In the eastern Mediterranean, few pastries
are as popular as knafeh. Made of a
special noodle-like shredded filo dough with a
rich, creamy filling, this unique dessert combines the buttery lusciousness of
a French pastry with a floral-scented syrup and often a sprinkling of
pistachios. Its filling is made of cheese, but nobody would classify knafeh as a cheesecake. Unlike most sweets, in many
versions of knafeh the filling has a slightly salty
accent, which makes it even more exotic.
Knafeh (also spelled kunafa, kanafeh and knafa) is central in the life of Jews from the Eastern Mediterranean. In her splendid new book, Aromas
of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, Poopa
Dweck wrote: "Kanafeh
is one of the most popular sweets served at life-cycle events such as the
celebration of a bar mitzva or a brit
mila." Neither of us grew up with this unusual
dessert, but ever since we first tasted it, we can't get enough of it.
Naturally, the best examples are found in the pastry's native region.
We enjoyed eating knafeh in Jaffa, Acre, east Jerusalem and in the Druse village of Mas'ada in the
Golan. But from our experience, the kings of knafeh
are found in Gaziantep,
gastronomic capital near the Syrian border. On both sides of the border people
relish the same locally grown pistachios, which in Hebrew are called "fistuk halabi" or Aleppo pistachios. Gaziantep is just an hour from Aleppo and its bakers,
famous for their excellent pastries, use the same renowned pistachios as an
integral part of their knafeh.
In other places, knafeh might be garnished
with a small sprinkling of the chopped nuts, but in Gaziantep the knafeh were generously coated with bright green pistachios.
As if they weren't rich enough, the warm sweet pastries were sometimes topped
with spoonfuls of the luscious Turkish cream, kaymak.
By varying the three basic components the pastry, the filling and the
syrup, Middle Eastern cooks have come up with numerous renditions of this
enticing dessert. Generally knafeh is a round shallow
cake, almost the diameter of a large pizza, but in Turkey we also had delightful
individual ones that were toasted to order. The topping is golden brown from
being heated with melted butter or might have a reddish-orange tint from a
special knafeh food coloring. You can find knafeh made with noodle-like kadaifi
pastry or with a buttery crumble topping.
For the classic knafeh, connoisseurs prefer a
stretched-curd cheese that somewhat resembles mozzarella. Sometimes it's called
"sweet cheese," but it's not really sweet; the term indicates that it's
not salty, or only slightly so, in contrast to feta-type cheeses. Those who
can't find this cheese sometimes soak salty white cheese in water to remove
most of the salt. Some people use ricotta or cottage cheese. Ideally, knafeh is served warm so the cheese filling and the rich
pastry will have the perfect texture.
In her book, The Arab-Israeli Cuisine (in Hebrew), Nawal
Abu-Ghoch notes that you can buy the special kadaifi dough in specialty markets at the shouk, as well as in Arab markets and some supermarkets.
For the filling, she mixes cows' milk cheese and firm goat cheese.
May S. Bsisu, author of The Arab
Table, learned to make knafeh from her father, who
was from Nablus,
"a city known throughout the region as a center of great sweets, expert
pastry makers and fine cheese." She fills her knafeh with a mixture of fresh unsalted mozzarella and a
salty white cheese called ackawi that she soaks in
water. Her syrup is flavored with orange blossom water.
Nasser, author of Classic Palestinian Cookery, likes soft unsalted sheep's milk
cheese for the filling and finds that fresh mozzarella also gives very good
results. She accents her syrup with lemon juice.
who wrote Lebanese Cooking (in Hebrew), makes a completely different kind of
filling, a semolina pudding flavored with rosewater, then topped with cottage
cheese or ricotta. Rosewater flavors her syrup too.
Egyptians like a similar pudding filling, according to Salima Ait Mohamed, author of La
Cuisine Egyptienne, who enriches hers with creme fraiche instead of cottage
cheese. Knafeh with these kinds of fillings can be
served cool or at room temperature. Levana Zamir, who wrote Foods from the Land of the Nile (in Hebrew), also makes a pudding and cottage cheese
filling, or a parve filling of chopped walnuts,
raisins, sugar and cinnamon. For a variation called Israeli-Egyptian kunafe, she substitutes very thin soup noodles for the kadaifi dough, and pours milk over the cake when it is half
baked to moisten the crust. Vanilla is an alternative to rosewater for her
Syrian Jews are not the only ones who serve knafeh
for festive events. May S. Bsisu
calls it "the special-occasion dessert of the
Arab world, a dish that marks moments to remember, both happy and sad." Christiane Dabdoub Nasser
describes it thus: "This specialty of Nablus is the most
representative Palestinian dessert... served at banquets and special
This recipe is from Poopa Dweck's Aromas of Aleppo.
The filling is a rich pudding made with milk, cream and ricotta cheese.
According to Dweck, the secret to successful knafeh is getting the consistency of the pudding just
right, neither too thick nor too thin. She notes that knafeh
is time-consuming to prepare but freezes beautifully and recommends serving it
with a fresh pot of Arabic coffee (usually called Turkish coffee in Israel).
1⁄2 cup whole
2 cups heavy
2 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon rosewater
1 teaspoon orange
ricotta cheese, preferably
made with whole milk
or knafeh dough
11⁄2 cups unsalted
1 cup Fragrant
Dessert Syrup (see below)
- Combine milk, cream, sugar and cornstarch in a
medium saucepan. Stir over medium heat with a wooden spoon until
dissolved. When it reaches its boiling point, stir in rosewater and orange
- Simmer over low heat for 5 minutes, or until
mixture is thickened and velvety. Remove from heat and cool thoroughly.
Stir in ricotta cheese until well blended.
- Preheat oven to 175º. Shred the dough in a large
bowl. Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat; do not let it brown.
Pour butter over dough and mix until strands are well coated.
- Spread half the dough onto the bottom of a
fairly shallow three-liter baking dish. Flatten to an even layer with your
palm. Spread ricotta mixture over dough and top with remaining dough. Bake
for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until top is golden.
- Remove the knafeh from
the oven and pour the cold syrup over it immediately. When the dish is
cool, cut it into pieces and serve.
Yield: 40 pastries.
FRAGRANT DESSERT SYRUP
3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon freshly
squeezed lemon juice
1⁄2 teaspoon rosewater
- Combine sugar, lemon juice, rosewater and 1 cup
water in a medium saucepan.
- Stir constantly over medium heat with a wooden
spoon until mixture boils.
- Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, or until
the syrup slides slowly down the back of a spoon. Let cool.
- Use immediately or pour into a glass jar and
refrigerate. It will keep for up to 2 months.
Yield: 2 cups.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast and 1,000
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