Does a vision of rich, creamy, sweet and cheesy dessert with a crunchy topping totally seduce you? Well, it seduces people with a sweet tooth everywhere in the Levant. In Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Greece and Turkey, good housewives make knafeh, the most luxurious dairy dessert. (You might also find it spelled knafe, kunafeh, knafah, konafah, konafeh – it’s all the same stuff!).
Many stuff the pastry with locally made soft cheeses. Our recipe, different from our previous one, offers you a pudding-like cooked filling with ricotta cheese. Some call their dish knafeh and serve it like a pie, in wedges or squares, while others call it kadaif and create individual stuffed rolls. For the crunchy part, everyone uses shredded kadaif noodles. And it’s essential to infuse the pastry with plenty of syrup perfumed with rose- or orange flower-water.
The only part of the dish that isn’t home-made is the kadaif noodles, which require skill and experience to make properly. They are found in the freezers of Middle Eastern stores. It’s said that shredded wheat may be used instead, but it needs to be soaked in milk and then set on towels to dry. But I can’t say if it approximates the real thing or not. In the open-air markets and bakeries, knafeh’s crunchy topping is colored a violent orange with food coloring. Use it or not, as you please – we don’t.
This is our version of knafeh, served at festive get-togethers and always accompanied by tea or coffee.
Yield: about 40 pieces
2 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons rose water or 2 teaspoons orange flower water
900 grams – 2 lb. ricotta cheese
450 grams – 1 lb. kadaif noodles
1- 1/2 cups unsalted butter
1 cup syrup (recipe below)
2/3 cup chopped pistachio nuts
Combine milk, cream, sugar and cornstarch in a medium saucepan. Stir over medium heat until dissolved.
When it begins to boil, stir in rosewater or orange blossom water. Simmer over low heat for 5 minutes, or until mixture is thick.
Remove from heat. When its cool, add ricotta cheese, stirring until it’s all blended.
Preheat oven to 175 C – 350 F.
Shred the noodles in a bowl by hand, or whiz them briefly in a food processor until the pieces are cut as small as rice grains. The size of the strands is just a matter of personal preference.
Melt butter over low heat, cooking only until it’s melted.Skim off any foam with a spoon and don’t let it turn brown.
Pour butter over noodle strands, avoiding the milk solids that have settled at the bottom. Mix with hands, rubbing the butter into the strands to coat them well.
Spread half the strands onto the bottom of a 3-quart – 3-liter baking dish. Flatten this layer firmly with your knuckles and palm to cover the bottom up to the edges.
Spread ricotta mixture over noodles. Spread remaining noodles on top of the ricotta mixture and press down.
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. Sprinkle pistachios over the top. Cut into pieces with a large, sharp knife. Serve right away.
Yield: 2 cups
3 cups sugar
1 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon rosewater or orange flower water
Combine sugar, lemon juice, rosewater and 1 cup water in a medium saucepan.
Stir constantly over medium heat until mixture boils. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, or until the syrup thickens enough to coat the spoon.
Let cool, then chill in the fridge until the knafeh is ready.
More delicious sweet things to eat and drink from the Middle East:
Image of knafeh by watashiwani via Flickr.