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!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Valentine's Chocolate and Blackberry Cake

Flowers, especially roses, gifts, cards, love declarations and of course romantic meals are the norm of Valentine celebrations around the world. Personally I don´t think we need any fixed date to celebrate love, but it´s a longstanding tradition  and it wouldn't hurt if for one day if we did something extra for the ones we love.

I once read that "cooking is love made visible" and I couldn't agree more. For me, cooking is a labor of love first and foremost and when you don't cook with love and passion the end result will always be lackluster. This Valentine day bake  a cake or cook a nice meal for your significant other or for just anyone you think is deserving of your love. If cake is on the menu then I've got just the perfect recipe for you!

I first made this cake was for my birthday celebration, but once decorated it was clear that it is the perfect cake for Valentine. It's layered cake with chocolate and blackberries that not only tastes great but also shines with its simple elegance; you can never go wrong with that. Taste wise it has a delicate balance between the depth of chocolate and the freshness and tang the fruits add.

Let's start baking.

For the sponge you need: 
  • 3 eggs at room temperature
  • 180 g granulated sugar 
  • 150 g melted  butter 
  • 180 g sifted flour
  • 30 g cocoa powder
  • 125 g blackberry purée (recipe follows)
  • 50 ml of milk or cream
  • 8 g baking powder
  • 90 g melted and cooled chocolate
  • 1 tsp blackberry liqueur; optional (you can rum or any other fruit liqueur) 
  • dash of salt
  • 1 tsp of vanilla extract

For the frosting you need:
  • 250 g butter  (room temperature)
  • 150 g cream cheese (room temperature)
  • 200 g powdered sugar
  • 2 tbsp blackberry purée
For the blackberry purée you need:
  • 300 g blackberries
  • 20 g sugar
  • Seeds of a half vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla extract
For the purée
Combine all ingredients and gently simmer for about 10 to 15 min or until the fruits are soft, pass the purée into a sieve to get rid of the seeds, and you´re done.

For the sponge:
First combine all the dry ingredient, mix well, set aside. Beat the eggs with the vanilla and the liqueur (if using), slowly start adding the sugar. Keep beating until the egg mixture doubles in volume and becomes rather thick.

Add the chocolate and mix at low speed. Turn off the mixer, add the butter and mix slowly till well combined, fold in the flour, then the blackberry purée, the milk or cream and mix again until well combined.

Pour the batter into 4 greased and lined pans (15 cm) and bake for 20-25 min at 180 C preheated oven. If you don´t have 4 pans do as I did since I only have 2. Divide the batter in two equal amounts, bake the first batch while the other half rests in the fridge, then bake the second batch. 

Once out of the oven, let the cakes cool for 5 min in the pan then transfer to a cooling rack until they are completely cooled. 

For the frosting:

Start mixing the butter and cheese, add the sugar and then the purée. Mix until well combined. Leave in the fridge for at least half an hour before you frost your cake!


Brush each layer with some blackberry purée, then add a generous amount of frosting between each layer, lightly frost the outside of the cake and decorate with a real rose using the color that your like! 

Happy Valentine!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Tartiflette, a French Classic From the Savoie Region

While it's true that my blog's main focus is about desserts, nonetheless, I cook savory dishes all the time and there are some standout dishes that are too good to not be shared. In the cold winter days we all crave for good comfort food and the recipe I am sharing features a French classic that is all about comfort! It has cheese, onions, cream and potatoes; just what you need and ask for on a cold day.

The tartiflette is a cheesy gratin that comes from the French Savoie region famous for its many wines and cheeses. Reblochon, a well known and very delicious cheese out of the Savoie region is the hero of this dish is a creamy cheese with a strong and nutty flavor and a beautiful yellowish washed rind. The French cook a lot with it using it in great dishes like the tartiflette but it is also great eaten simply with some bread and wine.

If you are a cheese lover like me, you need to try this tartiflette recipe.  In case you can´t find the Reblochon cheese you may substitute it with Camembert but the result won't be as delicious!

For 4 persons you need:
  • 600 g boiled potatoes and cut into 1 cm thick rounds (I don´t bother peeling the potatoes but if you prefer you can peel them)
  • 2 big onions (I used 1 red and 1 white)
  • 60 g chopped bacon
  • 5 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • nutmeg, freshly grated
  • 50 ml white wine
  • 150 g creme fraiche or heavy cream
  • 300 g reblochon
  • 10 g butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

Preheat your oven to 220 C and lightly grease an 18 x 28 cm oven-proof dish.

Cut the onions into thin wedges. In a pan, fry the bacon with the butter and oil until golden, then remove them from pan and add the onions. Cook the onions with the thyme, on a medium to low heat until they are soft. Salt and pepper to taste. Add the wine and cook for a couple of minutes until the liquid evaporates. Turn off the heat and add the bacon.

In your baking tray, add half of the onion, then layer half of the potato, add a bit of salt and grate some nutmeg, repeat with the rest of the onion and the potatoes. Finish with the cream and the reblochon cut lengthwise into 1 cm thick slices.

Bake in the oven for about 10-15 min. Watch the pan as you just want to melt the cheese and get a beautiful golden color on top.

Once your tartiflette is done, serve it with some greens or just as it is with a glass of white wine. 
Bon appetit!