Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Kunafeh, the Middle East's Favorite Cheese Delight!

It's about time to share with you one of my favorite recipes ever. It´s not only delicious but also has a special place in my heart.

Sometimes we feel strongly towards a dish or a dessert not just because it tastes great but because it brings back memories we cherish. Kunafeh/knafeh/knefeh, whichever way you want to pronounce it, has a special place in my heart because of all the wonderful memories I associate with it.

During Easter Sunday (Resurrection Sunday), I would always wake up in anticipation knowing that my parents would bring home the most delicious, sweet and creamy knefeh enough for the whole family with much to spare for the following day. I also remember the many Saturdays I spent with my brother making all the necessary knefeh preparations and how anxious we would be the following Sunday to savor the labor of our efforts. But it's not just family memories that knefeh brings back, I recall the many times I had this treat drenched in thick syrup while strolling the streets with my friends. Kneffeh was our go-to sweet treat, breakfast or brunch. Such sweet and wonderful memories!
Knefeh is not just a dessert for me, it's part of my identity and cultural background.

After this short trip down memory lane, let me tell you that this dish is one of the most popular ones in the Middle East, if not the most popular. It is most commonly eaten as breakfast but it's just as good as a treat any time of the day. It's not uncommon for people to bring a whole platter of knefeh to friends and families during festive times as the rich dessert that stand up to an even richer lunch.

There are many variants to kneffeh and every city and even every maker seems to have his own rendition of the basic recipe. I do think that all variations are good and they make this dish even more special. All variations of kneffe share the same basics: a layer of buttery dough covering or topping a creamy melted cheese layer and sweetened with simple syrup. Knefeh is best served warm as it loses much in flavor and texture when it's cold.

I should mention that knefeh is made with a special kind of cheese that is very difficult to find in Madrid. I used the cheeses that are easier to find and can give you the closest taste and texture to the real thing.

The one I´m sharing today is called knefeh khechne (or coarse knefeh) as the kataifi dough is cut into small pieces and not ground. The soft knefeh demands some extra work but I hope I will share this version with you too!

To make enough coarse knefeh for four persons you need:
  • 250 g kataifi dough
  • 150 g mozzarella
  • 150 ricotta cheese
  • 80 g clarified butter (melted and milk solids removed)
  • soft butter to brush the tray (about 20 g)
  • orange powdered food coloring (optional)
For the syrup you need:
  • 200 g sugar
  • 100 g water
  • small cinnamon stick (optional)
  • 1 bruised cardamom pod (optional)
  • squeeze of lemon juice
  • 1 tsp rose water
  • 1 tsp orange blossom water.
Start by making the syrup. Combine sugar, water, cardamom and cinnamon in a saucepan, and let the sugar melt completely on a low heat. When the mixture starts bubbling add the lemon juice and let it simmer for an extra minute. Turn off the heat and add the rose and orange blossom water. Never add the orange and rose water while the mix is still bubbling as you will lose their delicate flavor.

Now let's tackle the dough. In a food processor shred the kataifi into tiny little pieces. Place the dough in a big bowl and add the clarified butter. With your hands, mix well until the butter has covered all the small shreds.

Now, butter an 18 cm pan, really generously, add a pinch of the food coloring if using, and with a brush spread with the butter making sure to cover the sides of the pan. Add  about 2/3 of the dough and cover the tray, press well to have 1/2 cm thick dough on all sides, (making sure the sides are about 1 cm higher).

Mix the cheeses in a bowl and mash them together. Place the bowl in a fridge if you don't want to bake the knefeh immediately.  Do take the cheese mix out of the fridge for a while when you are ready to bake.

All of the previous steps can be made the night ahead in case you want things to be easier for you the day you want to serve the knefeh.

When you´re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 200 C. Place the pan in the oven for about 5 to 7 minutes until you see that the sides have changed color. Add the cheese mix and put back in the oven  for 5 to 7 minutes. When the cheese starts to melt take the pan out of the oven and cover the cheese with the remaining kataifi dough.

At this point, it is usual to flip the kenefeh on a bigger pan, put the pan into the oven and bake it till it has a nice golden color. However, I find it easier to put the pan in the middle rack and turn the broiler on for 5 minutes or until the dough is of a beautiful golden color.

To serve, you need to take out the knefeh from the pan. The process is very similar to how you would remove a tarte tatin from its baking pan. Place the serving platter on top of the pan making sure that the platter is larger than the pan. With a quick motion flip the pan and platter. Tap gently on the pan and the knefeh should fall easily on the platter.

Decorate with grated pistachios, dried rose petal and serve with the warm syrup!

I hope you give this recipe a try, it´s absolutely delicious. A crunchy dough holding  a gooey rich cheese mix all tied together and sweetened with an aromatic syrup, perfection!

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