Knafeh (Middle Eastern Sweet Cheese Pie)
My low-key Israeli boyfriend doesn’t usually bubble over with enthusiasm about food. In fact, in comparison to, say, me, he almost never speaks about something he’s eaten with the kind of fervent excitement that peaks my curiosity and makes me want to try it too. Given his usually measured temperament, it is particularly notable that I’ve only heard him rhapsodize passionately about only one food : knafeh, a Middle Eastern pastry made with shredded filo dough, sweet cheese, and sugar syrup. He waxes poetic about knafeh in a way that makes eating it sound like nothing less than a religious experience.
He describes trips to buy knafeh on warm, dry Saturday afternoons at the Shouk, within the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City:
The air in the narrow alleyways of the Shouk is cooler than outside and filled with the dense smells of cinnamon, spices, and shisha. After a few turns through the bustling market, past tourists of all stripes, walking on well-worn cobblestones past shops hawking wooden camels and t-shirts with political slogans in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, you eventually arrive at Jaffar, a small, humble coffee-shop, lit by a neon sign. There, a round, mustached man welcomes you to the simple space with plain little tables. In the back, large trays of knafeh glow orange and look so inviting, you’re almost compelled to dive right into their cushiony softness.
At Jaffar, the choice to order knafeh is clear. The most difficult decision is deciding whether or not to keep your whole serving to yourself. After a brief exchange, the mustached man cuts squares of knafeh from a big, round tray and serves them to you with little flourish. But there is no need for fancy-schmancy. Warm and fragrant, the slightly stretchy cheese satisfies some primal craving, and the rougher texture of the pastry on top is a beautiful foil to the smooth, sweet, creaminess of the filling...
Yeah...it sounds like a religious experience to me too…
It just so happens that talking about knafeh and religion simultaneously is not so bizarre, as knafeh is a popular dessert to celebrate the end of Ramadan, the holy ninth month of the Muslim calendar, when Muslims are required to abstain from food and drink in order to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the prophet Mohammed. At the conclusion of a month of fasting, the first day of the month of Shawwal is a holiday called Eid al-Fitr, the breaking of the fast. On Eid, religious law actually forbids Muslims from fasting, and the day is marked with sumptuous feasts. Across the Muslim world, Eid is celebrated with different traditions and various delicacies.
Often known as “sweet Eid”, the holiday is usually celebrated with a variety of sweet dishes, from dates and other dried fruits to puddings, cakes, and myriad confections. In the Middle Eastern territories which once belonged to the Ottoman Empire (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, and Turkey), knafeh is one of the most popular Eid treats. In my research, I found about as many different spellings for knafeh as I did recipes and ingredient lists, so, ultimately, I decided on experimenting with a recipe that sounded most like the Palestinian version of knafeh that my boyfriend describes.
Despite my best efforts at creating the most authentic knafeh possible, I encountered a few little problems. One: the version of knafeh that I made is traditionally prepared with a regional soft cheese called Nabulsi. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any—not even in the large, famous, Middle Eastern groceries on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue. After a bit of perusing multiple recipes, it seemed that the best way to approximate the slightly stretchy texture of Nabulsi was to combine ricotta and mozzarella. Two: I also couldn’t find knafeh dye, the flavorless orange food coloring that lends the knafeh its vivid color. Ultimately, I decided that, apart from missing out on total authenticity, my knafeh wouldn't suffer without the dye. Below is the recipe I came up with, and judging by my boyfriend’s smiling face and satisfied moans of delight, I think it turned out almost perfect. (By the way, please don't be intimidated by what, on screen, might look like an awefully arduous recipe. It's quick and easy, requires no special skills, and comes together before you know it).
Have you ever fasted? I can’t say I’ve ever truly made it through the most well-known day of fasting in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, without a little snack before sundown, so I can hardly imagine what it would be like to fast for an entire month to celebrate Ramadan. Now that I, too, have tasted knafeh, I must agree that it is a thing of beauty, fragrant with orange blossom and butter, simultaneously soft, chewy, and crispy, and delightfully rich. So if I were required to fast for thirty days in order to earn the reward of a delicious, warm dish of knafeh, I think I just might find a way to make it through.
KNAFEH (Middle Eastern Sweet Cheese Pastry)
1 1 lb package of frozen kataifi dough, or shredded filo (defrosted according to manufacturer’s intructions).
15 oz ricotta cheese
1 small, (about 6 oz) fresh mozzarella
1 and 1/3 cup sugar (separated into two portions of 1/3 cup and 1 cup)
8 oz unsalted butter
½ cup water
1 teaspoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon orange flower water, or rose water (if using rose water, you might want to use a little less).
A few unsalted pistachios, chopped for garnish