Go anywhere in the Leventine and you will be presented by one of the greatest amalgamation of shredded phyllo, farmers cheese, and sugar known to humankind: Knafeh.
This sweet traces its origins back to the Ottoman Empire and can still be found in various forms all through the former empire’s dominion.
However, all through the Middle East, the city of Nablus is the place where everyone knows the best knafeh is made. An entire knafeh culture exists there and Nabulsis take great pride in their craft (http://tinyurl.com/knlv2zh). In fact, the World’s Largest Knafeh was made in Nablus in July 2009 (http://tinyurl.com/jw83r29). (Videos from YouTube)
And, wherever Palestinians have settled, they have taken the art of Knafeh making wherever they go.
Now, I have to honestly say my dad and ‘Amto (aunt) Siham make the best Knafeh I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know what they do, but it’s simply etherial.
However, I think my recipe is pretty good, too. And, now, I’m going to share it with you.
A few things about Knafeh:
1. The cheese: This uses a farmers cheese called Jebne Nabulsi (literally translated “Nablus Cheese”). Here in the States, it is always packed in brine. Of course, this is done for preservation. But, it also makes the cheese semi-hard and salty rather than young, soft, and either unsalted or lightly salted in the Middle East. To rid yourself of the salt and to somewhat soften the cheese, you have to soak and simmer it. A good alternative is fresh mozzarella. However, if you can’t find unsalted mozzarella, you’ll need to soak it as well.
2. Buy the dough already shredded. Don’t try to shred sheets of phyllo yourself. You’ll never get them as fine and it’s a huge hassle. Any good Middle Eastern market will have the dough in the freezer section. Let it thaw overnight in the fridge before using.
3. Coloring the top of the knafeh a bright orange color is traditional. However, Knafeh coloring isn’t necessary. There is a powdered coloring available in Middle Eastern markets especially for Knafeh. However, unless you plan on making a lot, don’t buy it. Some people use gel color (for coloring icing). Don’t use regular food coloring, however. It’s not fat soluble.
4. Using Rose or Orange water is up to you. I prefer the orange. Others, rose.
5. Don’t skimp on the syrup. I know that when you first begin to pour it over, it looks like too much. Believe me, it’s not.
6. Clarified butter is absolutely necessary to this dish. Regular butter will burn. See the end of the post on how to make clarified butter.
Thin Qatr (Ka-tr) (simple syrup)
2 c. sugar
1 1/2 c. water
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. orange or rose water (optional)
1 lb. knafeh dough (kataifi), thawed
2 lb. Farmers Cheese (Jebne Nabulsi) or fresh mozzarella
1/4 c. sugar
1 1/4 c. clarified butter
1 tsp. knafeh coloring (optional)
1/4 c. chopped pistachios (optional)
1 recipe Qatr (see above)
1. Make the Qatr: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, mix together the sugar and water until the sugar is dissolved.
Bring to a boil. Let the syrup boil for 3 minutes and then add the lemon juice. Boil for 2 more minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the orange blossom or rose water, if using. Set aside and let cool.
2. Make the Knafeh: Prepare the cheese – If using the Farmers cheese, you will need to soak and cook the cheese to remove the salt. To do this, thinly slice the cheese (almost to the point of shaving it) and place in a large bowl.
Cover the cheese with water and let soak for two hours, changing the water every 30 minutes. After you have soaked the cheese, drain it and place in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring the water to a simmer (do not let it boil – it will harden the cheese) and cook the cheese for 10 minutes. Drain. Repeat the process at least 2 more times or until the cheese is salt-free. (Taste as you go.)
If you are using fresh mozzarella, buy salt-free. If you don’t find any, thinly slice the cheese and soak it in water for 30 minutes – 1 hour. Drain and taste. Repeat if needed.
Drain the cheese on paper towels to remove some of the excess moisture. Place the cheese in a medium bowl and toss with the 1/4 c. sugar.
3. Meanwhile, take the knafeh dough and, with a very sharp knife, chop the dough into approximately 1″ pieces.
Have 1 cup of the clarified butter heating in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the dough to the saucepan.
Stir and cook the dough until it has absorbed the butter. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let sit until cool enough to handle.
4. Preheat the oven to 400F. Prepare 2 baking sheets by lining with foil and spraying with non-stick spray. (I use 9″ x 12″ x 1″ sheet pans from a restaurant supply. Invest in some. You won’t be sorry.) Pour the remaining 1/4 c. butter in the bottom of one of the baking sheets and mix in the knafeh coloring (if using).
5. Take 1/2 of the Knafeh dough and spread it as evenly as possible over the bottom of the baking sheet.
Spread the cheese over the top in an even later. Top the cheese evenly with the remaining dough.
6. Place the baking sheet in the lower 1/3 of the oven and bake for 25 – 30 minutes, or until the top is a golden brown.
Take the baking sheet from the oven, place the second sheet on top, face down, and carefully flip the Knafeh.
Place the new baking sheet with the knafeh, now bottom-side-up, back in the oven for another 10 minutes.
7. Once the knafeh is done, take it out of the oven and set the baking sheet on a rack. Pour the Qatr over the knafeh as evenly as possible.
Top with the chopped pistachios (if using). Let cool slightly and allow the syrup to soak in before eating.
At least 2 lbs. of unsalted European or European-style butter (it has a higher percentage of fat than American butters. American butters tend to have more water.)
Basically, clarified butter (also known as ghee or samneh) is butter where the milk solids have been removed. When butter burns, it’s these solids that burn, not the fat.
Cooking with regular butter is fine, as we all know, in most cases. In fact, sometimes browned butter is a beautiful thing. However, for desserts like this, or even direct high-heat cooking, clarified butter is the way to go. It has a much higher smoke point (about 450F as opposed to 325F for regular butter) as well as a longer shelf life (I’ve had some for at least 6 months and it’s still good).
It’s very simple to make. It just takes a little patience.
Here is a lovely essay on clarified butter written by Edward Schneider for the New York Times in 2008: http://tinyurl.com/lj6ozhr
I generally like to do at least 3 pounds at a time and store it in the refrigerator.
To begin, place the butter in a medium to large saucepan over very low heat.
Allow the butter to very slowly melt. This is done to help the butter separate slowly and let the milk solids settle on the bottom of the pan.
Remove the pan from the heat. With a large spoon, begin to carefully skim off the milk solids on top.
Once you have skimmed off all (or most) of the solids, carefully pour them into a clean container. Some people will pour the butter through a cheesecloth as well to be sure to get every bit of milk solid out of the clarified butter. However, if you are fine with a few bits of milk solid, you can skip that step.