Khaliat Nahal in Arabic translates to “beehive.” Baked closely together in a round pan, pollinated in the center with a dollop of creamy cheese, and sticky with honeyed syrup, these Yemeni buns bake into a honeycomb pattern. I stumbled on this delectable treat in Dearborn, Michigan, the promised land for Arab American foodies. I was on tour promoting We Are La Cocina, a collection of stories and recipes with my sister entrepreneurs from La Cocina’s kitchen incubator program.
Our crew made our way to Qahwah House, a café that brewed every imaginable roast of Yemeni coffee, served in both modern pots and traditional rakwahs, tiny long-handled copper vessels, kept warm over a low candle. Qahwah is the Arabic word for “coffee,” which originated in Yemen in the fourteenth century. A wall of photos showed the cultivation of coffee beans on the café owner’s family farm in Yemen. There was something familiar about walking into Qahwah House. As soon as I caught the fragrant scent of Arabic coffee, it transported me straight to my grandmother’s back patio. But what felt novel to me were the Yemeni pastries, which lined the front counter, fragrant with honey, another of Yemen’s celebrated ingredients. Every time I discover a new sweet from the Arab world, it makes me smile—how much I have yet to learn about the wondrous expansiveness of the region’s culinary arts.
2 9-inch cakes or one 16-inch cake
- To make the dough: In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast and a pinch of the sugar in ¼ cup of the milk. Mix until well incorporated and set aside in a draft-free place for 10 minutes or until foamy.
- To mix by hand: In a large bowl, combine the flour, the remaining sugar, and salt and mix until well incorporated.
- In a separate medium bowl, combine the remaining ½ cup milk, yogurt, and egg with the yeast mixture and whisk in the butter.
- Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour the milk-yeast mixture into the middle. Use a mixing spoon to slowly incorporate the dry into the wet and mix until it forms a shaggy, sticky mass. Using a bowl scraper or spatula, gently flip the loose, sticky dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for about 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth, springs back when dimpled, and stretches like a windowpane.
- To use a stand mixer: Pour the yeast mixture into the bowl with the remaining ½ cup milk, yogurt, and egg. Using the paddle attachment, mix until fully incorporated. Switch to the dough hook and on low speed, add the flour, the remaining sugar, and salt and mix. When the dough starts to look shaggy and comes together, add the butter. Increase the speed to medium and continue to mix for another 5 minutes, until the dough clings to the paddle and slaps the sides of the bowl. It should feel smooth and elastic.
- Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rest in a warm draft-free place for about an hour. When the dough completes its first rise, gently lift it out of the bowl and divide it into 6 pieces, then cut those 6 pieces into 6 pieces to create a total of 36 pieces (about 21 grams each).
- Line two 9-inch pans or one 16-inch round pan with parchment paper and rub thoroughly with oil.
- Shape each dough piece into rounds, then let the dough relax for 10 minutes. Use your fingers to flatten each round into a 2-inch-diameter disk. Place 1 teaspoon of mascarpone cheese at the center of each round. After all the rounds are topped, go back to the first round. Bunch the edges to envelop the cheese and pinch together to seal. Place edge side down in the center of the pans. Repeat the process, spacing the dough balls ½ inch apart, creating concentric circles. Stagger the balls to make a honeycomb-shaped formation.
- Once all the dough balls are filled and formed, cover with plastic wrap or a dish towel and let rest for another 1 to 1½ hours. The dough balls should grow and just touch each other.
- While the dough is resting, make the syrup: In a small pot, combine the honey and water and heat until the honey is dissolved. Add the orange blossom and rose waters and lemon juice. Set aside to cool completely before using.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F. Brush the dough with the milk and sprinkle with the sesame seeds.
- Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown. As soon as the cakes come out of the oven, drizzle with the cooled honey syrup.
- Allow the bread to cool slightly before serving. Slice into wedges and enjoy with your favorite tea or coffee.
- The cake can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
- NOTE • My general rule of thumb for syrup is cold on hot or hot on cold but never cold on cold, since it will not absorb as well, and never hot on hot, since it may become mush.