Is it sweet or savory? The magic of kanafeh—a dessert popular across the Middle East—is that it’s both. A base of gooey, stretchy, and slightly salty cheese is topped with generously buttered kataifi (golden shreds of phyllo), spritzed with spiced syrup, and baked until the cheese starts to ooze and the phyllo topping browns into a mass of irresistible crunch. May the pastry gods strike me down for saying so, but it’s a sweet that goes toe to toe with baklava, and as far as I’m concerned, far surpasses it.
Few kanafeh are as magical as the one baked by Wafa Chami, the Lebanese cooking Queen of New York, whose Wafa’s has been an anchor of Forest Hills, Queens, since 2008. What began as a casual sandwich shop morphed into a full-service restaurant between 2010 and 2011, dishing out classics like shawarma, spinach pies, and spreads, but also home-cooking specialties like braised baby okra with mint and moussaka (in Lebanese parlance, a ratatouille-like summery stew of eggplant, tomatoes, and chickpeas). Then of course there was the kanafeh—the cheese base just a bit stretchy but also deeply creamy, lighter and fresher and less syrup-drenched than every other version in New York.
Chami closed her restaurant last year, but just a few weeks ago she and her family started the third act in their business: Wafa’s Express, a casual counter-service place across borough lines in Brooklyn. Most of the original menu is there, including the kanafeh, which is winning over new fans every day.
We sent reporter Yulin Lou to document what makes Chami’s kanafeh so uniquely hers. The kitchen starts with a curd cheese made specially for the restaurant in New Jersey; it then gets mixed with ashta, a thick, luscious substance a lot like clotted cream, and is dosed with both orange blossom and rose water. Then come those delicate strands of kataifi, pulled apart like a nest of pasta, glazed with melted butter, and then anointed with a dash of sugar syrup.
What emerges from the oven is, well, magic. Watch the video above to see how it comes together. And if you want to try your hand at your own, we have you covered with a recipe, too.
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