Made with just butter, shredded phyllo, fresh cheese, and simple syrup, knafeh is a truly unique sweet. It's rare to come across a pastry that doesn't remind you of something else you've had before, but that's what happened when I first tried knafeh. It's meant to be eaten straight out of the oven when the kataifi, or shredded phyllo, is freshly crisp so it contrasts deliciously with the sweetened cheese, which is melted and slightly chewy.
Hannah knows her competition; Jaafer is located along a stretch in Albany Park that is heavy with Middle Eastern Bakeries, and Hannah has tried the knafeh at all of them. She explained that one of the things that makes Jaafer's knafeh the best is the quality of their ingredients. They buy only the best clarified butter and tint it with orange food coloring. The first step is to butter the bottom of sheet pans with the bright orange butter.
Kataifi, which is essentially phyllo dough that has been passed through a shredder, is one of the few ingredients Jaafer doesn't make in-house.
Hanna breaks and tears the kataifi into smaller shreds, which will become both the bottom and top layers of knafeh.
Hannah sprinkles the kataifi into the bottom of the buttered sheet pan and presses down to create an even layer.
Jaafer makes this fresh unsalted cow's milk cheese every day. It will become the center of the knafeh. When it melts, it becomes stringy and slightly chewy in a way similar to fresh mozzarella.
A substantial layer of fresh cheese is pressed into the pan on top of the layer of kataifi. Hannah will top the cheese off with another layer of kataifi before setting the pan on an old imported stove.
When Hannah and her husband bought Jaafer Sweets five years ago, it came with a whole host of antique equipment, including this imported stove. The gas is controlled with the knobs to the rear and Hannah uses modified pliers to shake and rotate the pan of knafeh over the flame. She mentioned that newer stoves will rotate the pan for you, but they prefer the classic way of preparing knafeh.
After about ten minutes, the bottom of the knafeh is set. Hannah takes it off the stove, places another sheet pan on top and carefully flips the entire sheet over. The brightly colored butter will become the top of the knafeh.
After the flip, the knafeh sits on the stove to cook the bottom layer of kataifi and fully melt the cheese. To check doneness, Hannah uses a combination of pressing on top of the knafeh to feel how the cheese is melting as well as a spatula to check the bottom.
Vat o' Syrup
Since this syrup is in almost every sweet they make, Jaafer makes large vats of simple syrup at a time.
Hannah drips the syrup over the freshly cooked knafeh.
Jaafer is the only bakery in the country that cooks all of their knafeh to order (with the exception of peak times like major Muslim and Christian holidays). Prepared knafeh is rarely displayed up front. Instead, when a customer orders it (even if it's just one piece and not a whole tray), the staff take out a pan of uncooked knafeh that was prepared in the morning and cook it to order.
In addition to knafeh, Jaafer also offers baklava (which is about equal to knafeh in terms of popularity) and many delicious variations on phyllo dough, syrup, and nuts.
Just another delicious variation on baklava.