On Kitchens, Kunefe and Culinary Diplomacy

Künefe with Champagne-Rose Syrup

When I put my first year of college behind me, I swore I would never ever live in student accommodation again. Not that I’d chosen to in the first place; it was in fact required of all new students to live on campus for a year, ostensibly to integrate them better into the fabric of college life, but really just to milk their parents dry of money in exchange for about ten square feet of living space. The lack of space was annoying, of course, but it was nothing compared to the other things: the constant parties, the loud music, the communal bathrooms (not a pretty sight on weekend mornings), not to mention the lack of cooking facilities (unsurprising since we were also required to purchase a year pass to the university’s prison-grade dining establishment). And then of course there was my roommate, a girl who spent her days pining for her boyfriend back home and her nights getting drunk at frat parties and stumbling home with various men even drunker than she. It certainly wasn’t all bad, but it was a living experiment I was not in a hurry to repeat, and as soon as my obligation to the university was fulfilled I was in my own apartment faster than you could crack open a bottle of bubbly to celebrate.

Little did I know, though, that upon accepting my place for a PhD at Edinburgh, living in student accommodation would be the most attractive option. You see, as much as I loathed the idea, it made logistical sense: I was arriving in a new country, I had no idea where to look for someplace cheap, and I had very little money to put myself up somewhere while I searched. And because I was a student coming from abroad, all I had to do was tick a box and I would be guaranteed a place in a postgraduate hall of residence. So against my better instincts I accepted a room in Churchill House, a large modern building five minutes away from my new department, and in September 2001 moved in to begin what would become three of the most exciting years of my life.

Life at Churchill House was different from my undergraduate dorm experience in just about every way: my co-inhabitants were older and less inclined to non-stop hedonistic excess, I had my own room, and most importantly there were adequate cooking facilities. In fact, life at Churchill House seemed to revolve around its kitchens, each of which was shared by about ten students from all over the globe. Sharing my kitchen that first year, for example, were people from Norway, Germany, Portugal, Greece, Nigeria, Jordan, and Lebanon (and I should point out that another kitchen on the same floor was home to a particular Estonian girl you may be familiar with now too). Now, of course there were ups and downs to living closely with strangers, particularly those of different cultural backgrounds, but because our main interaction happened in the kitchen there seemed to be considerably more ups than downs. Really, now that I think about it, sharing a cooking and eating space with these people was just about the most clever arrangement anyone could have dreamed up, since not only did we have such a vivid window into each others’ lives through food, but coming together to cook and eat created such a feeling of family between us. Over the course of that year, and the two that followed, we shared countless meals together, learned volumes about our respective cultures, and despite the occasional difference of opinion, made many life-long friends. It was kind of like a mini-United Nations, we used to joke, but brought together by cooking rather than politics.

One of the friends I made during those three years was Aghlab, an architecture student from Jordan. When he first arrived in Churchill House he had very little experience cooking for himself, and one of our very first conversations involved him asking me how to boil a package of spaghetti, and not understanding why I advised him to only cook as much as he needed at one time, rather than boiling the whole bag and thus saving himself work later. On another occasion I walked into the kitchen to find him freaking out because a chicken leg he had just submerged in boiling water had started leaching blood. It didn’t take him long, though, to graduate from spaghetti and boiled chicken to the foods he knew from home, and soon it was me looking over his shoulder as he made hummus bi tahina topped with tender, crispy beef and hariseh, a semolina, yogurt and coconut cake.

I also learned more than I ever knew about Arab pastries from him. Each time he went to Jordan he would come back with a huge tray of sweets to share, big ones and small ones in every imaginable shape, stuffed with fluorescent green pistachios and golden almonds and smelling richly of butter. Most of the pastries were variations on the familiar baklava, but some of them were not so familiar, sporting instead a type of pastry that looked like a head of uncombed hair, something I learned was called kataifi. Although not nearly as familiar to Western eyes as filo, kataifi is widely used in the Middle East in similar ways, and features in a whole category of nut-based pastries which are basically variations of baklava with shaggy tops. If that were all it was used for, however, it would never have really drawn my attention – after all, I’m pretty attached to my baklava the way it is – but I learned that there is another sweet kataifi is used for which it is far more suited for. It’s a dessert called künefe – or knafe, depending on which Middle Eastern country you’re in – and features the shredded pastry bathed in melted butter and baked to a shatteringly crisp crust around a filling of soft cheese. True to tradition, the whole thing is drenched in syrup after it emerges from the oven, but here the web-like texture of the kataifi traps just the perfect amount to sweeten every bite, important since the cheese filling carries no sugar of its own. The whole thing is then served fresh from the oven (unlike baklava, which improves upon sitting) to preserve its contrast of crisp and soft textures. It is absolutely incredible, but don’t take my word for it – it’s also so easy to make that there is no excuse for anyone to not form their own opinion.

I ran into Aghlab in the supermarket the other day for the first time in a long time – he’s one of the last members of our original kitchen left in Edinburgh. He asked me what I had been up to and I told him about my plans to attempt künefe, which brought a smile to his face and an excited flurry of opinions and advice. Listening to him talk, I was reminded again of how central food has always been to our friendship, and to so many who met in those residence-hall kitchens. And then it struck me – maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here. In an age when cultural and ideological cleavages are increasingly polarizing countries and communities, and where prejudices and misconceptions seem to be the driving force behind most of our policies, could a few good meals together be what everyone really needs to promote understanding? It may be a laughably simplistic notion, but after observing culinary diplomacy overcome just about every cultural, linguistic and political barrier imaginable, I can say it certainly seemed to work for us in Churchill House.

Künefe with Champagne-Rose Syrup

Serves: 6 
Source: Adapted from Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean by Ana Sortun and Patisserie of the Eastern Mediterranean by Arto der Haroutunian
Notes: I could gush about this pastry all day, it’s that good. Nevertheless, the first time I made it I had an unmitigated disaster. Following Ana Sortun’s advice, I used buffalo mozzarella as a stand-in for the buffalo-milk clotted cream she says is used in Turkey. I don’t know what the intended texture was supposed to be, but mine turned out just this side of a rubber shoe sole. I absolutely loved the flavors in her syrup, however, so the second time I made it I took the advice of Arto der Haroutunian and used ricotta cheese which I enriched with a bit of mascarpone, and the result was far, far more successful. Too successful, in fact – I was planning on having leftovers to see how well it aged, but mysteriously there were none to be found the next day. Well, if you manage to have any left you can let me know.

2/3 package (about 10oz/300g) kataifi pastry, thawed if frozen (available at Middle Eastern markets)
10 tablespoons (150g) clarified butter (see here for how to clarify butter)
2 tablespoons milk
2/3 lb (1 1/4 cups/300g) ricotta cheese, the best you can find
1/3 lb (2/3 cup/150g) mascarpone cheese

For syrup:
1 1/2 cups (325g) sugar
1 bottle (3 cups/750ml) sparkling wine or champagne
1 tablespoon green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons pomegranate juice (optional – it gives the syrup a rosy hue)
1-2 teaspoons rose water, or to taste

mascarpone cheese, for serving
chopped pistachios, for serving

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Using a food processor or a large, sharp knife, cut the thawed kataifi into 1/2-inch (1cm) pieces (I actually cut it using kitchen shears). Toss the shreds in a large bowl, separating them with your fingers, and drizzle in the clarified butter and milk. Toss to combine thoroughly.

Press half the pastry into the bottom of a 9-inch (23cm) baking pan – it should be quite compact. In a bowl stir together the ricotta and mascarpone cheeses, then spread in an even layer over the pastry. Top with the remaining pastry and press down in an even layer. Bake in the preheated oven until the top is golden brown and firm, about 40 minutes.

While the künefe is baking, prepare the syrup. Bring the sugar, champagne, and cardamom to a boil in a medium saucepan and boil until reduced by about a third (there should be just over two cups of syrup). Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice, optional pomegranate juice and rosewater. Ladle about 2/3 of the syrup over the hot künefe. Put the rest in a small pitcher for people to add if they want more sweetness, and serve immediately, garnishing each piece of künefe with a scoop of cold mascarpone cheese and a sprinkle of chopped pistachios.


36 thoughts on “On Kitchens, Kunefe and Culinary Diplomacy

  1. As always Melissa, such a well written post and beautiful photo. Just what I needed to read today, too. Thank you!

  2. How funny, both you and I were considering culinary negotiation and diplomacy today – though I must admit, your musings are far more well-realized! Lovely combination of colours and texture in the photo; absolutely delectable.

  3. Melissa, it’d so hard to reproduce the real kunefe with any type of cheese you can find the UK to get a similar result in the Middle East. So, I am not surprised that you didn’t get a good result with Sortun’s suggest with the cheese you can find in UK, but I must agree with her that that is the closest you can get to the real thing.BTW, check out how the kataifi is made, if you ever wondered: http://www.yogurtland.com/2006/03/11/how-the-kataifi-is-made/

  4. Melissa,"There is a communication of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk. And that is my answer when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not wars or love." — MFK Fisher.

  5. A delightful story, and a tempting dessert! I would fully agree with the concept that sharing meals could bring so much more understanding. Like you, my first here on an American university campus, I ended up in the French House (and it was really called this way) sharing meals and food cultures with 9 other people. And that was an incredible life experience.

  6. what a beautifully wtitten post. i’d love to get my hands on some of the kataifi pastry some day! sign me up for any desert containing mascarpone!

  7. Melissa – your post just made me ‘homesick’ for Edinburgh – for the first time since I moved back to Estonia just under a month ago:)I spent three years in Churchill house (moving from kitchen 8A to 6B to 8A again), and these were some ofthe greatest years of my life! I miss those kitchen (potluck) dinner parties.. I remember teaching various guys how to cook (I can remember especially well an incident involving one Egyptian guy and a lonely blue chicken in a heavily boiling water in kitchen 8A; he later progressed into making a decent chicken stew. I try not to remember one Taiwanese flatmate boiling kidneys early one weekend morning:) Those three years increased my culinary horizons enormously, and I have various Chinese, Italian, Taiwanese, Greek, Russian, Egyptian, Canadian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Colombian etc dishes in my recipe repertoire that I learnt from my various ‘kitchen mates’ over the years. Thanks for mentioning me, it’s very kind of you.

  8. Melissa, your künefe looks delicious. I think I might surprise my hubby with this.In Turkey we use a saltless cheese. Unfortunately you can’t find it in Europe that easily, try turkish markets and ask for "tuzsuz beyaz peynir, from Hatay or Urfa". Ricotta and mascarpone mix comes close. The kaymak, the very fat and solid clotted cream, is only to top künefe with after baking. Ana Sorgun made a mistake there.

  9. what a treat – both your stunning kunefe and the fact that i have two scrumptious posts to digest in one sitting! for me, just about the only positive thing to emerge from awful dining options in college was that it was hugely motivational in learning how to feed oneself!

  10. Hello Melissa. I found your blog about a week ago and have now read the entire thing! I must say that finding you has been an enlightening experience. I love to cook, having grown up with a father who has a fantastic ability to throw anything into a dish and have it taste amazing, but ever since getting married and having a kid, I really haven’t cooked. I’m envious of your cookbook collection, as I can only give up so much of my precious(and unfortunately small) bookshelf space. Hopefully when we move out of our apartment next spring I’ll have plenty of bookshelves and counter space on which to cook. In the meantime, you have really inspired me to get out of my rut and try some new dishes. I can’t wait to work my way through some of the recipes on your site. I’ve also added the Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons cookbook to my list of books to buy. So, thanks so much!! To be a little more topical, I love the fact that you’ve had such great chances to see and learn first-hand, cooking from other countries and cultures. My husband is Brasilian and he has taught me some recipes. I haven’t tried to make beans yet(mostly because I’m not a big bean fan in general) but I’m sure soon I’ll learn. I can’t wait until we go next spring so I can truly taste all the dishes he has told me so much about. I really do agree that cooking is one of those things that can be shared internationally and pays no attention to your politics. Thanks again for the great blog, the mouthwatering recipes and photos, and the inspiration to stop my picky-eating ways! p.s. sorry for the long post 🙂

  11. hi mel, was fun to read ur post, i love kunefe, its strange n so great with all that cheesy, crumbly feeling. n of course for a non-foodie like me its always fun (n unusual) to recognise the foods u write about:) evidence of ur talent to reach people people of all convictions:)

  12. I think I may have had a similar pastry in Cyprus- the pastry part looks like shredded wheat cereal a bit? I will have to see if kunefe is available in one of our markets-I particularly love rose flavored things (a taste I’ve only recognized lately) and pistachios, and mascarpone. This pastry is calling my name.

  13. Good food, good music, dancing, and rainbows. Maybe butterflies, too. These are the things peace is made of. I’m a care-bear like that. The one with the rainbow on its belly. ;-)Over here we’re starting to prepare for the 2007 International Salsa Congress in Israel which will use all of the above (well maybe except for butterflies) to bring a little bit of the unity that is so sorely missed into this region. Just for one weekend, if only that. Watch out for April when the congress is on. Ahhhhh… it’ll be awesome. Hopefully we’ll host a few more friends from Jordan this year! Yay!This kunefe (here it’s called knafe) looks absolutely scrumptious!

  14. What a great story – as usual.The kunefe looks divine and now i *finally* bought an oven for my tiny student kitchen i will *finally* be able to bake this gorgeous little thing!By the way, I finally got the F&T. You wrote such a good piece and Manuel’s pictures are a delight for the eyes.- fanny

  15. Your idea of food as common ground through which people can be reconciled is spot on. It is central to the practice of communion in the Christian faith, and while I dare not speak for any other, I would venture that the far more ancient traditions of hospitality in other faith systems might also be rooted in that basic truth. If we can share a meal together, then perhaps we can relate to each other as family – the human family. I think Dickens may have even hinted at that same thought with the great feast surrounding the Ghost of Christmas Present.Unfortunately, I think too many of us would rather have a not so friendly food fight.(smiling – sadly) CjC

  16. Lovely post Melissa, as always. I wanted to explain a bit about the cheese. The type we use in Turkey is really difficult to find abroad. It is sold in vacuumed packages without brine, has low fat content and contains no salt. The texture is very elastic and you can seperate it lengthwise like fibers. This texture helps to keep it intact after the baking process, it does not melt away in the heat. Therefore, the leftovers would not taste so good, cause it hardens upon cooling. That is why it is always made in small portions to be consumed quickly and never on a whole tray. And the clotted cream is only for garnish, not to be used as a filling, it would melt in seconds:-) I congratulate you for your bright skills and open mind. Greetings

  17. Melissa, your narrative always fills me with a lot of positive attitude/energy.Not only by its content but also by the sheer power of your words, so precisely chosen. In this very occasion, as I progressed throught the text i can visualize myself gathering all the ingredients to attempt this new recipe. What power!! Thank you for sharing all your enthusiasm, knowledge..and wonderful way of looking at the world.

  18. I am happy to read about this pastry, specifically because it is best eaten directly out of the oven (as opposed to after sitting) since that is when I am most apt to attack it. Thank you for this – I’ve just moved to switzerland and i’ve been dying for something really sweet!!

  19. Fethiye, Hande and Tülin – Thank you so much for your insight and advice into the cheese substitutes. It’s always hard to judge the authenticity of a recipe I’ve never tasted before, so it’s especially helpful to have feedback from people who have! I’ll take a look around for the tuzsuz beyaz peynir – there’s a constantly growing Turkish population here in Scotland, so maybe I’ll get lucky. Also, fascinating about the production of kataifi!Jess – Thank you for such a lovely comment. I’d be delighted if I’ve inspired you to become more adventurous in the kitchen! And how wonderful that you’ll be going to Brazil – I am fascinated by Brazilian cuisine, but know painfully little about it. There is surely much more to it than beans ;)Googs – Next time you come I’ll make you some and you can tell me how authentic it is. And then we’ll reminisce about those Churchill House days…Ari – No, I haven’t! There wouldn’t be much to see, unfortunately – our rental apartment has a kitchen approximately the size of a shoebox. Most of my ‘rustic’ accessories are well out of sight in the closet, and will be until we move to a bigger place… :(Fanny – Thanks 🙂 And wow, congratulations on the oven! How ever did you live without one??Valentina – Thank you for such kind, generous words. I always appreciate feedback, but this is truly humbling 🙂 Jessica – I simply can’t imagine there’s nothing sweet to be had in Switzerland! 😉

  20. Have just found and been browsing your blog, and am really enjoying all the recipes and food discussions.However, I’m moved to post because I’ve just moved to Edinburgh for my PhD, and am living in Churchill House (your post gave me quite a shock!) While my kitchenmates don’t tend to cook together much, since we all seem to have completely different body clocks, we recently had an international dinner party. I can only echo your opinions. My only complaint about the city thus far is that living near Tesco has rather shrunk my culinary horizons. (My budget can’t cope with Peckham’s too often.) I’m currently on the hunt for a red cabbage. and a reliable source of ricotta chese, although Lidl has provided me with celeriac.My apologies for the ramblings – it was just quite eerie to discover your background!

  21. Loz – it’s a small world, isn’t it? It’s so funny to see things come full circle. I hope you enjoy your time in CH – these days they’re not letting people stay longer than a year which doesn’t really foster the feeling of community as well, but I’m sure you’ll have fun regardless. As for Tesco, it’s not great but it did help me survive on my student budget, since there simply wasn’t anything interesting to buy! When I was really desperate I used to take the bus down to Cameron Toll and the huge Sainsbury’s, which is great for getting ahold of more esoteric things as well as lightening the load in your wallet… 😉

  22. A beautiful post, and an intriguing notion about the power of dining together to help people over the cultural barriers. Perhaps we could pass this idea on to our political leaders, who surely could use some help in finding common ground….

  23. Thanks a million for this recipe!Kunefe is one of my two all-time favorite desserts. The other is Thai "Sticky Rice with Mango" or "Mango with Sticky Rice", depending on the proportions and cook/diner preference.

  24. hey there !!! i stumbled upon your webssite yest while searching for the perfect macaron recipe…ad i can successfully say u have managed to drive me away from all notions macaron like… =D i was up till 3 am readin pretty much all your recipes… I must say iwas quite intrigues by this particular one. Currently residing in the middle east, and ahving pretty much grown up i have eaten my fair share of kunafa as they call it , from the horrid stringy cheese ones to the soft melting pools of sweet butteriness. im very intrigued by your rose syrup.. although since we dont consume alcohol here im afraid champagne or aything o that sort is a no go..any idea what i could substitute for it?

  25. Another great trick we try in our house is Jack cheese and ricotta mixed together, we find it works really well since one melts quickly and the other is soft. ( Plus the saltiness of the Jack is amazing with the syrup!!) Another trick is to add a little dusting of cinnamon in the filling, just a touch to add warmth. It really makes it something special!

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