I’m on leave at the moment, and also engaged in a terrifying cookbook cull, which is causing me to madly read as many cookbooks as possible in order to feel less guilty about my terrible cookbook habit (it has, at least, reduced from the 3-book-a-week habit I had in the late 90s, but it’s still pretty severe, not least because I’ve graduated from little tiny Women’s Weekly cookbooks to more expensive and exotic tomes.
One of these is The Arab Table, by May Bsisu. It’s a book that fascinates me and also fills me with fear – every single recipe seems to go for pages and is *unspeakably* complicated. The idea of cooking a full meal from this book is terrifying. (The recipes are all very traditional, and, to be fair, their length is largely due to Bsisu’s conscientious descriptions of exactly how to do things.)
Anyway, one of the advantages of living where I do is that all sorts of fascinating Middle Eastern ingredients can be found at the local shops. Last Saturday’s find was kadaifi pastry, a sort of finely shredded filo pastry that looks like really fine, really long, vermicelli pasta. You basically bathe it in melted butter and use it for desserts and some savoury dishes. Don’t imagine you are doing anything healthy here.
Fascinating as this ingredient may be, I’ve only used it the once, in a cooking class, in which the chef used it for a dessert, while blithely telling us that when there are children at the restaurant, he uses it to make a kid-friendly meal: nuggets of chicken minced with dates, chilli and coriander, rolled in kadaifi pastry, and baked or fried until done. Which sounds gorgeous, but I personally wouldn’t have picked it as something for the unadventuous palate!
Being in possession of a bit of spare time and some dinner guests, I decided to consult Bsisu’s book, to see what she would make with kadaifi pastry. It turns out that her best recipe for it is something called Kunafa bi Jibin, a sort of sweet cheese pie, baked for big celebrations, that sounded so strange I had to try it (I admit, the fact that one greases the tin with a combination of butter and red food colouring was a selling point).
But first, I needed to find and de-salt akkawi cheese. I headed out to my Middle Eastern grocer, to see if he had it. He didn’t, but I’m rather in the habit of telling him what exciting thing I’m cooking today (I’m rather in the habit of telling anyone I encounter what exciting thing I’m cooking today, but it’s especially fun telling my grocer, because it took him about a year to figure out what to make of me, and now he clearly finds me highly amusing, but equally clearly doesn’t want to offend me by laughing…), so I started telling him all about my plans to make Kunafa and had he ever had it?
My grocer was quite enthusiastic, actually, but immediately told me that I did not want akkawi cheese at all – it’s far too much of a hassle with all the soaking, and everyone uses sweet cheese instead. Sweet cheese? I asked. Apparently, that is just what it’s called. And he didn’t have it in his shop, but his cousin owns that pastry shop down near Moreland Rd, and if I go in and ask for sweet cheese, he is sure I will be able to get some…
So down to Moreland I toddled, and got my sweet cheese, which turned out to be a sort of stretchy, rubbery curd cheese, much like mozzarella, only even more rubbery and much blander. Very odd stuff. And then I went home and made my Kunafa. And I’m here to tell you, it really was weird.
Imagine, if you will, a crispy, pinkish-gold birds-nest of pastry threads, drenched in orange flower and rosewater syrup and sprinkled with pistachios, and encasing a slightly sweet, floral-flavoured cheese that stretches like mozzarella when you bite into it. You eat it hot, naturally.
It’s as strange as anything I’ve tried, but it actually did taste good, in an unexpected sort of way. Not too sweet, and nowhere near as rich as I’d feared (which is not to say it wasn’t rich – just not unbearably so). I’m not sure if I’d make it again. I think perhaps I would, just to see if I was imagining things, or if it really did taste like that…
Have I intrigued you? Here’s the recipe, originally from May Bsisu, interpreted and altered by Catherine McLean, with assistance from her local middle-eastern grocer. It’s strangely good. Or goodly strange. But interesting. And definitely worth a try, if you have access to kadaifi and sweet cheese.
Your Shopping List (this amount allegedly serves six, but I’d say 12 is more accurate)
Now what will you do with it?
NB: the photos are terrible, because I was more interested in getting everything served fast than photographing it, and then I spilled syrup everywhere, and had to clean that up. So I have photographed the rather unphotogenic leftovers. Your version will undoubtedly look better than this.
I’m so glad you ask. First, gently melt 225 g of the butter in a small saucepan, and pour into a clear jug so that you can see the layers separate. Skim off the top layer, then gently ladle or pour the clarified middle layer back into your saucepan. Discard the solids at the bottom.
While you are waiting for the butter to melt, press the remaining 25 g of butter into the bottom of a 22cm round pan, and drop a couple of drops of red food colouring over it. Whee! Mix them together with your fingers (wear gloves or a little gladwrap over your hands if you don’t want to look like Lady Macbeth), and smear the now pinkish butter over the bottom and sides of the pan.
Make the cheese filling by crumbling the cheese (it’s more like kneading and massaging, really) into a bowl, and adding the sugar and flower waters. Gently mix together and set aside.
Get out your pastry, a hank at a time (seriously, this is like untangling hair). If you have a food processor with blades that cut things, you could process it to chop it into approximately 1 inch lengths. I found that all mine did is spin the pastry into a lovely spindle of tightly-wound pastry yarn around the central column, so my recommendation to you would just be to put a handful at a time of pastry onto a chopping board, and chop it at approximately 1 inch intervals before putting into a large bowl.
Bring your clarified butter to boil in its little saucepan (you do realise that this is what you were making at the start, yes? Just checking.), and pour it all over the pastry in the bowl. Use a fork, and then your fingers to make sure the butter is mixed all the way through the pastry strands. Press about two thirds to three quarters of this pastry over the bottom of the prepared cake tin (you know, the one with the PINK butter!), making it a bit concave in the middle.
Press the cheese mixture over the pastry, then layer the rest of the pastry over the top. Don’t let the cheese poke out! You can cover the pastry with glad wrap and set it aside in the fridge for up to a day at this point, if you like.
Now pre-heat the oven to 200°C. While it is pre-heating, make the syrup: stir together the sugar with 185 ml water in a small saucepan over very low heat, until the sugar is dissolved (the dissolving part is important, please don’t skip it). Bring to a boil and add the lemon juice. Let boil to thread stage, which is 110°C if you have a candy thermometer, or until it’s been boiling for a minute or three and you think it looks syrupy if you have broken all your candy thermometers like I have. Add your flower waters and set aside.
Bake the Kunafa for 40 minutes, or until the edges of the pastry are nicely golden. Run a spatula around the edges, then carefully reverse onto a serving plate, so that the pastry is pink side up. I strongly suggest a serving plate with sides, as I found the syrup was all absorbed but then quite a bit of it got released as soon as I picked up the platter and things moved. Speaking of syrup, now is where you gently pour it all over the pastry, then decorate everything with pistachios and serve at once – sweet cheese, just like mozzarella, needs to be hot to be good. I’d serve this with fresh berries or stewed rhubarb, because this is very, very rich.
I don’t know that anything springs to mind. Before I started making this, I had plans of veganising it, but honestly, I wouldn’t know where to start replicating the texture of that cheese. So dairy-free is right out, obviously. And I very much doubt you can get gluten-free kadaifi pastry, which puts fructose-free out of the question, too. And nothing with that much sugar and pastry and fat in it is ever going to be low GI, I fear.
On the bright side, this recipe has no eggs, and while I do think the pistachios help cut the richness, you could omit them (in which case, really do serve it with stewed fruit).
About the only variations I can think of would be making the syrup or filling with only rose or only orange flower water, and maybe using walnuts for a garnish. Beyond that… well, it’s actually a fairly short ingredient list, and most of the ingredients on it are not really replaceable without changing the fundamental character of the dish, I’m afraid. Oh, but you could use ghee to replace your home-clarified butter, and even to coat the tin.
Embrace the weird!
This time last year…Recipe: Lemon Drink for a Hot Day Menu Notes for the Next Few Days