The sweetest aspects of the Middle East would have to be its world-famous desserts, often characterized by their rich syrupy taste, nuts, and lack of cream. Knefeh bil jibin, one of my favorite desserts, is a cheese pastry soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup, typical of the regions. It is a specialty of the Levant.
Knefeh is a warm two-layer dessert. The topping is made from Mafrookeh, a product similar to the filo dough commonly known in the region semolina based ground fine (Lebanese style), kneaded with ghee and butter baked to get its brownish color. The cheese on the bottom is made with a mix of akkawi chicki cheese (de-salted) and Majdoulé (braided) white cheese. It is baked until the cheese goes super-stretchy and the pastry a deep, golden brown.
Knefeh bi-Jibn, is often eaten for breakfast with a sesame-sprinkled kaakeh, the traditional Lebanese bread for this dessert. When you order a knefeh, the kaakeh is stuffed till it explodes with cheese and pastry and is then doused with atter (sugar syrup). Knefeh needs to be eaten on the spot, hot and stretchy.
The history of knefeh varies, the one that I found most plausible and makes sense was the fact that it originated from Palestine. Knafeh was first mentioned in the 10th century, most famously from the Palestinian city of Nablus on the West Bank of the Jordan River. Today it is one of the most popular sweet treats in the Mediterranean region and Arabia. The Turkish variant of the pastry knefeh is called künefe and the wirey shreds are called tel kadayıf. A semi-soft cheese such as Urfa peyrini, made of raw milk, is used in the filling. In making the künefe, the kadayıf is not rolled around the cheese; instead, cheese is put in between two layers of wiry kadayıf. The Turkish word künefe derives from the Arabic root knf, which has meanings like “shelter, refuge”, “taking under one’s wing”.
In Turkey, some cities (like Hatay, Adana, Mersin, Sanliurfa, Mardin) had claimed that Künefe originated from there. But according to some sources Künefe originated from Nablus when the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire were sent on the road to establish the Empire had gone to Palestine. Some of the troops there had made some “sweets/ dessert”, later when they returned to their home they started making this dessert. Künefe came to Mersin the end of the year 1930, and to Hatay at 1940s.
This luscious cheesy dessert, served hot out of the oven so the cheese is soft and stringy, is cooked and served in a very shallow, huge round metal pan, called Sidr, that’s especially designed for making this special dessert. The sidr is usually displayed outside most patisseries, showing off the knefeh.
People eat knefeh with such gusto that I find it a true culinary experience to share with friends and loved ones. Knefeh bi jibn earns its place as an object of affection among the cognoscenti. It gives us a rich, satiating, and indulgent experience. The feel of the warm buttery crumbly base as it hits the palette dripping with the essence of sugar followed by the taste of warm melted cheese is an intense experience of a crescendo of flavors and taste.
Lebanese breakfast/deserts would not be the same without this beauty as the crown jewel of the Lebanese desserts.