Desserts are a universal language, and if you were to ask anyone from the South West Asia/North Africa (SWANA) region, we take our desserts as seriously as we would a main entrée.
Dessert is a showstopper on all fronts, from a visual and taste perspective, often clouding up the dinner or coffee table well after a meal, during family gatherings, celebrating both casual get-togethers and memorable occasions alike. But to those of us in the know, the star of all these desserts is knafeh.
Knafeh (pronounced kuh-na-feh) is a dessert of shredded phyllo dough for its top and bottom layers, and what lies in its center depends on the area which it’s prepared. Egypt, for example, will fill it with an array of chopped nuts, raisins, and choice spices like cinnamon for added crunch and kick. To the ire of my fellow Egyptians, however, the superior and most popular iteration of knafeh originates from Nablus in the West Bank of Palestine. Knafeh Nablusiyeh is made with Nabulsi cheese—a semi-hard sheep and goat milk cheese with a mozzarella-like consistency thanks to a special brining technique. Its phyllo dough contains orange food coloring, giving it the true sheen and brightness a red-carpet dessert deserves once the simple syrup is added.
(As the internet kids say, “don’t @ me” about Knafeh Nablusiyeh’s superiority.)
If you hail from the Midwest like me, finding knafeh is a bit of a struggle. Only a couple of places in the Twin Cities carry from-scratch knafeh. One is Wally’s Falafel and Hummus, located on the East Bank campus in the heart of Dinkytown, and while it is fantastic, dealing with the hectic adventure of parking on campus to get there is… less so. Filfillah, off 43rd and Central Avenue in the Columbia Heights, also carries knafeh. Theirs is made in the Turkish style, so the cheese is made of raw cow’s milk. Filfillah’s knafeh may differ a little in taste, but it offers the same delicious results. Holy Land also makes knafeh, but only sells it on their catering menu as a two- or five-pound tray.
The worst way of getting ahold of knafeh is to rely on a person. Y’know—that one person you know who hails from the Middle East? The person who brought in knafeh for the work potluck, and you messed up on the enunciation of knafeh and their first name, after repeatedly asking badgering and disrespectful questions about their culture?
So unless you’re taking a trip to SWANA-heavy meccas such as Chicago, Anaheim, Dearborn, New York, or New Jersey, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
Enter: the new frozen knafeh Trader Joe’s has rolled out across its stores this summer. Sold for around $3.99, Trader Joe’s Kunefe (using the Turkish spelling and enunciation prominently on the box) comes as a personal pan-pizza-sized version, made with shredded phyllo, and having a center made with Mozzarella (GASP!) and Mizithra cheese. Trader Joe’s Kunefe also has you covered with the essential toppings, such as simple syrup to coat the finished product, and a small bag of chopped pistachios to sprinkle over the top.
But is it good?
If you’re looking for a quick fix of this staple dessert, Trader Joe’s Kunefe does the job efficiently. The grocer’s knafeh had shimmering golden brown edges following its 22-minute cooking time, with some cheese oozing out. But until you remove it from the oven and flip it over, whether it's baked all the way through remains in question. Ultimately the dish’s bottom cooks evenly, and when served hot, it's a decent enough at-home version of what you might get at a restaurant or bakery that makes knafeh from scratch.
Now for the burning question: Is it exactly like home?
Absolutely not. Trader Joe’s Kunefe is no substitute for the real thing. However, if you want your knafeh to be like home, you can add some slight splashes of orange blossom water, or rose water, after applying the simple syrup packet for that added boost of flavor like mom/aunt/grandma used to make. While the chopped pistachios are a nice touch, you can always add more, or you can dump it out entirely if you have a nut allergy.
Trader Joe’s Kunefe does have a serving suggestion that you should also have some ice cream on the side, which never hurts if you want to take it up a notch. However, good knafeh is like good hummus. If seasoned properly with the right ingredients and flourishes, it needs no addition of ice cream. Additionally, all knafeh is best when served hot, so make sure after you finish baking and adding all your stuff to spice it up to eat it then and there, otherwise you’ll regret letting knafeh cool off.
A grocer’s simplified version of knafeh will never replace the knafeh that the matriarch of the family, or your favorite Middle Eastern pastry specialty spot makes, which is cooked with sincerity. Trader Joe’s Kunefe, for as convenient as it may be, is certainly a great attempt that can be kicked up in the supplemental ingredients to almost mimic your favorite matriarch’s recipe. Such is the case with all quick fixes, Trader Joe’s Kunefe will still leave you yearning for the real thing, in which case you gotta do your googles, and start questing.