Kanafeh Na’ama (Middle Eastern Sweet Cheese Pastry)

Difficulty: intermediate

Kanafeh is one of the oldest desserts in the world, according to Wikipedia it was mentioned as early as the first millennia anno domini in the Levent countries. But this is when it really strikes you how old the Middle Eastern culture is, and not just a thousand years, but sixty thousand! Our primitive ancestors came out of Africa and settled here for the first time. The existential crisis begins to set in, why am I even here? What is the point of being alive if I am so insignificant? Is there a God? Just relax and ignore these thoughts for another day. This ancient part of the world has given us farming, language, civilization, religion, and most importantly: recipes! Kanafeh has a couple varieties, this is na’ama which is made with baked semolina flour. The other variety is made using shredded dough called kadayif and I will make it soon. Its hard to explain what this recipe is to someone who has never had it, it is like an upside down cheese cake but the cheese is like really gooey, and you have this dish really hot.

This recipe can make two 8 inch desserts or one large 11 inch. This kanafeh variety is supposed to be less than an inch high.

Ingredients:

2 cups + 1 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp kewra water / rose water

2 tsp lemon juice

1 cup water

2 cups semolina flour

0.75 cup + 1 tbsp ghee (can substitute with melted butter)

0.75 cup milk

0.5 tsp deep orange food color

600 gram sweet Nabulsi or Ackawi cheese (can substitute with salt-free mozzarella)

Ground pistachio for garnishing

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Directions:

In a sauce pan, mix the water, 2 cups sugar, kewra water, and lemon juice, and slowly bring to a boil. The goal of this step is to dissolve the sugar. Simmer for two minutes and then set aside. This is the sugar syrup, or as the Lebanese call it : ater.

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Now we have to bake the semolina powder. In an oven safe dish, mix the semolina flour, 1 tbsp sugar, 0.75 cup ghee, and milk.

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Use your hands and knead this into a very fine dough. Then flatten it into the same oven safe dish.

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Preheat your oven and bake this semolina dough at 200 degrees Celsius (about 400 F) for 30 minutes. Don’t worry about cooking it for too long. Basically you are trying to add a little color and drying out the water while cooking it. Try to use a glass dish for even cooking, metal conducts heat pretty fast and will burn the sides more.

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Now let the dish cool for about 15 minutes until it hardens. Then cut into working square and grind each piece into a fine powder using a food processor. You could use your hands like a traditional monkey but this saves time and ensures consistency.

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Now in your final baking dish, paint the bottom with orange food color and 1 tbsp of ghee. This dish is 8 inches wide and I had enough dough and cheese for two of them.

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Fill the bottom with the semolina flour and gentle press it down leaving a little higher edges. The center part of the dish should be about 0.5 inches high. Do not compress it too hard otherwise the dough will become non-permeable and the sugar syrup won’t be able to seep through it after it is cooked.

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Add the cheese. The type of cheese is very important for this recipe, the Middle Eastern cheese that are mentioned in the recipe are soft and slightly sweet so they make the perfect pastry, you can substitute it with unsalted mozzarella but mozzarella becomes really hard as it cools down so you have to eat it quickly and burn your mouth.

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Bake for 30 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius (400 F). Let it cool for about 5 minutes before attempting to flip it over. Drizzle a quarter of the syrup on the hot pastry and let it absorb it. Then drizzle about a quarter of it again and let semolina part absorb more of it. Garnish it with a layer of ground pistachios and serve hot.

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Another fun way to make this dish is using single serving ramekins. It is almost impossible to serve this dish without breaking it so if aesthetics are important then use the single ramekin method.

This dish is a taste of heaven, there is no other way to describe it. The cheese is a bit savory and very soft, the pastry is crunchy and gives texture, and the syrup has that amazing sweet rose blossom taste. The cheese will stretch and fall off in every spoon full. You won’t be able to stop eating it, you fat fuck.

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Enjoy!

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