Crispy rolls of phyllo dough stuffed with a sweet decadent cream (ashta) and fried or baked to perfection. Drizzle some simple syrup and top with nuts, and enjoy one of the most popular middle eastern desserts: Znoud El Sit! They look impressive, but they take less than an hour to make.
What is Znoud El Sit
Znoud El Sit are a popular Middle Eastern dessert that is commonly enjoyed during the month of Ramadan, much like Baklawa and mahalabia. They are named to refer to a lady's "upper arms" because of the similar shape. Leave it to the Arabs to associate desserts with women.... let's just awkwardly move on from this.
Growing up, my dad used to always grab one for each of us to enjoy after Iftar. We'd get one each because they would be really sweet and decadent from the sweet shop. You bite into the crispy roll and get a mouthful of smooth cream. So good! I used to always think that they were hard to make. But spoiler alert.... they're so darn easy.
And after experimenting a lot with this recipe, I prefer to bake them rather than fry them because they taste so good and so much lighter. That way, I can have two. I've left instructions for both methods though, so you do you!
Ingredients you’ll need to make this recipe
You need a few simple ingredients to make this at home:
- Phyllo dough. I recommend keeping your dough frozen and then thawing it in the fridge overnight before making them.
- Milk, liquid whipping cream, sugar and corn starch. These ingredients make up the ashta cream.
- Sugar, water, lemon juice to make the simple syrup. You can also flavour it with either rose water (the classic one) or my new favourite, orange zest and saffron
- Butter if you're baking, and oil if you're frying
- Lots of chopped vibrant green pistachios to top them with
How to make this recipe
Make the Simple Syrup
The first step is to make the simple syrup to allow enough time for it to cool down completely. Make it by mixing the water, sugar, and lemon juice and allowing it to simmer on medium heat for 10-12 minutes. If you want to flavour with rose water, add a tablespoon at the end. If you want the orange zest and saffron, add them in before it cooks.
Make the Ashta
Next you'll want to start making your ashta. Mix together the milk, cream, sugar and corn starch and whisk while everything is cold to dissolve the corn starch completely. Place on medium heat and whisk until it thickens.
Add your rose water at the end, then cover with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge to cool down for 1-2 hours. Ensure the plastic is in contact with the cream to avoid creating a film.
Roll the Znoud El Sit
Once your ashta is cool, you are ready to roll. Take out your phyllo dough and spread it on a clean surface. Cut the sheets (you'll need 15-20) while they are still stacked into 4 long strips along the short edge. You should end up with 4 equally sized strips.
Next, take one of the strips and cut it in half to form shorter strips. To assemble, lay down a long strip and then a short strip on top to form a cross. Place the ashta in the centre then fold over the short strip. This ensures the ashta won't seep out.
Next, start rolling the long strip tightly but gently until you form a roll. Seal it with a flour and water mixture to ensure it is secure (1 tablespoon of flour mixed with a few tablespoons of water to form a "glue").
How to bake the rolls
If you want to bake them, brush a sheet pan generously with butter and lay them on it side by side. Then, generously brush each of the rolls with butter from all sides. Bake until golden brown. If you are baking, it is common to have some of the ashta ooze out, but if you roll securely, this should be very minimal. Once they're out of the oven, drizzle with the room temperature syrup and top with nuts.
How to fry the rolls
Frying is the more traditional method. You can deep fry them in a pot, or you can shallow fry in a pan. If you shallow fry, ensure there is enough oil so that the rolls are half submerged. Make sure the oil is hot, then drop 2-3 rolls at a time. Fry for 30 seconds or so until golden, then flip and fry the other side. While still hot, drizzle them with the syrup and garnish with nuts.
FAQs and Expert Tips
It actually means a lady's "upper arms" because of their shape. It's an Arabic term that has now become commonly used to refer to these cream phyllo rolls.
The outer shell is made of crispy phyllo dough and it is stuffed with a sweet cream called Ashta in Arabic. The cream can be flavoured with rose water or other flavourings. It is drizzled with simple syrup and topped with nuts.
Ashta is made of milk and cream so it needs to be refrigerated. You can leave it for 3-4 days in the fridge. Be sure to cover it with plastic wrap that comes into contact with the surface to avoid having a film form.
Yes you can. Instead of making Ashta, you can use a store bought thick cream such as Nestle or Puck. Make sure it is thick enough to keep its shape when rolling, otherwise it won't work.
Make ahead tips:
- You can make the simple syrup days in advance and keep it stored in an airtight jar on the countertop. It keeps well for weeks
- You can also make the ashta a few days ahead of time and keep it refrigerated, covered in plastic wrap in contact with the surface
- If you're frying, you can fry a few hours ahead of serving and they will stay crispy. They don't need to be served hot, so this will make it easier if you're preparing them for guests. You can do the same if you're baking
- You can also freeze them after rolling them on a lined sheet. Once frozen solid, you can transfer them to a freezer bag. You can then fry them from frozen. I do not recommend baking frozen znoud el sit
Other dessert recipes you will love
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Znoud El Sit (Lady Fingers)
For the ashta filling
- ½ litre whole milk
- ½ litre 35% whipping cream (or 18% liquid table cream or replace with whole milk)
- ¾ cup corn starch
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp rose water
For the simple syrup
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 squeeze of lemon
Choice of flavouring for Simple Syrup
- 1 tbsp rose water or
- 1 tsp orange zest and 5 strands saffron
- 15-20 sheets phyllo
- ½ cup melted butter
- nuts for garnish
- Take out your phyllo pastry from the freezer the night before and thaw it in the fridge
- Start by making the simple syrup. In a pot, add the sugar, water and squeeze of lemon. If using orange zest and saffron, add them in at this point.
- Mix and place on medium heat to simmer for 12 minutes. Sugar should dissolve and you should end up with a clear sugar syrup. Remove from heat and allow it to cool at room temperature. If using rose water, add it in at this point.
- While the syrup is cooking, make the ashta filling. In a pot, add the whole milk, the cream, and the corn starch. While everything is still cold, whisk well to incorporate the corn starch until dissolved.
- Place the pot on the stove on medium high heat and continuously whisk for about 10 minutes until thickened. Don't stop mixing as the cream may burn at the bottom of the pot.
- Once thickened, remove from heat, add the rose water (or orange blossom water), mix and place it in a dish covered with plastic wrap. Make sure the plastic wrap is in contact with the surface of the ashta to avoid creating a film. Place in the fridge to cool for 1-2 hours.
- Preheat your oven to 450F. If you're frying, skip this step.
- Once the ashta has cooled, you're ready to roll. Roll out the phyllo sheets and keep them stacked as-is, then cut them into 4 equal sized strips along the short edge to result in 4" long strip bundles
- Take one of the strip bundles and cut it in half to create shorter strips. Refer to photos in the post above.
- To roll one piece, grab 2 layers of the long phyllo strip, and 1 layer of the shorter strip. Lay the short strip on top of the long one to form a cross, as pictured in the post above.
- Place 1.5 tablespoons of the ashta filling on top of the short piece, in the centre. You can use less ashta if you prefer them less full.
- Fold the sides of the shorter piece over the ashta to fully cover it.
- Fold the longer strip over it and start rolling tightly to get a log shape, but be gentle so you don't rip the dough. Refer to photos in the blog post.
- When you reach the end, seal it with water or a flour and water paste which is a more secure method (just mix 1 tablespoon of flour with a 4-5 tablespoons of water to form a thick paste which will act like glue).
- Brush a sheet pan very generously with butter and lay them on it side by side.
- Also brush each piece generously with butter from all sides.
- Bake in the oven for 15-25 minutes, until golden brown. Keep in mind that the filling may ooze out a little, but if you roll them securely it should be very minimal.
- Remove from oven and immediately drizzle with simple syrup so the pastry absorbs it. Garnish with nuts and serve.
- If you want to fry them, you can deep fry or shallow fry. Heat a pot or pan of oil until hot. Ensure you have enough oil to cover halfway up the roll. Drop 2-3 pieces in at a time depending on the size of your pot. Fry each side for a few seconds until golden brown, then remove and place on a paper towel. Drizzle immediately with sugar syrup, then garnish with nuts.
- For the cream, you can use 35% whipping cream, or 18% table cream, or just replace with whole milk.
- For the sugar syrup, choose the flavouring you prefer. I love the orange zest and saffron but you can stick with the classic rose water, or don't add any flavour.
- You can choose to either fry or bake them. Frying is traditional and will be quicker and will ensure none of the ashta seeps out. But it is also more oily.
- Baking is lighter and there is a small risk that the filling oozes out, but if you roll them securely, it should be very minimal. Personally, I like the baked ones so I can have two! You still get crunch and crispy rolls.
- If you want to make these ahead, you can make the ashta filling as well as the simple syrup ahead of time. The ashta will keep in the fridge for 2-3 days, and the simple syrup will keep on the counter for up to a month. I suggest you assemble and bake/fry on the same day, but you can do it up to 2-3 hours before serving.