Knefeh is our national cheesecake; it is eaten in Lebanon forbreakfast as well as dessert. Like all pastries, it does not contain eggs; made of a cheese similar to mozzarella and a semolina and butter crust. It is sweetened by dousing syrup on it after it comes out from the oven, piping hot. It is served with a sesame bread, kaak.
Each neighborhood in Beirut has a place that locals go to for their knefeh fix. One summer, one of my dad’s oldest friends, an Iraqi cardiologist, was visiting from Baghdad. Dr. Aladdin El-Jaafar and I were both craving knefeh and so we decided to roam the streets of Beirut looking for a good spot to buy some. He had heard of a street vendor in Hamra (the shopping district) that sold the best knefeh in West Beirut; we found it and had a bite and decided it was mediocre; so we kept walking until we finally landed on the Corniche (a large boulevard lined by the sea).
Set right next to a mosque was a pastry shop with squeaky clean marble floors; the superior knefeh we were looking for was brought to our table with some Turkish coffee and glasses of water. Oh joy and relief! We immediately started plotting my trip to Baghdad the following spring. I wanted to interview Dr. El-Jaafar in depth and get his full life story on record; I was fascinated by the titbits I had been hearing over the years. It was a story filled with kings, high-level politics, passion, love affairs, assassinations, conspiracies, jewels, maharajahs, prison, torture, riches, bankruptcies, Saddam, etc. I was convinced it would makeJohn Le Carrégreen with envy; this was a story that was real and more exciting than his spy novels.
Unfortunately, a few months later Irak was victim of a colossal invasion and my project had to be shelved.
This recipe is called “mock knafeh”, because the crust is made of American-style toasted bread instead of the semolina; in Lebanon, you can buy the traditional semolina dough ready-made which makes the dessert easy to complete at home. The process of making the semolina dough is usually left to professionals. This is why ingenious Lebanese pastry chefs came up with this mock version, which is lighter and simpler to execute.
INGREDIENTS: 8 servings
FOR THE CHEESECAKE or Knefeh
- 1 package of Ackawi cheese (substitute fresh mozzarella) (12 ounces or 340 g) This cheese is sold at middle-eastern stores and is produced in California for the US market.
- 1 stick of unsalted butter (4 ounces or 112 g)
- American-style bread toast, about 12 pieces (200 g)
- 2 cups of milk
- 1/2 cup of farina (cream of wheat)(or coarse semolina)
- 3 pebbles of mastic (optional), pounded in a small mortar with a teaspoon of sugar.
FOR THE SYRUP
- 1 1/2 cup of sugar
- 3/4 cup of water
- a few drops of fresh lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons of orange blossom water
- 1 teaspoon of rose water
The day before:
- Desalt the cheese: Cut the cheese in 1/4 inch slices. Place them in a bowl and cover them with cold water. Keep in this water for about 12 hours, changing the water frequently. This process will desalt the cheese; (another method is to place the cheese under the faucet and let it run slowly all night).
- Prepare the crust: Dry out the toast by leaving it outside for a day or two or placing it for one hour in a 200F oven; cut the toast in coarse crumbs by pulsing it in a food processor (or by hand); the texture of the crumbs should resemble coarse bulgur or finer. Add the butter, cut in chunks and process until the mixture is crumbly and a bit moist.
- Place the mixture in a pyrex pie pan and press firmly to adhere to the bottom and sides of the pan. Note: The crust can be prepared the same day.
Prepare the cheese filling:
- Remove the cheese from the water and dry very well with paper towels. Grate the cheese in a food processor. Set aside.
- Heat the milk to reach the boiling point. Add the cream of wheat gradually while stirring continuously for two or three minutes. Add the grated cheese to this mixture and stir until the cheese melts. If using the mastic, add it now to the cheese mixture and stir for a few seconds.
- Cool the cheese mixture for a minute or two and pour over the toast crust.
When ready to consume:
- Bake the cheesecake in a preheated 350F oven for about 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden-brown. Let it rest for 15 minutes and flip it over on a serving plate, accompanied by the syrup on the side. You can also precut portions and keep in the freezer; heat in the microwave when needed for a few seconds. The syrup will keep for one month in the fridge.
- While the cheesecake is baking, place the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed pan; add a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice. Bring to a boil and stir to melt the sugar. Boil for 7 minutes or so.
- Turn off the heat and add the flavorings. Set aside.
NOTE: To help release the crust, I place ice cubes on the pan, wrapped in a towel. Also, be careful not to cook the syrup too long, or it will be harder to pour. If that is the case, add a bit of water and reboil for a few seconds to get the right consistency.
Also, unlike American cheesecake which is served cold, this is served piping hot,the cheese oozing out,so if you had it in the fridge, plop into the microwave for 15 seconds or so.