31 March 2009

Kunafe and Aish al-Saraya

There are some dishes that just never seem to reach across cultural divides. If you didn't grow up with it, cold squid salad for breakfast, like they serve in Japan, is something that's pretty hard to get used to. I'm an adventurous eater, I'll try anything once, but there are some things I think I'll never quite catch on to. I lived in Lebanon and Syria for years, I ate bowls of fetteh served with cows hooves on top, tried flatbreads cooked on dusty roadside grills, and discovered grains I'd never heard of. But one thing, one thing everyone seemed to love, I could never get used to.

Kunafe has as many different variations and definitions as there are cooks in Jordan. Basically, a crust of either buttery semolina, bread crumbs, or shredded phyllo is spread in the bottom of the pan, then some kind of cheese is layered on top, and then topped with more of the crust mixture. This is baked and then covered in sugary syrup. Traditional Palestinian kunafe is made a with a crumbly semolina crust, often dyed a fake orange, while in Syria you're more likely to see the kind made with shredded phyllo curls billowing like big hair. Usually the cheese is something chewy like halloumi or akkawi, and sometimes it's sweeter and softer like ricotta or clotted cream ('ashta).

My main problem with kunafe is that it sits in your stomach like a ten pound dumbbell, and my other problem is that I really don't like stringy melted cheese covered in syrup. Something about it is just kind of wrong to me, a clash of savory and sweet I can't stomach. In Lebanon, they serve kunafe for breakfast by plopping the whole sugary cheesy slice in the pocket of a pita bread. My friends in college swore by it as a hangover remedy, but I'm pretty sure it would make me queasy even on a sober stomach.

There is, however, a very similar desert called aish al-saraya or "bread of the mansion." In it, bread is soaked in a syrup mixture until soft and moist, and served cold with a big dollop of clotted cream ('ashta) on top. I always think of 'aish el saraya, sometimes translated as Middle Eastern bread pudding, as Egyptian, but you're just as likely to find it in Lebanon or elsewhere. My recipe, taught by a 2nd generation Lebanese friend, is sort of like a cross of aish el saraya and kunafe. The bread crumbs are moistened with syrup but not made heavy with butter, and the cheese is not stringy but a light and fluffy whipped ricotta. It's layered like kunafe but served cool, not warm, and very easy to make ahead of time.

A friend of mine swears her mother makes a version of kunafe even I would like, and another friend just back from Jordan says I have to try the new trend of "rolled kunafe," which she claims is lighter than the traditional version. But I've heard these claims before, so until a kunafe wins me over, I'll stick with my recipe.

Middle Eastern Bread and Cream Pudding

12 slices white bread or challah bread, something soft and mild
1 1/2 cups fragrant syrup, recipe follows
16 oz ricotta cheese
1 cup heavy cream
1/4-1/3 cup sugar

1. Preheat oven to 425F. Lay bread slices on two baking sheets and toast in the oven until golden brown. Process the bread in a food processor until you have fine textured crumbs.
2. Beat together the ricotta and 1/4 cup sugar. Add in the heavy cream and beat the mixture with an electric mixer until smooth and thick. Taste for sweetness- it should be pleasantly sweet with a hint of tang. Adjust sugar if necessary.
3. In a bowl mix the bread with the 1.5 cups syrup till you have a crumbly loose sticky mixture.
4. In a round 9 inch cake pan or spring-form pan, layer half the bread crumb mixture and pat with your hand to compact a little. It should not be as compact as pie dough.
5. Layer the cream on top of the bread crumbs. Add the rest of the bread crumbs on top of the cream and pat them down as much as possible without squashing the cream.
6. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving and serve it cold, with an extra drizzle of syrup if desired.

for syrup:
2 cups sugar
1 cups water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tsp rose water
1 tsp orange blossom water

1. Mix the sugar, water and lemon juice in a saucepan and heat until it boils and all the sugar dissolves. Let it simmer for 5 to 10 minutes till a little syrupy. Remove from heat, add the rosewater and orange blossom water, cool and store in a jar.


Y said...

Looks lovely, and now I'm very curious about kunafe, which I've seen before but never tried. What's cow hoof like? :)

Jen said...

I tried kunafe for the very first time last week! The version I tried had shredded phyllo and sweet soft cheese/cream, and it was definitely doused in sugar syrup (picture here: http://thenoviceberker.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/img_2121.jpg?w=350&h=250). But I loved it! I had no clue there were so many different variations. I can't wait to try out your kunafe-bread-pudding hybrid!! :)

Poorni Pillai said...

That sounds delicious! It reminds me a bit of the pie shell I make with milk biscuits....but the combinations in this one sound really really good. Yum.

jenny said...

i'm currently studying abroad in israel right now and my friends and i had kunafe recently, the violently orange one. it's interesting, to say the least. could you possibly post a recipe for shashuka?

adele said...

Mmm. This sounds fantastic.

Noor said...

Kunafa in pita ugh I do not thank so, eww that did not sound good.

I think you would like my recipes though, lol. I make all kinds cream ,cheese, banana. YUMMY..

Mark Scarbrough said...

Wow. Delightful. And what a hit for a wake-up! My Persian relatives sometimes serve soft cheese, honey, and sour pomegranate molasses for breakfast. I always wish there was a little crunch. Like here. Yum.

Miss Vicki said...

Aish is my very favorite dessert. I will have to make this version and see how I like it. I live in a rural part of north Georgia where Lebanese or Arab food is unheard of! I cook a lot of Middle Eastern food and it makes me happy!

mardee said...

I tried kunafe in Turkey at a restaurant generally unseen by tourists and absolutely fell in love with it! I'm still trying to find a recipe that comes close to it. This one was topped with chopped pistachio nuts and was to die for. I did not remember it being overly heavy (and my friend, who is Turkish, assured me it was similar to what his mother makes.

UmmBinat said...

Hi there, I made this the other day as a gift for my FIL who loves cream filled kunafe>>> http://www.food.com/recipe/cream-kunafa-436533, when I didn't have katafi pastry on hand. I used cheap fresh white bread, plus the rest of the ingredients. I must say I find your syrup very authentic tasting. Tastes like the syrup they use at our local Syrian sweet shop. I had never used both rose water (I have a prefrence for Iranian as I find it of better quality) and orange blossom water together in a syrup. I did everything by hand, including beating the heavy cream with a whisk and ripping up the toasted white bread! (My blender feel on the floor and said goodbye) I am gluten free but tasted the syrup and cream filling and they were delicious so I'm sure the outcome was. FIL traveled the day after so I haven't heard. I would make this again but use a blender as that part was tedious and I never got them as small as yours.

UmmBinat said...

Update. DH tasted leftovers and said it is good. I will be making it again.