Knafeh Cheesecake

Can You Knafeh: Cheesecake for Shavuot

This year we will be making our Shavuot dessert with a fabulous Middle Eastern twist— vanilla cheesecake with a crispy, crunchy knafeh topping. 

I distinctly remember the first time I tasted cheesecake. I was 10 years old and it was a typically sunny Sydney afternoon. We were invited for Shabbat lunch in a beautiful home in Bellevue Hill. The  hostess served a dairy meal and the dessert was a delicious cheesecake. I distinctly remember the creamy, tangy, lemony flavor of the sweet cream cheese filling and the wonderful crispy, crumbly contrast of the graham cracker crust. It was a big deal to be served this very sophisticated, very American dessert. I remember the women at the table discussing the recipe and saying that it had been made with Philadelphia brand cream cheese. I was very impressed. 

Historian Gil Marks wrote that cheese cakes date back to Ancient Greek times and that cakes made with cheese curds were very popular in medieval England and colonial America. 

Philadelphia cream cheese was the accidental invention of William Lawrence, a New York dairyman. In 1871, he was attempting to make Neufchâtel cheese, a tangy, more crumbly cheese that was popular in Europe at that time. He added too much cream and the happy result was a richer, smoother cheese. In 1880, the cheese was marketed as Philadelphia cream cheese. While bagels have never looked back, the promotion of the Philadelphia cream cheesecake was a brilliant marketing ploy. 

In the 1930’s, New York style cheesecake became the rage with Jewish New Yorkers and soon the popularity of this dairy dessert spread across the nation.

What I’ve learned in the years since first tasting this quintessential American dessert is that cheesecake is, quite literally, foolproof! 

What I’ve learned in the years since first tasting this quintessential American dessert is that cheesecake is, quite literally, foolproof! 

No one will care if you use a store-bought crust. Don’t worry about the Bain Marie (cooking the cake in a water bath so that the top of the cake doesn’t crack) because you can top it with fresh fruit or a raspberry glaze or a bourbon sauce. 

Sure it takes a little time to soften the cream cheese and fold in the sugar and sour cream and eggs but the results are always spectacular. 

I can taste it already. 


The first Cheesecake Factory opened In Beverly Hills in 1978. My family and I would go to the Cheesecake Factory and wait in the long line for at least an hour. Once we got our table, we would always order their enormous salads and crispy fried avocado egg rolls. And of course, a massive slice of cheesecake to share for dessert. The family favorite was the Original, the traditional one topped with glazed fresh strawberries and whipped cream. In the early 80’s, they introduced the Oreo Cheesecake and that became the new family favorite. When they opened a Cheesecake Factory in Marina del Rey that became our new place for family celebrations. My parents loved it there because sitting at a restaurant on the seashore watching people playing in the sand and boats at sea reminded them of Casablanca. 

Shavuot is Z’man Matan Torateinu, a holiday that commemorates the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Part of the joy of the holiday is the dairy menu and most especially the chance to indulge in decadent cheesecake with luscious toppings.

For the past two decades, my husband Neil organized fabulous Shavuot programs under the auspices of the Sephardic Educational Center. We had dozens and dozens of families gather at the Westin Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage. Neil had the genius to organize an annual cheesecake competition before the Torah learning and that was one of the highlights of the trip. 

This year Sharon  and I will be making our Shavuot dessert with a fabulous Middle Eastern twist— vanilla cheesecake with a crispy, crunchy knafeh topping. 


Knafeh Cheesecake

For the crust:
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
3 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup unsalted butter, plus extra for

For the filling:
4 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room
4 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon zest
4 large eggs, at room temperature

Preheat oven to 400 F.
Lightly grease a 9-inch springform pan.
In large bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs, sugar, cinnamon and melted butter.
Stir until mixture is well blended and crumbs are moist.
Place crumbs in the pan and press until evenly spread on the bottom and 1 inch up the side of pan.
Bake for about 10 minutes, until golden.
Reduce the oven temperature to 300 F. In a large bowl, combine cream cheese, flour and salt. Set mixer to medium speed and beat until smooth and fluffy.
Add sugar, sour cream, vanilla and lemon zest. Beat until well blended, scraping down sides frequently.
Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Pour mixture into the crust. Bake cheesecake for 60 to 70 minutes.
Let cool, then cover and refrigerate.

For Knafeh

For Topping
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tsp orange blossom water

1/2 package Kataifi shredded pastry
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
Crushed walnuts or pistachios and rose petals, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350°F.
Prepare the topping by shredding the kataifi by hand and with the help of kitchen scissors.
In a large bowl, mix together the kataifi and melted butter. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes until pastry is a deep golden brown.
While the pastry is still hot, pour the syrup onto the kataifi and strain the excess syrup. Set aside to cool.
Place a big mound of the kataifi on top of the cooled cheesecake. Then sprinkle the nuts on top. Add rose petals for decoration.
Serves 16.

Sharon Gomperts and Rachel Emquies Sheff have been friends since high school. The Sephardic Spice Girls project has grown from their collaboration on events for the Sephardic Educational Center in Jerusalem. Follow them
on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food.

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