“At my audition for MasterChef, they asked us to choose a judge, who then offered us three options for the entrance test to the program,” Farah Raslan says, as she recalls one of the formative moments of her life. “I chose chef Haim Cohen, and the options he gave me were kebab, sofrito or knafeh. I chose knafeh and the rest is history,” she says. “I took my childhood dish from Lebanon, added my own interpretation, and I reached the quarter final.”
For Farah Raslan, a local internet star in the culinary field whose Instagram page boasts 41,000 followers, everything begins and ends with knafeh. She opened a stall at the Agamon Market in northern Israel dedicated to the dessert, first and foremost to “kaak knafeh,” served in a“beigeleh” – a sesame seed coated Arab pretzel commonly found in local markets.
Why knafeh, specifically?
“It is a very famous dish in Lebanon. You can find it on every street corner. I miss Lebanon and my family there. My parents always dreamt that we would open a knafeh business. My brother started the process. With my background in food technology and biotechnology, I tried to develop a cheese with a texture similar to what’s found in Lebanon. At the beginning we couldn’t find raw materials like the ones they have there.”
Bureaucracy stalled Raslan’s efforts to develop a Lebanese cheese, but she did not despair. Eventually, after much searching and tasting, she managed to find a factory in Maghar that produced a cheese with just the right flavor and texture. “In Maghar they make cheese for the Nabulsi knafeh that has a similar texture to what you find in Lebanon.”
Raslan contends that it is important to be exacting with the cheese; not every type is fit for knafeh. “It’s important that the cheese be sweet and not made from goat’s milk. It must have a neutral taste, so as not to overwhelm the other flavors, and it’s important that it be melted and soft at high temperatures,” she says.
In the considerable buzz following her success on MasterChef, Raslan wanted to start small. In the spirit of the times, she decided not to start with private events. Like many of her colleagues, she reached out to the public at large, opening pop-ups on the weekends and testing the market.
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“The extent of the demand surprised me tremendously,” she recalls. “On the first day I opened, half of the mall was waiting for me.” She says that she wanted to see how the Israeli audience would respond to a dessert served in a kaak pretzel, “which is atypical, and for sure not what you imagine when you think of knafeh.”
Knafeh has breached every possible boundary in recent years: From a classic dessert of the Arab kitchen to the darling of restaurants and food stalls throughout Israel – with or without any connection to local cuisine. The basic knafeh has seen a wide variety of diverse additions and twists, and one might be led to believe that knafeh served in a pretzel is just another gimmick. “Kaak knafeh is not a gimmick,” Raslan hastens to respond. “There’s an entire concept and much thought that goes into it. In general, the Israeli public is not familiar with many types of knafeh. This isn’t just another ordinary knafeh.”
So why open in a mall up north, and not in Tel Aviv?
“It was the most natural choice, and it suited me. It’s close to my home in Kiryat Shmona. My roots are here, it’s close to nature, close to the place where I grew up. What’s more, I’ve spent time with the community of Lebanese Jews here. We share memories and our longing, and we love to enjoy the flavors of Lebanon. I’ve thought about opening in the center of the country, because there is a demand for it. We’re looking into it and considering opening in the Jaffa flea-market, perhaps a temporary pop-up. We’re still considering the options, and at this phase we’re looking into everything.”
Like many others who opened businesses shortly before the onset of the pandemic, Raslan was badly stung by the lockdowns, but she took the time as an opportunity to refine her concept. “I’m working on the raw materials, and I’m doing it all on my own. The first lockdown let me set up an online store and get the shop at Agamon Market ready. It offers more than just kaak knafeh, including tools and other complimentary products. I saw that there was a void and a demand for proper tools, so I created an entire kit, including the wooden tool that helps in the preparation of maamoul (filled pastries). I care about authenticity, and I remain faithful to what my mother handed down to me.”
Recipe for Farah Raslan’s knafeh
The recipe for kaak knafeh is a tightly held secret, although Raslan says she’s begun to see imitations cropping up in many places. “I decided to keep my recipe a secret,” she says. “It has my own personal touches.”
Nevertheless, here is a recipe for a traditional homemade knafeh, as Farah prepares it.
250 grams kadaif thin noodle threads
200 grams refined butter or samna
250 grams mozzarella fresca or bryndza cheese
250 grams grated mozzarella or sweetened hemed cheese
Pistachios and rose petals for garnishing
¾ cup water
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Prepare the syrup:
In a small pot, on a low to medium flame, stir the sugar and water and bring to a boil. Simmer on low flame for another 5 minutes or until the mixture develops an amber color. Remove from flame and let cool.
For a coarse knafeh, hand-chop the kadaif threads and combine with ¼ cup melted butter. For a smooth knafeh, grind the kadaif noodles in a food processor together with a little soft or melted butter.
Thoroughly grease the frying pan with a generous amount of melted butter.
Place a layer of the kadaif threads on the frying pan. Separate the threads by hand. If you are preparing a coarse knafeh, be sure there are no large clumps.
Press the threads into the pan. You may wish to roll a glass over the kadaif threads, pressing down to form a uniformly compacted crust.
Combine the cheeses and place a generous layer onto the kadaif. Place the frying pan on a medium to high flame on the range. This stage requires patience. Raise the flame to its highest setting for a minute or so, and then reduce to low flame. Take care to rotate the pan on the low flame until a slight burnt aroma arises. You can check the sides to see that it has a golden color throughout, and then flip it into a second tray and pour lukewarm sweet syrup on top. Garnish with pistachio and rose petals.
Natalie Alz (نتلي الز) is a content developer, television and film critic, and yoga instructor. She is taking part in the “Haaretz 21” initiative to promote voices and stories from the Arab society of Israel.