hot atar using kitchen prongs or two forks, coating it completely (do not do this with your bare hands as hot sugar syrup can cause severe burns). Drain the dibla in a colander to remove excess syrup. Place on serving tray and sprinkle with sesame seeds, ground almonds or sprinkles.
If you are making dibla ahead of time do not coat with sugar syrup until you are ready to serve, so as to retain its crispiness. Store dibla in an airtight container in a cool dry place until needed.