Mutabbak (Buttery Phyllo dessert with melted cheese, pistachios, and sweet lemon syrup)
If you ever get the chance to visit a Middle Eastern home, you will be welcomed with warmth, respect, and hospitality. Most likely they will also ensure that you are well fed. For dinner guests, hosts entertain with trays upon trays of appetizers, lamb, chicken, and rice dishes.
Desserts are reserved for very special occasions, so when Middle Eastern families do make confections, they go full force—-no skimping on fat or sugar. However, you won’t find many chocolate, cake, or pie-like desserts from the Middle East. The reigning stars of Far East desserts are phyllo dough, nuts, and honey. Many believe that the Assyrians invented phyllo dough in the 8th century, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire then created baklava, and the Greeks perfected the nutty dessert with an even thinner pastry dough. No matter who was the inventor, the rich mainly enjoyed phyllo--as this was considered a luxury food. Fortunately today, phyllo desserts are no longer the property of only the rich. One of my favorite desserts involving phyllo dough is Muttabak, which is the Palestinian relative to its nutty cousin, baklava. Muttabak is an Arabic word that means “layered.” What could one possibly do to improve upon traditional baklava? How about filling the phyllo dough with melted cheese instead of nuts? I think Mutabbak is the only food I would want to survive on if stranded on a desert island. Layers upon layers of buttery flaky phyllo dough surround melted gooey sweet cheese in the middle, then doused with a lemon or rose water infused sugar syrup. Add a final dusting of finely chopped pistachios for a nutty and satisfying crunch. Salivating yet? This is a show-off kind of dessert, meaning if you make it for company they will think you are a dessert guru. You don’t want to take any lower calorie short-cuts, the point is to enjoy a little piece of paradise on a plate. While many people I know are intimidated by phyllo dough, Mutabbak is surprisingly easy to make, especially with the help of store-bought phyllo pastry found in most supermarket frozen sections. Phyllo dough is made with flour, water, and a tiny bit of oil and white vinegar. Homemade phyllo takes patience, time and skill, requiring repetitive rolling and stretching to a single paper thin and very large sheet. Thanks to modern machinery, you can now buy good quality phyllo without all the work. Do not fear the phyllo, it can be your best friend when treated gently. By gently, I mean have a damp kitchen towel ready to cover the sheets of phyllo as you work, because the delicate sheets tend to dry out if exposed to air too long. There is one way to make this dessert a little less caloric, a snazzy trick my mother taught me. Instead of brushing melted butter or ghee between every phyllo sheet, brush between every two sheets instead. This way you don’t sacrifice the flavor, yet save some stealthy calories. To see my video tutorial on how to create this dessert, check out my blog at feastinthemiddleeast.com, or my youtube channel at youtube.com/blanchetv
1 package phyllo dough (most packages contain 24 sheets-- defrost in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight)
1 ½ sticks of melted butter or ¾ cup Ghee
1 ½ pounds of Queso Blanco Casique –or Mexican farmer cheese
(you can also substitute sweet mozzarella or even ricotta cheese, but the consistency will be slightly different.
Sugar syrup :
2 cups sugar
1 ½ cups water
1 tbs. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp rose water (optional)
½ cup finely chopped pistachios for garnish (you can substitute any other kind of nut if you wish)
Cut the farmer cheese into large pieces and place in a bowl or container. Cover with water, and place in refrigerator overnight. This will remove excess salt from the cheese. The second day, drain the cheese and pat dry with paper towels. Place the cheese in food processor, and grind until the consistency of cottage cheese. Set aside. Spread the phyllo dough out on a baking sheet, and cover with a damp kitchen towel. Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. One melted, using a sieve, take out the white froth that floats to the top. This will prevent the butter from burning when baked. You can also substitute ghee/clarified butter if you have that available to skip this step. Let the butter cool slightly. Generously butter a baking sheet, and gently put two layers of phyllo dough on it. Using a pastry brush, brush the melted butter over every two phyllo layers (or between every layer if you want it super rich). Repeat 6 more times until you have 12 sheets of buttered phyllo. Take the crumbled cheese and spread on top of phyllo layers. Repeat process of layering the rest of the phyllo, making sure to brush the last layer with butter or ghee as well. Once all the layers are assembled, score the Mutabbak with a knife into either squares or diamonds. Place in a 350 degree oven, and bake for 30 minutes or until it is nicely browned on top. In the meantime, combine the sugar and water in a saucepan on medium high heat. Once it starts to boil, lower the heat a bit and stir until the sugar is dissolved and it starts to get syrupy, about 10 minutes. Let the syrup cool, add lemon and or rose water. Once the Mutabbak is done baking, pour syrup over it immediately, and garnish with pistachios. Serve warm. If you want a video tutorial, check out my page here: