Hitting the Sweet Spot With Knafeh and Baklava

Fans of the Middle Eastern delicacies knafeh and baklava will travel far and wide to get their sugary fix. A new baklava bakery in the Arab town of Kalansua offers delicious gems well worth the visit, especially during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
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Baklava, a sweet treat comprising many thin layers of dough interspersed with nuts. Has always been the work of expert craftsmen.
Baklava, a sweet treat comprising many thin layers of dough interspersed with nuts. Has always been the work of expert craftsmen.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

On the second floor of the bakery, a baklava artist starts rolling out the dough. The hefty fellow with the easy smile learned his craft in Nablus, the area’s sweets capital, where he began working as an apprentice at age 17. As he begins kneading and rolling out the balls of phyllo dough – immersing himself in the process, the thumps of the rolling pin audible throughout the bakery – Haim Mark and Ahmed Nasrallah watch with awe and admiration.

Knafeh, originally a simple flat skillet cake that evolved into an elaborate sweet pastry, can also be prepared at home with relative ease. But making baklava, a sweet treat composed of many thin layers of dough interspersed with nuts, has always been reserved for expert craftsmen.

Mark and Nasrallah are the owners of a new pastry shop that opened three months ago in the Arab town of Kalansua, central Israel. But while they assist the artist in his craft – by grinding pistachios or keeping the flour barrel full – they’re still just keen apprentices compared to the master.

“My dream is to learn how to open up the baklava dough like that,” whispers Mark, upon witnessing the magnificent spectacle of the risen balls of dough being transformed into thin, translucent sheets of dough wound around the rolling pin.

“This delicate and complex aesthetic of Islamic miniaturist art is what attracted me to the field of antiquities as well,” adds Mark, as the sheets of dough and ground pistachios are turned into miniature works of art worthy of a sultan’s table. The baklava artist prepares several of the most intricate and delicate types of baklava, including shafayif (“lips”), sura (“navel”) and ayoun (“eyes”). Dozens more varieties are on display in the shop window downstairs.

Pure and simple pleasure

Haim Mark was born in Kfar Yona in 1966. “My father was known as the ‘scoundrel chef,’” he says, matter-of-factly. “He tricked hundreds of women – my three brothers and I are sure we have dozens more siblings around the world – until he was caught in 1985, after an episode of a television program was devoted entirely to him. He was eventually charged with defrauding 330 women. He was a charismatic and charming guy, who worked as a chef in the Dan hotel chain and wormed his way into lonely women’s hearts and homes via the kitchen. He cooked them meals, they fell in love with him, and then he emptied their bank accounts and vanished. As kids, our nights were often interrupted by repossession agents pounding on the door. They would empty the home of everything, and when my mother – after much hard work – managed to refill it, they would come again.”

Mark and his three brothers haven’t seen their father for years, but they all now work in food-related fields (“This is probably his legacy, but it’s also my mom’s – she’s a fantastic cook. When I was a kid, I would say to him, ‘Dad, you cook well, but mom’s food is delicious’”). Haim’s brother Koby runs kitchens for the Israel Prison Service; Ilan is a pastry chef; and Zion, the youngest, works as a cook in several Tel Aviv restaurants. Haim didn’t come directly to his current occupation, but the culinary field was always part of his life.

The horrors of the war in Lebanon, which he experienced during his compulsory army service, also heavily influenced him. “I don’t want my children to serve in combat positions in the army,” says Haim. “I have a close friend named Omar Azzam. He’s a mechanic. I met him when I brought my car in for him to fix. He said it needed a lot of repairs, and I asked if he was trying to rip me off because I’m Jewish. He replied that he was doing it because I have young children and should go on living for them and not put them in danger. We’ve been friends ever since. What will happen if Azzam’s son throws a rock and my son in uniform will have to shoot him? I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

Since his army service, Mark has tried his hand at numerous things: He studied acting at Yoram Loewenstein’s studio, and appeared in plays in Israel and London (where he lived for four years); he opened the Blue Cat Pub in Tel Aviv and, together with an Arab partner, the Hoodna bar in the city’s Florentin neighborhood. When he sold the latter – following his second marriage and the birth of his children – he returned to the town of his birth and began working as an antiquities dealer. Asked why he opened up his baklava bakery, he explains that the “antiquities trade is dying, in a country where the middle class is being wiped out, and I’d always wanted to do something connected to food. To feed people, to see that moment of pure, unadulterated pleasure on their faces that we often miss in the daily grind. That’s what I wanted to do.”

Abiding love of Arab sweets

Mark thought about opening a grill restaurant, but then fate intervened. “One day, this guy comes and tells me about an opportunity to buy all the equipment from a bakery in Nablus that just closed. This type of machinery is not easy to find – a lot of it is handmade and of very high quality. But when I first purchased it, I just kept it in the storeroom. My wife and I both love baklava. We used to scour Israel and the West Bank to find the best baklava – usually in the north or in the Nablus area – and then it hit us that in the part of the country where we live, there could be a big demand for quality baklava like the kind they make up there.”

While Mark was renovating the space in the Kalansua industrial zone (“The neighbors there offered me so much help; I’d never experienced anything like it”), Nasrallah – a 28-year-old local resident and worker in the adjacent plant nursery – walked in one day. The men had met a few times before in social situations. They shared an abiding love for the traditional Arab sweets, and decided to open a new pastry shop under the name Mamtakei Al-Nur (“Al-Nur Sweets”). The name is a tribute to female family members whose names feature the motif of light.

As is often the case, the beginning wasn’t easy (“I put all my money into this place. The kids will have to wait for food,” Mark jokes). But it gradually filled with customers, with Arabic and Hebrew mingling in the high-ceilinged space. Every day, various kinds of wonderful fresh knafeh are prepared: The most familiar version – made with crisp thin noodles – is called either Stanbuli (after Istanbul), hishna or sha’ara (for the hair-like noodles); na’ama knafeh, made of soft, white and uncooked knafeh noodles toasted with samna (clarified butter) and a little turmeric, and then cooked, finely ground and flattened in a pan into a single block; and burma knafeh, made of rolled noodles filled with cheese.

You’ll also find a selection of cakes, including basbousa (semolina) cake. But the crowning glory is the marvelous, diverse range of baklava made by the expert craftsmen. These take their poetic names from parts of the human body and from other natural wonders. And for Ramadan, which began last week, the selection has been expanded. The baklava here is simply delicious and not overly sweet – everything that good baklava should be.

Mamtakei Al-Nur, in the industrial zone on the road that leads to Kalansua. (09) 865-7724

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