Learn how to make Aish El Saraya, a delicious Middle Eastern dessert that is composed of sweetened bread, topped with ashta cream. And for the final touch, this ashta dessert is generally decorated with chopped pistachios, adding a wonderful textural contrast between the different layers.
What Is Aish El Saraya?
Aish el saraya, also sometimes referred to as Lebanese bread pudding, translates to “palace bread” from Arabic.
It is generally composed of three layers: a bread base, ashta cream and chopped nuts. There are two main ways to sweeten the bread. One method consists in soaking the bottom bread layer in simple syrup. The second method is a bit less straightforward but equally delicious, and calls for clear caramel sauce. To make caramel sauce, you first need to prepare caramel and then add boiling water to it.
What Is Ashta Cream?
Ashta is a Middle Eastern clotted cream that is used in numerous sweets such as atayef. It is traditionally made by boiling milk very slowly and repeatedly skimming off the creamy layer that forms on the surface. This process is very time-consuming however and does not yield a lot of ashta.
As a result, home bakers have come up with shortcuts to make ashta cream. There are several ways of making it and everyone has their preferred method. The main ingredients most bakers agree on are milk, heavy cream and cornstarch. But the difference lies in the choice of thickener used along with the cornstarch. It is possible to add the following ingredients to the cream, each giving a different result:
- Sliced bread, without the crust
Another way of making ashta is by adding vinegar to hot milk, causing it to curdle. The curd is then collected and strained, before adding it to a cream base.
The recipe you choose will really depend on your preferred texture and flavor. My favorite method is using sliced bread, which is what we’ll be doing in this ashta recipe. I’ve tried making it with semolina and flour but wasn’t too crazy with the final texture. I have yet to try the ashta made with vinegar.
Let’s briefly discuss how to make aish el saraya, before taking a look at all the ingredients you will need.
Making Aish El Saraya, General Overview
- Cover the bottom of a springform pan or baking dish with sliced bread.
- Prepare a simple syrup or a caramel sauce.
- Pour the syrup (or caramel) over the sliced bread in the pan.
- Prepare the ashta cream and let it cool down slightly.
- Chop the pistachios.
- Cover the sweetened bread with ashta.
- Decorate with chopped pistachios.
Aish El Saraya Ingredients
- Sliced bread: For the bottom layer: You will need sliced bread for the bottom layer of the aish el saraya. Some people prefer to bake the bread to dry it out. While others use rusk, a hard bread that is twice baked. I just like to use the soft sliced bread which is easy to cut and I generally skip the baking step. I also find it much simpler to use a fork to soak the bread in syrup. But some prefer to process the bread into crumbs and then mix the syrup in. The sweetened bread is then pressed down into the pan. For the ashta: You will also need bread when making the ashta cream. The sliced bread will thicken the cream and will give it a clotted texture. Cut the crust off the sliced bread before using it.
- Sugar: You’ll need sugar to make the simple syrup, or the caramel sauce. You can also add a little bit of sugar to the ashta cream for just a hint of sweetness. The ashta isn’t meant to be very sweet so as to contrast wonderfully with the sweetened bread base.
- Water: The water will be added from the beginning when making syrup. We’ll be making a rich simple syrup which is composed of 2 parts sugar and 1 part water. If you choose to make the caramel sauce, you’ll add the water at the end, once the sugar has turned into caramel. The water should be boiling in this case, and added very slowly to prevent the caramel from seizing.
- Heavy cream: I use cream with 35% fat, for richness.
- Milk: It’s best to use whole milk for maximum flavor.
- Cornstarch: To thicken the cream. Make sure you bring the ashta to a boil or else the cornstarch will give off a starchy taste. It’s also best to weigh the cornstarch. If you add too little, the ashta won’t thicken. And if you add too much, the cream will be rubbery.
- Flavorings: For an authentic feel, we’ll be using orange blossom water and rose water to flavor the syrup and the ashta. If you don’t have any, you can skip it. You could also try experimenting with other flavorings that you like.
- Pistachios: You’ll need shelled pistachios. We’ll be chopping them and sprinkling them over the ashta.
- Lemon juice: Just a little bit, to prevent crystallization in the syrup.
Okay, let’s make some aish el saraya! I’ll show you first how to make it using simple syrup, as that is the simpler version. But if you want to make it with caramel sauce, scroll down to see how to make the caramel.
How To Make Aish El Saraya, Step-by-Step
- Optional: Line the bottom and sides of a 15 cm (6-inch) springform pan with parchment paper. It’s best to grease the pan with a little bit of butter first to keep the paper in place. The parchment paper will make it easier to remove the sides of the pan later on. But you can simply use a glass baking dish (or whatever you have) and serve from it, without unmolding.
- Place the sliced bread on a flat surface and cut off the crust.
- Cover completely the bottom of the pan with the sliced bread. You’ll probably need to cut the bread in smaller pieces to fill all the gaps. You can make one or two layers, depending on how thick you want the base to be. The aish el saraya in the featured image is made with two layers.
- Set aside while you prepare the sugar syrup or the caramel sauce.
Prepare the rich simple syrup
- Place the sugar and water in a small pot. Bring to a boil, on medium-high heat (heat 7 out of 9 for example), stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. The sugar should have dissolved before the syrup starts to boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir if you notice that the sugar hasn’t properly dissolved. Try not to get any sugar on the edges of the pan so that it doesn’t stick and harden.
- Once it starts to boil, add the lemon juice and keep heating for 4-5 minutes or until slightly thickened. The longer you cook the syrup, the thicker it will be. Don’t thicken it too much so that the bread easily absorbs it.
- Remove from the heat then add the orange blossom water and rose water, if desired.
Gradually pour the syrup over the bread
- Pour part of the hot syrup in the springform pan to cover the bread, as evenly as possible.
- Gently press the bread with a fork, then pour more syrup wherever needed. Set aside while you prepare the ashta cream. You might not need all the syrup. Pour only as long as the bread is absorbing it. If you pour too much or too quickly, it will start leaking from the sides of the springform pan. You can store the remaining syrup in a glass container (in the fridge).
Prepare the ashta cream
- Place two slices of bread in a food processor and process until reduced to crumbs. Set aside. I found it best to use a food processor. But if you don’t have one, you can cut the bread into small pieces. Just try not to press it too much with your fingers as it has a tendency to stick and form larger lumps.
- Place the cornstarch in a medium-sized pot then pour the milk. Whisk until fully combined. Make sure there are no lumps of cornstarch.
- Mix in the sugar and heavy cream.
- Add the bread crumbs and whisk once more, before placing on medium-high heat (heat 6 out of 9 for example).
- Bring to a boil (about 6 minutes), stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula.
- When it starts to boil, lower the heat to medium-low (heat 4 out of 9). Keep heating for about 7 more minutes or until thickened.
- Remove from the heat and add the orange blossom water, if desired.
Consistency of the ashta cream: The ashta will have thickened but it will still be pourable. It will firm up as it cools down. If you cook the ashta cream too little, it won’t firm up properly and you might get a starchy taste from the cornstarch. If you cook it too long, it will become thick and rubbery.
- Transfer the ashta to a flat dish to cool down faster and place a piece of parchment paper (or cling film) on the surface to prevent a film from forming. Set aside at room temperature for about 15 minutes, or until it can easily be spooned onto the sweetened bread. Note: If you are using a baking dish and aren’t showcasing the different layers, you can skip this step. Pour the hot ashta immediately onto the bread.
Chop the pistachios
- While you are waiting for the cream to cool down a little, place the pistachios in a food processor. Process until coarsely chopped. If you don’t have a food processor, you can place the pistachios in a resealable (food grade) plastic bag or inside a folded piece of parchment paper. Then gently tap with a rolling pin.
Assemble the aish el saraya
- Spread the ashta cream evenly over the sweetened bread. If you are planning on serving it the same day, cover fully with the chopped pistachios. If not, it’s best to add the pistachios just before serving so they don’t get soggy. To prevent a film from forming on the ashta in the meantime, place a piece of cling film directly on the surface of the cream.
- Cool down to room temperature then refrigerate for at least 4 hours or until firm enough to slice. Remove the sides of the spingform pan and serve as is. You can add a drizzle of syrup or caramel sauce if you like it very sweet.
Tip: If you top with pistachios just before serving, you can drizzle a little bit of syrup on the ashta. The pistachios will stick better if there is syrup, although this is completely optional.
Okay, now let me show you how to make caramel sauce, in case you’d like to try the second version. But try not to get impatient like I often do! Instead of finishing sooner, you’ll end up spending way more time trying to get rid of caramel lumps!
How to Make Clear Caramel Sauce
In case you missed it, head over to the caramel sauce post for lots of tips on how to make dry and wet caramel.
Tips for making caramel
- Choose the right pan: It’s best to use a heavy-bottomed, light-colored pan when making caramel. Avoid non-stick pans.
- Don’t heat all the sugar at once: If you add too much sugar, you run the risk of burning the bottom layer while there are still undissolved sugar crystals at the top. Heat a thin layer of sugar first. Once it has almost fully melted, add another thin layer of sugar. Repeat the process until you’ve used up all the sugar.
- Don’t stir too much: Gently stir the sugar once it has almost fully melted. If you stir too much, you’ll end up with large caramel lumps.
- Keep an eye on the color: The darker the caramel, the more bitter it will become.
Prepare the caramel
- Bring the water to a boil then set aside. You’ll need it when the caramel is ready.
- Pour a thin layer of sugar into a medium-sized pan (about a third of the sugar). Place on medium heat. Don’t stir the sugar yet. Wait for the sugar to have almost fully melted before stirring. Then gently push the undissolved sugar crystals towards the melted sugar with a heatproof spatula. If the color starts to change quickly but the sugar hasn’t fully melted yet, lower the heat even further.
- Add the remaining sugar in two more additions.
- Try not to stir too much or you’ll end up with lumpy caramel. If this happens (pictured right, below), lower the heat and very gently stir to dissolve the lumps.
Add boiling water to the caramel
- When the sugar has completed dissolved and the caramel turns amber, remove from the heat.
- Keeping the pan far from you, very slowly add the boiling water to the caramel. Stir immediately with a heatproof spatula, being very careful not to splatter any hot caramel on yourself. Note: Please be very careful. The caramel will bubble up when you add the water.
- Add the orange blossom water and rose water, if desired.
Why add boiling water slowly? Caramel is extremely hot. If the water added isn’t hot enough, or if you add too much in one go, there will be a temperature shock. You will end up with a big chunk of caramel in liquid (pictured left, below). If this happens, stop adding water and return the pot to very low heat, stirring constantly to dissolve the caramel. Once it’s completely clear, add the remaining water gradually.
You can now proceed as previously explained:
- Pour part of the caramel sauce over the prepared bread in the pan.
- Press with a fork then add more caramel as needed to soak the bread completely. Cover leftover caramel sauce. You can use it to drizzle over the aish el saraya just before serving.
- Optional: Bake in a preheated oven at 170°C (338°F) for 5 minutes, so that the bread absorbs the caramel sauce a little.
- Cover with ashta cream then top with pistachios.
And that’s it! Hope you enjoy it! Let me know what version you prefer, with syrup or caramel?