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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, Turkey's 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.
Christiane Dabdoub 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.
Gracia Grego, 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 syrup's flavoring.
Obviously, 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 receptions."
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).
1â„2 cup whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. rosewater
1 tsp. orange blossom water
900 gr. ricotta cheese, preferably made with whole milk
450 gr. kadaifi or knafeh dough
11â„2 cups (350 gr.) unsalted butter
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 blossom water.
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 175Âº. 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 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1â„2 tsp. 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 Jewish Recipes.
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