knafe

Knafeh

Knafeh: Rich, buttery, cheesy, lightly crunchy, softly melting, sugar-drenched, achingly sweet, a sort of overwhelmingly opulent Middle Eastern cheesecake that makes New York-style cheesecake look like something invented in a Philadelphia Cream Cheese factory. A little knafeh, for me, goes a very long way, but I’ve just had two full-bore infusions of the stuff in the past five days? Why? Because twice this week I’ve passed through Nablus, the largest city—and one of the liveliest—in the Palestinian territories, where some say knafeh was invented. In any case, knafeh from Nablus, kunafeh naboulsia, is the finest in the whole Arab world, and, 24 hours later, down from an incredible sugar high, I second that opinion.

So what is this mystery sweet? If you could see well-dressed, hijab-clad ladies greedily tucking into plates of knafe at Heluwiat Abu Salha (Abu Salha’s Sweets Shop) as the sunset call to prayer rings out from minarets all over town, you would perhaps understand its appeal. Abu Salha is one of dozens of similar shops, most of them around Al Manara Square in the heart of the old town, but my friend Amina assures me it’s the best of the best. Waiters at Abu Salha were slamming out portions of knafe on Thursday evening as fast as they could move.

Kanafeh actually begins with katiafi, which itself is almost as mysterious—the shredded-wheat pastry that’s in many Arab, Greek, and Turkish sweets. (It’s available in the U.S. and Canada in Middle Eastern neighborhoods, usually frozen.) But that’s just the beginning. The kataifi must be further shredded, and shredded and shredded, and tossed with butter over and over until it’s soft, fluffy, and no longer in distinctive shreds. Then it’s spread in a round buttered tray (sheep’s milk butter is always said to be best), topped with jibneh beidha or white cheese, and then another layer of the thoroughly shredded, buttery kataifi. Baked in the oven until it’s golden and crusty on the bottom, it’s inverted when it comes out so the crust becomes the top. Immediately, the still hot confection is drenched in sugar syrup. Not an easy task for home cooks which is why Abu Salha was so crowded with eager customers, carrying boxes home for the Friday feast—and stopping for a quick taste first, just to make sure it’s as good as remembered.


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