Born in Beirut, Irene Sankari came to the U.S. with her parents when she was seven years old. They settled in upstate New York and began trying to acclimate to their new surroundings while preserving homeland traditions, swapping pita bread for Wonder Bread.
On holidays, her family would travel all the way to Sahadi’s in Brooklyn for Middle Eastern specialties like grape leaves. “Now, you can get hummus in fifty different flavors, right in the regular grocery store,” she exclaimed.
Irene taught me to make the easy and delicious Lebanese dessert knafeh (also spelled kanafeh). Interestingly, Irene’s mother is Syrian and her father Egyptian, but this dessert is served in those countries, too, and you can also find similar versions in Turkey and Greece.
A delicious cheese center is sandwiched between kataifi (shredded phyllo dough), and then Irene drizzles a sweet simple syrup made with orange blossom water to drizzle all over the top while it’s still hot from the oven. (I think of it like a dressed-up Danish.)
When preparing the kataifi, Irene likes to use margarine, but unsalted butter will also do the trick. Make sure the heavy cream is whipped to nice, stiff peaks to ensure a gooey yet creamy center.
In regards to the cheese, Nabulsi is the traditional choice, but Irene found that shredded mozzarella—which is much easier to find—provides the same results. She insists any soft white cheese will do and told me that when she lived in Mexico City, they would fill the knafeh with Mexican cheeses they had on hand.
Irene serves this dessert right from the oven because it hardens as it cools. When her family is over for a big meal, the knafeh bakes up while they eat.
The syrup is what makes this dessert truly special. Generously poured over the top, it gives a sweet, floral hint. Irene doubles the batch, then keeps a bottle on hand to use in other desserts, as well.
For the pastry:
- 1 pound kataifi, shredded phyllo dough
- 1/2 pound unsalted butter or margarine, melted
- 1/2 pint heavy cream, whipped to stiff peaks
- 1 pound shredded mozzarella
For the orange blossom syrup:
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup water
- 1 tablespoon orange blossom water