To the uninitiated, these cheeses pies – or fatayer (pronounced, “fat-eye-ah”) – look no more impressive than miniature pizzas without the pepperoni, though I assure you they are one of the most coveted foods to the members of my family. They are unparalleled in their taste and difficult to track down – a kind of Lebanese truffle. My mom and I have a frozen stash of fatayer that we hoard away in our freezers, as our stock doesn’t get replenished often. We moved from Montreal to the west coast, where there seems to be only 12 people of Lebanese descent, so finding a Lebanese restaurant nearby would be a miracle.
Food is one of the things my family misses most of Montreal. When my brother flies back for a visit, he spends more time in the shawarma shop than sleeping. When my mom or I visit, we arrange a rendez-vous with our fatayer supplier, a small hole-in-the-wall establishment run by middle eastern octogenarians who speak little English. We transport back several dozen fatayer in our suitcases, often the only souvenirs from our trip, that we then distribute and dole out to the other members of the family. My teeshirts smell like a middle eastern souq for a week, but it’s worth it.
My mom has been begging those old women for their fatayer recipe for years; though the only way they’ll give it up, they say, is if she stays with them to work. I can picture the old wrinkled hands busily kneading dough in the back room, the smell of anise and pita bread wafting out into the chilly streets, and the sound of a woman’s voice on the radio singing beautifully in Arabic. My mom declines, though with hesitation I can tell, and chooses to search for the recipe on her own instead. Maybe when she turns 80 she’ll reconsider and join these women with their melodic tongues and culinary prowess and immerse herself in a culture that has been absent from her world since she was a child.
My mom and I have come across this recipe for fatayer, though it isn’t quite how I remember my Sito making it. It is close enough, however, and still worthy of being stashed away in the freezer for a day when Montreal calls to me most.
(makes about a dozen medium-sized fatayer)
For the dough:
3 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 tbsp butter
1 active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
1/2 cup warm water (100 degrees F/38 degrees C)
1 tsp sugar
1 cup warm water
1 tsp vegetable or olive oil, for coating the dough
For the cheese mixture:
3/4 cup shredded medium cheddar cheese
3/4 cup shredded strong cheddar cheese
1 cup Velveeta cheese, broken into small pieces
3 1/2 tbsp all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
Pepper to taste
1/2 tsp paprika
3 tbsp onion, finely chopped
Sesame seeds for tossing on top of the cheese mixture before cooking – approximately 1 to 2 tbsp
Directions – for the dough:
(Shortcut – If you are in a hurry and are looking for a shortcut, you can pick up small, frozen dinner roll-sized dough in the frozen food section of your grocery store. Let the small dough rolls thaw and then press them down flat)
1. Dissolve the sugar in 1/2 cup warm water. Use a thermometer to ensure the water is 100 degrees F, then sprinkle the yeast on top. Let sit for 10-15 minutes. The mixture should start to bubble up. After about 15 minutes, stir well.
2. In a large bowl mix together the flour and salt. Rub the softened butter into the flour with your fingers until well mixed.
3. Add the yeast mixture to the flour, along with an additional 1 cup of warm water. Mix together with your hands until of a consistency that can be kneaded on the countertop. Knead gently with the palm of your hand until smooth – this shouldn’t take longer than 5 minutes. If you find the dough too sticky, add a few extra tablespoons of flour; if too dry, add an extra tablespoon of water.
4. Form the dough back into a ball and lightly coat with a little oil. Place the dough ball in a medium bowl and cover with a paper towel, let rising in a warm place for an hour and fifteen minutes. In this time the dough should double in size. At this point, you can start preparing the cheese mixture – see below.
Directions – cheese mixture:
1. While the dough is rising in the bowl, begin grating the cheddar cheeses, then add the small pieces of Velveeta. Don’t worry about the Velveeta being difficult to break or cut into pieces; you’ll be squishing this into a paste, so aesthetics won’t really matter.
2. Add the egg, flour and spices (don’t use the sesame seeds yet). Mix well.
3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. When the dough has fully risen, punch down the dough in the bowl, then break off small lemon-sized pieces and roll these into small balls. Place the balls directly on a lightly oiled baking sheet and press then down and apart gently with your fingers. Typically you’ll want to make them about 3 inches round, but you can make them as small or as large as you want.
4. Place 2-3 tbsp of the cheese mixture on each round dough, spreading them out of even thickness on each circle. Leave a slight edge of dough showing around the circle. Generously sprinkle the cheese mixture with the sesame seeds, then press down with your fingers.
5. Bake about 18-20 minutes or until tops of the cheese pies are golden. Let cool on a wire rack.