Saturday, May 21, 2016

Aich al Saraya: A Feast for the Serail, Available for You Too!

On May the 22nd Christians celebrate Saint Rita´s Day, a very beloved and venerated Saint among the Christians and specially the catholics of the middle east.

My mom named me after her, and so many others moms in that region!! During my school days I recall having at least 3 or 4 Ritas in class. The teacher had to call the attention for one and the class would be quiet in a snap!

Before moving to Spain, my family always celebrated this day. Nowadays, they do it in my absence, although they make sure to call me and wish me a "Happy Saint Rita's day".

My aunt whose name is Marguerite, though we call her Margot, celebrates the feast and her birthday on that day. During that day, she would always make her specialty, the dessert that I will share with you in a while. As she would chill the dessert, it was always a welcome since during May hot weather makes its appearance on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean quite clearly. My aunt is not only a great person with the sweetest heart ever but also is a great cook. Ever since I moved here I stopped enjoying this childhood dessert, so this year I decided to ask for her recipe and make some for me!

This dessert has been around for centuries. The name in Arabic is "Aish el Saraya" (عيش السرايا); roughly translated it means"the Serail's Bread". Though it was made with few key, nowadays widely available, ingredients, the dessert must have been back in time mostly out of the reach of the masses.

Like many desserts, it calls for the use of stale bread. The bread is then flavored with caramelized sugar, enriched with a layer of fresh clotted cream and finally adorned with the widest assortment of nuts possible. The result must have surely enchanted the governors and the elite that inhabited the serails of the Eastern Mediterranean back then. Luckily for us, the dessert is no longer exclusive and is widely available at shops but can be easily made at home.
Just note that there are so many ways to make this dessert, and this is just one of them!

For  20x25 cm pan or 26 cm round pan you need (I used 2 round pans: 15 and 12 cm and 1 small cup)

For the bread layer:
  • 120  toasted bread
  • 1 cup of sugar (about 225 g)
  • 1 cup of water
  • few drops of lemon juice
In a sauce pan, pour the sugar and on a low heat let it caramelize, it will take about 10 min. Once it´s golden brown, pour the water, be careful as it will splatter. then add the lemon juice and let the caramel dissolve completly in the water.  Leave it to cool.

Meanwhile you need to crumb the bread (you can use your food processor or just put the toasts in a plastic bag and bash it with a rolling pin) once you have tiny little crumbs pour over the cooled caramel, mix well until you get a soft and spreadable mixture. If it´s too liquid add more crumbs and if too thick a bit of water!
Cover the bottom of the pan with the bread mixture and set aside.

For the cream layer you need:
  • 4 cups of milk
  • 4 tbsp sugar (add a bit more if you desire a sweeter cream)
  • 75 g corn flower
  • 1 1/2  tbsp orange blossom water
  • 1 1/2 tbsp rose water

In a saucepan, combine sugar and milk, and let it simmer for few minutes, Meanwhile dissolve the corn flower in 3 tbsp of water and slowly add it to the milk while you´re stirring.
Keep stirring, until the mixture thickens and covers the back of a spoon. This will take few minutes, don´t stop stirring to prevent any lumbs from forming.
Add the orange and rose water mix and turn off the heat. Pour the mixture over the bread, leave it to cool then place it in the fridge for at least 4 hours!
You will end up with 1 cm layer of bread and about 3 to 4 cm cream layer!

To achieve this presentation, I covered the  bottom of a spring form pan with parchment paper, and the borders with acetate paper which makes removing the cold cake a lot easier.
Decorate as you wish, traditionally it is covered with grated pistachios but feel free to  use any other nut or edible rose leaves. I decorated it with pistachios  and added a rose on the biggest cake, as it is the symbol of Saint Rita!

Once it´s cold you just need to cut and serve, you can also prepare it in individual cups.
Hope you give the dessert a try and Happy Saint Rita to all the Ritas out there!


  1. Awesome, this is a new one for me! The milk layer is very much like Mahalabia, which I make quite often as we love it. I'm trying to imagine it with the bread layer... nope, I'll just have to make it to know!
    Your decorations are sooo pretty!

    1. Thank you Azlin!
      It is indeed, other recipes use clotted cream, this one is easier and very delicious! Hope you give it a try! :)