Sephardic Recipes With A Modern Twist

Sephardic Spice Girls

Keen on Knafeh

Keen on Knafeh

This is a beautiful, flavorful dessert that’s just perfect to serve at your next brunch or with your afternoon coffee.

The magnificent city of Istanbul sits on the dazzling blue of the Bosporous Strait. A city that bridges Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam, it was once the capital of the Roman Empire, then of the Ottoman Empire. After the Expulsion of the Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, the Sultan shrewdly offered refuge in Istanbul and throughout his Empire to the Sephardic Jews. Today, Turkey’s Jewish population numbers 26,000, and most of them still speak Ladino, the medieval Spanish language of their exiled ancestors.

When Neil and I were planning our summer travels, we knew that we needed to be at the Sephardic Education Center (SEC)  in Jerusalem. We would be there with the teens touring Israel on the SEC Hamsa program and with the Rabbis from all over the world who come to study the texts and philosophy of Sephardic sages with the Metivta Rabbinical Program. We would be there for the annual board meeting and for the memorial service for the SEC’s visionary founder, Dr Jose Nissim.

Five years ago, Neil visited the Jewish community of Istanbul to promote the programs of the SEC. He was so impressed by their warmth and hospitality and by the beauty of Istanbul, that he was determined to bring me there one day. We decided to add a stop in Istanbul on our way to Israel.

On our first day there, we met with SEC Alum (and son of the Chief Rabbi of Turkey) Rabbi Naftaly Haleva. He introduced us to Diana, the loveliest tour guide (on Instagram @diana.tourguide) and the next morning we were off to see the wondrous sights.

First stop was the enormous Topkapi Palace, the breathtakingly magnificent Imperial residence of the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years. The chefs of the Topkapi Palace were legendary and their inspired recipes influenced the cuisine of the entire Middle East. The great Sephardi Portuguese diplomat and Jewish benefactor Joseph Nasi, (nephew of the legendary Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi) won favor at the Palace by bringing fine wines. As a Jew, he was permitted to bring normally forbidden alcohol to be enjoyed by the Sultan and his guests.

Second stop was the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque. Originally built by the eastern Roman emperor as the Christian Cathedral of Constantinople in 537, its spectacular dome and Byzantine mosaics make it one of the architectural wonders of the world.

It was a very, very hot day in Istanbul and we still had to explore the stalls of the Grand Bazaar. Very wisely, our tour guide had us make a detour at the Hafiz Mustafa Cafe. We feasted our eyes on the lavish display of endless trays filled with deliciously flaky, nutty baklava. There were as many varieties as a person could possibly imagine. We ordered strong Turkish coffee, sutlach (rice pudding) and baklava and I tried knafeh for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised by the combination of soft creamy cheese, the crispy shredded phyllo, the nutty pistachios and sweet syrup.

Refreshed and cooled, we were able to venture into the Grand Bazaar. We spent hours exploring the spice stalls, as well as the many wondrous and exotic wares of this famous souk.

I’m still in the glow of our Middle Eastern holiday. The memory of that knafeh (and all the knafeh at Tel Aviv’s Shuk haCarmel, the Shuk in Jaffa and Machne Yehuda in Jerusalem) inspired me to make it at home.

It’s truly as simple as opening a package of kataifi (frozen shredded Phyllo), making a saffron syrup, then layering all the ingredients.

It’s truly as simple as opening a package of kataifi (frozen shredded Phyllo), making a saffron syrup, then layering all the ingredients. Our recipe calls for fresh mozzarella and the pre-sliced one from Trader Joe’s works great. (The traditional recipe calls for a creamy farmers cheese.)

This is a beautiful, flavorful dessert that’s just perfect to serve at your next brunch or with your afternoon coffee.

Knafeh Recipe

4 cups thawed frozen kataifi (shredded Phyllo pastry)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons sugar
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced and at room temperature
1/2 cup Saffron syrup
1 cup chopped pistachios
1/4 cup dried baby rosebuds, for garnish

  • Place the kataifi in a bowl and gently separate the strands with your fingers.
  • Melt butter in a cast-iron skillet over low heat. Spread the kataifi evenly in the skillet.
  • Sprinkle with the sugar, then arrange mozzarella slices on top.
    Cook until the cheese melts and the bottom is a golden brown, about 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and invert onto a serving dish.
  • Drizzle with the saffron syrup and top with the chopped pistachios.
  • Garnish with rosebuds, if desired.

Saffron Syrup
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon orange blossom water
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated orange rind
Generous pinch saffron threads

  • In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the water, sugar, orange blossom water, orange rind and saffron.
  • Stir constantly until the mixture reaches a simmer and the sugar is completely dissolved.
  • Remove from the heat and let it cool to room temperature.
  • Note: Syrup can be refrigerated for 6 months in a tightly sealed jar.

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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