Despite having its fair share of civil unrest and political instability, the Middle East remains one of the parts of the world that I’d like to visit one day. Yes, I am quite adventurous when it comes to travel choices, but this preference is purely food-motivated. I honestly believe that any culture so steeped in ancient history as the Persians, Egyptians and Turks with their imperialist tales of glory and failures, must also have a refined palate for good food. Just look at the variety of aromatics and spices employed in baking and cooking, the extravagance of a celebratory feast boasting flavors comparably intense and enticing as a simple street-side meal. Of course the Indians, the Greeks and the Chinese all have their fair share of major achievements in ancient history, but for me, its the Middle East that I’m fascinated with, in part due to the people I’ve met from that region and our trip to Turkey three years ago. The two weeks spent traipsing around the maze that is Istanbul and the expansive, moon-like landscape of Cappadocia swept by too quickly, leaving us with a compressed schedule to sample Turkish cuisine (and there are many dishes to sample!).
We did, of course, have kebabs and koftes, alongside a glass of raki whenever we had a chance, a morsel of Baklava, nuggets of Turkish delights and countless other mezze dishes of eggplants, tomatoes, beans and seafood whose names are far too many to recall. Today’s dessert, however, wasn’t part of that list. Going by a number of names across the region: Konafa in Egypt, Kadaif in Turkey and Greece, Knafe in Syria and Lebanon, this dessert is as ubiquitous as the Baklava, and is similar in preparation. Shredded filo dough resembling rice vermicelli noodles are coated in melted butter, layered either with nuts, cheese or cream then baked and drenched with syrup and served with a liberal dusting of chopped pistachios. Courtesy of a request from F, a frequent commenter on this blog and former classmate, I couldn’t wait to try this dessert, seeing as I already had plans to prepare a baklava for this challenge.
Despite the variety of Konafa recipes available, I turned to my trusted guide on Middle Eastern cuisine for this recipe: Claudia Roden. If you’re interested in learning more about the flavors of the Middle East – and goodness knows there is such a multitude of them – her book, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, is an absolute must-read. Ancient tales and fables from the Ottoman empire are set alongside clear and concise recipes with helpful hints on adaptation and variations of a dish found across the different countries in the region. It reads like a cross between Arabian Nights and a cookbook, eloquently contextualizing each dish in its cultural origin, making the book a perfect gift for the cultural anthropologist.
But enough about history and back to more important things like dessert. I’ve shared the version with a cream filling below, but you can also check out this recipe for the cheese version or this for the nuts version, which can also be shaped into bite-sized rolls. Or, you could head over to Amazon and get a copy of this book for your Middle Eastern feast!
Konafa, Knafe, Kadaif (adapted from Claudia Roden’s New Book Of Middle Eastern Food)
Makes one 8-inch konafa, enough for 6 to 8 servings
I’ve adapted the portions for an 8-inch baking pan, and reduced the amount of milk called for in the original recipe.
For the syrup:
1½ cups sugar
1 cup water
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
Bring the sugar, water and lemon juice to a boil for about 8 to 10 minutes, then remove from heat and stir in the orange blossom water. Leave to cool, then chill in the refrigerator.
For the cream filling:
4 tablespoons rice flour
2½ cups milk
3 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons heavy cream
Mix the rice flour with some of the milk to make a smooth paste. Bring the rest of the milk to a boil, then add the rice flour paste, whisking the milk as you do so to minimize clumping. Immediately turn the heat to very low and leave the mixture to thicken for about 15 to 20 minutes. Stir occasionally without scraping the bottom of the pan so as not to pick up any burnt bits.
Add the sugar and stir well. Leave to cool, then add the cream and mix well to remove any lumps.
For the pastry:
11 ounces/ 315 grams konafa/kadaif pastry
1½ sticks/ 170 grams butter, melted and slightly cooled
2 ounces/ 60 grams pistachios, coarsely chopped
Place the pastry in a large bowl and separate the strands as much as you can. I find that tossing the pile of pastry helps disentangle them, although you’ll still need to spend time separating the strands.
Pour the melted butter over the pastry and, with your fingers, spread it thoroughly over the pastry, pulling out and separating the strands so that they don’t stick together and are coated with butter.
Preheat the oven to 350F/ 180C.
Spread half the pastry at the bottom of a 12-inch round pie pan. Spread the cream filling over it, and cover with the rest of the pastry. With both palms, press down on the top layer and flatten the pastry.
Bake for about 45 minutes, then raise the temperature to 425F/ 220C and bake for another 15 minutes, until the pastry colors slightly. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
Before serving, run a knife around the pie to loosen the sides, then turn it out onto a large serving dish. Pour the syrup all over the konafa and liberally sprinkle the top with chopped pistachios. You could also opt to pour only half the syrup before serving and pass it around your guests for them to help themselves.