As the days grow shorter and darker, I appreciate the twinkling lights of the holiday season - so cozy and cheery on these dark evenings! Hanukkah, the festival of lights, begins this weekend. I just pulled out my blue and white cake stand and our box of decorations. Time for lighting candles in the hanukkiah, spinning dreidels and, of course, festive food!
During the eight days of Hanukkah, it’s customary to eat foods fried in oil such as latkes and sufganiyot (doughnuts). We will definitely indulge in lots of crisp deliciousness in this next week. Dairy, though, is also traditional for Hanukkah, especially dishes made with cheese. So it seems only fitting to eat konafa during Hanukkah.
Konafa is a Middle Eastern cheesecake. It is popular in Israel, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. There are a few different variations, but all use shredded phyllo dough as the crust. Some are filled with thickened cream and others with cheese. I prefer a variation using two fresh cheeses, ricotta and mozzarella, mixed together. Claudia Roden inspired this version of konafa. Her book, The Book of Jewish Food, is a treasure of history, stories and recipes from all over the Middle East, Northern Africa and Europe.
As with many Middle Eastern desserts, this one is sweetened with syrup. While the syrup is traditionally flavored with orange blossom or rose water, I chose to use lemon juice. Butter-drenched shredded phyllo dough is layered with the fresh cheeses, topped with more phyllo and then sweetened by pouring the syrup over while it is still hot from the oven. Think of a baklava-style dessert with a cheese filling, rather than ground nuts.
This is unlike any traditional cheesecake you may have had before. If you have access to shredded phyllo dough (usually sold in Mediterranean markets and also called kataifi), then it is a snap to prepare. Shredded phyllo is much easier to work with than delicate sheets of phyllo. With your fingers, you gently work melted butter into the thin strands of dough. Place half in a pan, layer a mix of fresh ricotta and mozzarella over, and then top with the remaining dough. When the cake emerges hot from the oven, sugary syrup is poured over the top. A sprinkling of nuts completes it.
Served warm, with meltingly soft, rich cheese and crispy strands of sweet phyllo, this unique dessert will enhance a festive gathering any time of year. I can’t wait for Hanukkah to begin!
Adapted from The Book of Jewish Food
by Claudia Roden
1 pound shredded phyllo (also called kataifi, Apollo carries some), defrosted in fridge
8 ounces unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 pounds fresh ricotta
12 ounces fresh mozzarella, finely chopped
1 1/4 cusp sugar
1 1/4 cups water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup pine nuts or chopped pistachios, toasted
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Wrap the bottom and sides of a spring form pan in foil and place on a rimmed baking sheet.
Place the phyllo dough in a large mixing bowl and gently pull apart the strands. Pour the melted butter over and use your fingers to coat the strands.
In another mixing bowl, stir together the ricotta and chopped mozzarella. Spread half of the buttered phyllo in the bottom of the spring form pan for form a bottom crust. Spoon the cheese mixture over and smooth evenly. Spread the remaining half of the phyllo over. Pop the spring form pan and baking sheet into the oven. Bake for about 45 minutes. Raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees and bake for another 10 minutes, until the top is nicely browned.
While the cake is baking, make the syrup by mixing the sugar, water and lemon juice in a medium saucepan. Bring it to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, until it thickens a bit. Set aside.
When the cheesecake comes out of the oven, pour the syrup evenly over the top and let sit for 10 minutes. Sprinkle the nuts on top. Use a sharp knife to loosen the edges of the cake and release the spring form pan. Slice into wedges and serve warm.
The cake is best eaten the day it is baked. You can prepare the unbaked cake and syrup ahead of time.You can bake the cake closer to the time you'd like to serve it and then drizzle with syrup.