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Kunafe Nabulsia ~ The Queen of Arabic Sweets

March 14th, 2012 60 comments

If there’s one dessert that rules as the Queen of Arabic sweets, I would nominate Kunafe Nabulsia, the sticky pastry made of gooey sweet cheese sandwiched between layers of shredded kunafe pastry. This specialty from the Palestinian city of Nablus is prepared in enormous round trays, saturated with rose-scented syrup, cut into slabs and garnished with chopped pistachios.

In the Middle East, people don’t typically prepare kunafe at home. Kunafe is an occasion to go out. That’s how I first got to know it—in pastry shops in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, such as Al Jaffar & Sons pastry shop in the Old City.

And yet there are those who do make kunafe in their kitchen—typically Arabs in the diaspora, longing for home. So, I ate kunafe in Jerusalem, but learned to fully appreciate it in Seattle, where it’s lovingly prepared by homesick immigrants.

Last year, inspired by the photo and tips in the cookbook When Suzanne Cooks by Suzanne Husseini, I attempted to make kunafe again. And so, I’ve made it many times over the past year (always a big production) for house guests and dinner parties. Kunafe offers a “wow” factor to any celebration or meal, and it never fails to impress. Recently I made kunafe as the dessert for a good-bye dinner for a nephew and his family immigrating to Canada. As Palestinian immigrants, I suspect they will be making kunafe for themselves in Toronto one day.

While kunafe is my favorite Arabic sweet to eat, I confess, it can be a challenge to make. However, I believe I have worked through all the kinks that deter home cooks.

Things to know about making kunafe

Tools: Most recipes for homemade kunafe require a 30 cm (12 inch) round pan. However, I use a 15 inch deep-dish pizza pan from Crate & Barrel. Since the pan is a few inches bigger, the pastry comes out thinner and more like what’s found in pastry shops. You can also use a rectangular cookie sheet with sides.

You will need a serving tray that is the same shape and size as the baking pan—or slightly larger—to invert the pastry into. Most Arab bakers I know use two identical baking pans and flip the pastry from one pan to the other. You’ll also need a food processor and pastry brush.

Specialty ingredients: The cheese filling is what trips up most people. The standard cheese for kunafe is akawwi, a mild, slightly salty cheese that holds its shape when baked. Find akawwi in the deli or cheese aisle of most Arabic supermarkets. If you live outside the region, look for it in Middle Eastern grocery stores or substitute ricotta, which is softer, but still a good stand-in.

Whichever cheese you use, you’ll mix it with mozzarella, which gives the pastry its gooey quality so distinctive of kunafe. Fresh mozzarella is best, but any mozzarella will do. Most recipes call for a total of 1 kg (2.2 lbs.) cheese. I like to use a little less, as this also makes a thinner and more delicate kunafe.

Because it’s a sweet dessert, the mozzarella and akawwi cheese require desalting—a simple task of soaking it in water for a day. (No need to do this with ricotta).

The kunafe pastry comes shredded and looks like vermicelli. It’s readily available in the Middle East and sold in 500 g packages in the freezer section. In the US, look for it in specialty supermarkets or Middle Eastern grocery stores.

To give kunafe its traditional orange color, you’ll need orange food coloring—either drops, paste or a special power made just for kunafe. I’ve tried it all and I prefer using cake decorating paste. The orange coloring is worth the extra effort, as it gives kunafe its festive appearance which looks exquisite with the green pistachios on top.

Finally, this recipe requires scented simple syrup and clarified butter, both easily prepared at home.

Below is my recipe for this Queenly dessert.

Kunafe Nabulsia

Serves 8-10

Ingredients

700 g akkawi cheese (or substitute 500 g ricotta)

200 g mozzarella (if using ricotta, use 400 g mozzarella)

1 package (500 g) frozen kunafe pastry (thawed one hour on the counter)

1½ cups butter to make slightly more than 1 cup clarified butter, melted and hot

4 Tablespoons sugar

3 Tablespoons orange blossom water

4-8 drops orange food coloring (powder, paste or drops)

3 cups rose-scented simple syrup

½ cup ground pistachio, to garnish

Method

1. The day before, slice the akkawi and mozzarella cheese into thick slabs. In a plastic container, cover with water to soak overnight in the refrigerator to desalt the cheese. Change the water several times the first day.

2. Also in advance, prepare the rose-scented simple syrup so it’s completely chilled before the kunafe comes out of the oven.

3. About one hour before cooking, remove the kunafe pastry from the freezer to thaw on the counter. Make the clarified butter.

4. Prepare the pan—a 30 cm (12 inch) round pan or a 15-inch deep-dish pizza pan. Spread 4 Tablespoons of the clarified butter in the pan. Add the orange coloring a little at a time. Using a pastry brush, spread the butter and the coloring evenly all over the pan and up the sides.

5. Preheat the oven to 350° F (190° C).

6. Prepare the kunafe pastry. Remove from package and cut into four sections. In a food processor, gently grind one quarter of the thawed pastry at a time with a few pulses keeping it coarse.

7. Place pastry in a large bowl and gradually pour the remaining hot clarified butter over top. Use the full amount of butter or the pastry will be dry or stick to the pan. Using your fingers, mix in the butter to evenly coat the strands of pastry.

8. Drain the desalted cheese and pat dry with a dish towel. Grate cheeses into a large bowl. (If using ricotta, no need to grate.) Sprinkle the sugar and orange blossom water over the cheeses and gently mix together.

9. Layer the pastry. For the bottom layer, sprinkle handfuls of the buttered pastry and press into the prepared pan going slightly up the sides. Use approximately half the pastry mixture or a bit more to completely cover the pan. (This will be the top when the pastry is flipped.)

10. Add the cheese filling, spreading the cheese evenly and pressing to cover completely.

11. Cover with the remaining layer of pastry, evening it out and pressing gently.

12. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes until pastry becomes crisp and slightly golden.

13. Remove pastry from oven and give it a gentle shake. The kunafe will separate from the sides of the pan. If not, separate with a butter knife. The moment of truth: invert the hot kunafe onto a serving platter. As you flip it over, say bismillah (In the name of God).

14. The orange pastry should be slightly crisp. Pour the cold simple syrup over the hot pastry until the kunafe is saturated and glistening. Reserve the remaining syrup to serve in a small pitcher on the side.

15. Cut the kunafe into squares or diamonds, 2 inch x 2 inch or larger. Garnish with pistachio nuts and serve while still hot. Leftovers can be stored for up to four days in the refrigerator and warmed up in the oven or microwave.

 Question: What are your experiences with making or eating kanafe?

Highlights from the Emirates Festival of Literature

March 10th, 2012 8 comments

This weekend was the fourth annual Festival of Literature in Dubai, and my fourth time attending. Yes, admittedly, the novelty has worn off slightly, and my level of enthusiasm wasn’t as high as in years past.

Even so, I left the event feeling inspired by the sessions, the books, and the people I met. Over a period of four days, I attended nine sessions, all at the Intercontinental Hotel at Dubai Festival City.

The highlights:

Day One: I attended Heritage Night along the banks of the creek “under the stars.” (In other words: outdoors and freezing) First up was David Nicholls, scriptwriter, novelist and author of One Day, the bestselling novel recently made into a film starring Anne Hathaway. The session was the right mix of thoughtful interviewer and hilarious speaker. David Nicholls entertained the audience with self-deprecating anecdotes about his days as a failed actor in London. He also discussed the challenges and pressures of following his previous success with a fourth novel. Even this best-selling writer has self-doubts!

Next was Mourid Barghouti, Palestinian poet and author of I Saw Ramallah, a tragic, poignant memoir, which I so appreciated (as did my Dubai-based book club). Barghouti read from his poems and discussed his latest book I was Born There, I was Born Here.

In the four years attending the festival, this was the first session I attended in Arabic. With a headset, I listened to a real-time translation into English. Okay, I realize the job of the translator is hard; they must listen to each word while simultaneous rattling off a translation. What I hadn’t realized was how weird, disorienting and funny it was to hear the translator’s breathless awkward translations overlapped with the Arabic on stage. (My apologies to Mr. Barghouti for giggling during his talk.)

Day Two: I attended two panel discussions on Identity, a theme of this year’s festival. The first panel was four men who read from their work and discussed their backgrounds. Most interesting to me was a British-Punjabi poet from London Daljit Nagra, who read a charming poem about Punjabi women traveling from London to India for shopping trips. So, now on my list of must-reads is his latest multicultural poetry collection Look We Have Coming to Dover!

The next panel addressed the theme “Identity Shaped by Heritage.” Of the three writers, I was most interested in Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian writer and author of the novel Out of It. This book has been published in the UK and Qatar, and I was able to pick up a copy at the Lit Fest. However, the book is not out in the US until August. The novel is set in Gaza, London and the Gulf and follows the lives of two young men as they try to forge places for themselves in the midst of occupation.

Day Three: I attended a cookbook launch of a lovely new book on Persian cuisine: Pomegranates and Roses by Dubai-based writer Ariana Bundy. Seduced by the beautiful food photography and exquisite styling of the book, I had to buy it. I look forward to trying some of the saffron rice dishes, as well as the yogurt soup and cucumber salad.

Later, I attended a panel of first-time novelists discussing their journeys to publication. Also on the panel was British literary agent Luigi Bonomi. Most noteworthy was to discover how many aspiring writers were in the audience, and I met a few of them afterwards, which was an extra bonus of the event.

Day Four: I attended a session with writer and journalist Rosie Garthwaite, author of How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone. I bought this book thinking it was a memoir about her experiences working as a journalist in Iraq for Al Jazeera. Silly me! The book is actually a practical manual of how to stay alive in a war zone (just as the title says) with chapters on car bombings, kidnappings, and checkpoints. Who knows?! Maybe the book will come in handy.

Finally, I attended two cooking demonstrations. The first demo was conducted by chef, restauranteur, and writer Giorgio Locatelli, who did more talking than cooking, but it was still fun nonetheless to hear him discuss both the tomatoes and mafia in Sicily.

At last, the grand finale: Suzanne Husseini demonstrated recipes from her cookbook When Suzanne Cooks, which, as my friends know, is my all-time favorite Arabic cookbook. In her typical high-energy fashion, Suzanne worked through six recipes, each with her own modern twists, all while generously offering her tips and techniques, as well as mini-Arabic language lessons. And the best part—everyone in the audience got to taste all six dishes she prepared, from the baba ghanouj crostini to the mou’sakhan tart and to the homemade pistachio ice cream, all beautifully presented.

Take note: Just released is a new version of her cookbook, Modern Flavors of Arabia, which was created for various English-speaking markets. This new version is equally gorgeous with the same photos and recipes as the first edition; however, it’s a slightly different format and therefore less in price. Keep an eye out for this cookbook!

Question: What were the highlights of the festival for you? 

It’s That Time Again ~ International Day!

February 29th, 2012 7 comments

Oh Boy. Tomorrow’s the day. A day that fills me with both excitement and dread. Fellow Dubai mothers know what I’m talking about. It’s International Day at school, a cultural celebration, relished by children and slaved over by mothers.

In this case, the event takes place at my youngest child’s school. It’s a day when everyone struts their patriotic stuff, whether they’re from Tunisia, Serbia, Japan, Brazil, Iran or Denmark. About thirty stalls will represent thirty different countries with food, costumes, music, cultural artifacts and educational displays.

Who am I kidding? It’s all about the food.

This year for the USA table, I’m bringing 25 trays of brownies, three apple pies, baskets of red apples, bags of popcorn, as well as lemonade. (Sort of a “county fair” theme—which no one really gets.)

In past years we’ve also served homemade chocolate chip cookies, rice krispy treats, Southwest chili, and hot dogs. No matter what we do, our handful of American moms can never compete with the other countries that offer full buffets of hot homemade dishes or fancy spreads catered by restaurants.

This year I’m manning the table alone (!) so I’m pacing myself. Because two weeks from now I will do it all over again at the high school—a wild free-for-all of teenage eating. At the high school, the food is scooped up so quickly, we can’t put it out fast enough.

But tomorrow’s event is sweet. I cherish the sight of the little kindergarteners dressed in traditional clothing, and I enjoy admiring the other stalls. I will also be handing out handmade Statue of Liberty bookmarks.

However, over the years (especially the Bush years) we at the USA table have endured occasional anti-American comments. Some people don’t comprehend that us volunteer moms don’t set the US foreign policy. So, rather than get into a political debate, I just smile like a lunatic and ask, “Would you like a piece of apple pie?”

So why do I do International Day?

Well. I used to approach it like I was some kind of Food Ambassador, spreading the good will of the US through sugary baked goods. Then last year, at my tenth such event, I got so overwhelmed and burned out that I boycotted the high school international day all together.

I wondered: why do it?

To be honest, I missed it. And my children missed having me there. Parents and students told me that they looked for my apple pie, but couldn’t find it. According to my youngest son, my brownies are “famous” (Betty Crocker, directions on the box).

So, I’ll be there tomorrow, offering the usual sweets. When there’s a lull in traffic, I’ll run over to the Lebanese table for fatayer and to the Korean table for Kim bob and to the Australian table for Lamington coconut cake. I hope the Mexicans will be serving tamales…

Finally, here are some photos from International Day last year—photos that represent a few Arabic counties.

The Lebanon stall:

Some mothers representing Egypt:

The Jordan Table:

 

An Emirati Coffee Lady serving up Arabic Coffee and Emirati pastries:

Of course, there’s always henna.

Question: What do you do at your International Day?