Don’t be put off making Lebanese cheese fatayer by the hard-to-find cheese and time-consuming homemade dough. Easily accessible alternatives can work deliciously too.
What is a fatayer?
A fatayer is like an open savoury pie or turnover. Made with a bread-like dough, and filled with a mixture of meat, vegetables or cheese, they originated in Lebanon and are popular in a number of Middle Eastern countries.
The most well recognised versions are those filled with lamb or spinach. As you can imagine though, the combination of freshly made dough and salty cheese is a match made in heaven.
What’s in a cheese fatayer?
Typically a cheese fatayer is filled with a mixture of cheese and herbs plus an egg to bind it all together.
The traditional fatayer cheese is akkawi, a brined cheese popular in the Middle East. It’s not easy to find outside of its home region though, so it is often replaced with more accessible cheeses.
The most common replacement is feta because it has a similar taste and texture to akkawi. Of the ten recipes I reviewed, eight use feta, either alone or together with another cheese.
Keep in mind that feta is saltier than akkawi. Some authors recommend soaking it in water a couple of times to reduce the salt content.
The other popular cheese is mozzarella. Akkawi becomes stretchy when heated (cue epic cheese pull video), which makes mozzarella a great inclusion in the mix.
So if you’re looking to match the taste and texture of akkawi, the best cheese for fatayer is a mixture of feta and mozzarella. And most authors use more feta than mozzarella.
Herbs & Spices
And as far as herbs go it is almost unanimously parsley. A couple of authors add some mint, and one some cilantro (coriander), but parsley is the traditional choice and the most popular here by far. Interestingly one author actually cautions against the use of too much of a strongly flavoured herb like mint or cilantro.
Nigella seeds are another popular addition as well, with half of the authors either adding them to the cheese mixture or sprinkling them on top of the fatayers before they go into the oven. Sesame seeds are a good substitute for nigella seeds.
The dough for fatayer is a flour, milk and oil dough leavened (raised) with yeast. This makes the finished product more like a bread than a pastry.
Most authors’ dough recipes contain some combination of the following:
- All-purpose flour
- Olive oil
- Dried active yeast
- A little salt
- A little sugar
A couple use water instead of milk, but the latter is overwhelmingly preferred.
Being a yeast-based dough, the process to create it is not difficult, but it is time consuming.
After being formed and briefly kneaded, every recipe has a proofing or rising period where the dough must be left covered in a warm place while the yeast does it’s work of creating carbon dioxide and forming gluten.
While a couple of authors suggest this only needs 10 or 15 minutes, most recommend anywhere from half-an-hour to more than two hours.
The longer the dough has to rest the more taste and texture the yeast will produce, so you’re likely to get the best results with the longer proofing times.
Given that this could turn a half-hour recipe into a half-day one, this might leave you looking for alternatives to making your own dough.
Homemade dough shortcuts
Preparing the dough from scratch will give you the most authentic and arguably the tastiest result.
But we all know there’s not always time (or the desire) for making a yeast-raised dough. Fortunately there are many good pre-made refrigerated or frozen doughs available in the grocery store. But I doubt you’ll find a fatayer dough, so which one should you use?
Amongst the recipes I reviewed, two use alternatives to homemade dough. Tina from Fusion Craftiness uses a packaged dough for flaky biscuits (similar to scones if you’re not from the US). Based on a recommendation from a Turkish friend, Analida from Analida’s Ethnic Spoon uses a packaged pizza dough.
Which packaged dough should you use?
While both of these authors report good results, if you’re like me, you’re wondering how these doughs compare to a fatayer dough.
To get a feeling for it I compared the fatayer dough recipes to several recipes each for pizza and flaky biscuit dough.
Flaky biscuit dough
It’s easy to see why a biscuit dough could make sense. Like a fatayer dough, biscuit dough is made with milk rather than water. It’s typically buttermilk with biscuits, which will alter the taste but likely only a little.
That said, there are a few differences between the two:
- Biscuits are a quick bread, made with chemical leaveners (rising agents) rather than yeast.
- Biscuit dough is typically a little sweeter, containing a little more sugar.
- The fat in biscuit dough is butter rather than oil, and there’s more than twice as much fat as there is in most fatayer doughs.
The most significant of these however is the first point.
Yeast vs baking powder
The five recipes I reviewed for biscuit dough all use baking powder. This is an effective rising agent, especially for small baked goods like fatayer, but it does nothing for the taste of the finished product.
In fact, baking powder tastes awful. In most baked goods the smallest amount possible is used so that it can be masked with other flavours (such as sugars and fats).
Yeast on the other hand adds both taste and texture to baked goods. As mentioned earlier, the fermentation process produces the distinctly “bready” taste, and also creates a gluten network that contributes to the bread-like texture.
A biscuit dough would not have either of these features. So while it would still create a nice crisp shell for the filling, it can’t closely approximate a traditional fatayer dough.
Compared with biscuit dough, pizza dough is a closer fit.
Like a traditional fatayer, pizza crust is a yeast-leavened bread. It’s also made with olive oil for fat content rather than butter.
The biggest difference between the two is the use of water in pizza dough rather than milk. This will no doubt reduce the richness of the finished product, but given that you’re using a cheese filling, I don’t think it will matter too much.
Thanks to the use of yeast though, the taste and certainly the texture will be much closer to the real thing.
Making Lebanese cheese fatayer with easy to find and use ingredients
For a truly authentic cheese fatayer your best bet is making the dough from scratch and filling it with a mix of akkawi cheese and parsley.
That said, akkawi cheese can be hard to find. And a homemade yeast-based dough, while not difficult, is quite time consuming. The good news is you have some easily accessible alternatives that will produce a great result.
If you can’t find akkawi, the best cheese for fatayer is a mixture of feta and mozzarella. This will fairly closely mimic the taste and stretchiness of akkawi.
And if you don’ have time for making your dough from scratch, the best dough for fatayer is pizza dough.
When your fatayer are out of the oven, try a dollop of spicy Tunisian harissa paste on top. Feta loves chili!
Cheese fatayer recipes included in this review
- Cheese Fatayer recipe with fatayer dough recipe | Fa’s Kitchen
- Cheese Fatayer by Zaatar and Zaytoun
- Fatayer bi jibneh – Dina’s Kitchen
- Cheese Fatayer | Amira’s Pantry
- Cheese Fatayer Recipe – The Odehlicious
- Lebanese Cheese Fatayer – Analida’s Ethnic Spoon
- Cheese Fatayer | So Delicious
- How to make Fatayer – Celebrating Flavors
- Cheese Fatayer | Lurpak
- Cheese Fatayer | Fusion Craftiness
Dough recipes for comparison
- Homemade Buttermilk Biscuits | Sally’s Baking Addiction
- Easy Homemade Biscuits – Sugar Spun Run
- Foolproof Flaky Biscuits | Dessert Now, Dinner Later
- BA’s Best Buttermilk Biscuits Recipe | Bon Appétit
- Make Delicious Flaky Biscuits – The Spruce Eats
- Pizza Dough recipe – best ever homemade pizza! | Recipe Tin Eats
- Best Pizza Dough – An Italian in my Kitchen
- Pizza Dough recipe | Epicurious.com
- Pizza Dough Recipe – NYT Cooking
- Best Homemade Pizza Dough Recipe Recipe | Jamie Oliver | Food Network