Today I’m sharing fatayer bijibn, or cheese pies.
I love these little guys. They were a treat we always had around the house growing up for lunch or after-school snacks. They’re perfectly shaped little boats of dough and cheese.
Syrians (and other Arabs) love doughy snacks. This category of food is called mo3ajanat, which comes from the word 3ajeneh, which is dough. These could include spinach pies, mini pizzas, meat pies, dough topped with za’atar, etc.
Back in the day, every neighborhood had its go-to baker for these savory treats, called “el farran,” or the oven-keeper. In the case of these cheese pies, the farran might get a call if a matriarch were to have afternoon visitors. She’d ask the farran to prepare an assortment of fatayer, and she might make some tabbouleh or kibbeh on the side and serve a light meal.
These days, women don’t use the farran as much, and they bake their own doughy goods at home, which are kept in the freezer. They are then easily thawed for those same afternoon visits or whenever a child (or adult) happens to be begging for food between meals.
Traditionally, the filling was never the star of the show. The dough was always wonderful, and it was filled with whatever cheeses happened to be on hand. These goodies have been perfected over time, and the dough and the cheese filling are now both equally delicious.
The dough recipe used here is actually primarily used for Palestinian za’atar bread. My mother learned this recipe recently and thought it would be perfect for fatayer. The result? A fluffy, tasty and pillowy dough that is a scrumptious accompaniment to the filling.
The filling is prepared by combining grated Nabulsi cheese (another Palestinian favorite), another Arabic white cheese (like Halloumi), mozzarella and ricotta. Often times parsley is used, but I decided to use za’atar in this recipe (because…obviously). The result is savory, salty, herby, zesty, and….the best! I’m tempted to pull some out of the freezer right now!
You can serve these as an appetizer, as a side next to soup or salad, or just simply eat them as a snack to your heart’s content.
Fatayer Bijibn (Cheese Pies)
Makes about 35
For the dough:
5 c all-purpose flour
1/4 c olive oil
2 Tbsp powdered milk
1 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp active dry yeast
1 tsp salt
1.5-2 c warm water
For the filling:
1 c ricotta
1/2 lb mozzarella cheese, grated
2 lbs assorted Arabic white cheese, grated (like Nabulsi, Halloumi, Akkawi, etc.)
1/2 c black or nigella seeds
1/4 c chopped parsley or za’atar
To make the dough, combine all the ingredients except the water into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment.
Prepare warm water in a 2 cup measuring cup. With the stand mixer going on medium speed, gradually add the water until the dough just starts to come together and feels soft when pressed between your thumb and index fingers.
When it comes together, wrap the bowl with plastic wrap and put in a warm, dark place (like a turned-off oven) and let rise for 2 hours.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the cheese is grated, combine all the filling ingredients up until the egg.
Measure out 3 cups in a medium-sized bowl. Add the egg and combine. Place the rest of the filling in a zip-top bag and refrigerate or freeze for later use.
Once the dough is ready, prepare a baking sheet with a sheet of parchment paper. Generously flour your work surface and form a pile of flour. Take a 1-inch ball of dough, dip it into the pile. Then roll out the dough until it’s about 1/8-inch thick, thin enough so it’s easy to work with but not too thin.
Take about 1 tsp of the filling and put it in the center of the dough. Form the boats by taking one end of the dough and letting it meet the other end, coming up over the cheese. Pinch to close, and do the same to the other side.
Shape your dough so that it looks like a boat or an eye, leaving a space open in the middle so you see the filling. Place it on the prepared sheet.
Place the baking sheet in the preheated oven and bake until the dough has changed color and the cheese starts to turn golden-brown, about 20-30 minutes, rotating the pan once mid-way through.
Devour, store in an air-tight container in the fridge up to 1 week or freeze for months. Reheat before serving.