Meet künefe, a warm, cheese-filled dessert bound by crisp shards of pastry and soaked in a sugar syrup. The addictive morsel can be found in different iterations throughout countries in the Mediterranean and Middle East, including Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, where it is known as kunafa, k’nafe or knafeh, among other names. According to Clifford A. Wright’s tome “A Mediterranean Feast” (William Morrow Cookbooks, 1999), the dish dates to at least the 9th century.
For restaurateur Hakan Ilhan, owner of Ottoman Taverna in the District, the most well-known Turkish version of künefe — pronounced koo-nah-feh (“Say it all in one breath,” Ilhan instructs) — comes from the city of Antakya, in Turkey’s southern Hatay province. Of course, as with many old and well-traveled dishes, variations are common. The strands of pastry may be tiny, as pictured, or longer, as at Bacchus of Lebanon in Bethesda. The serving size differs, too: Large golden discs are to be shared, while small rounds are best kept to yourself. Just try not to eat it all in one breath.
Although often described as shredded phyllo dough, the pastry, called kadayif, is actually made from a batter. A mixture of flour and water is poured through a funnel-like container with small holes on the bottom, directly onto a hot griddle. The resulting strands, similar in appearance to vermicelli, cook almost instantly.
After it’s filled and baked, the künefe receives a douse of sugar syrup, often flavored with orange blossom or rose water. Bacchus of Lebanon’s syrup includes orange blossom water, lemon, cardamom and bay leaves. Ottoman Taverna’s abstains from florals and instead uses lemon and star anise; the spice’s flavor is pleasantly subtle.
Finely ground pistachios top the finished dish, adding a bright pop of green. Ground walnuts can also be used.
Between the threads of pastry you’ll find an unsalted semi-soft cheese, usually made with raw cow’s milk (although sheep and goat milk can also be used). In Antakya, künefe is filled with Hatay peyniri, meaning cheese from Hatay.