I’m sitting on my couch, rustling through the pages of a 1990s Palestinian cookbook as I desperately try to locate the recipe to satisfy an intense craving for knafeh, my favorite dessert. It’s been weeks since my family got together for some kind of celebration, and I need my fix. Meanwhile, my grandmother is on the phone from Cleveland, where she spends about three quarters of the year while she’s not overseas. She is insisting that it’s probably easier to buy it from a bakery.
How hard could it be? I wonder. I can follow instructions. And it’s a dessert, for crying out loud! It’s not like I’m trying to master beef Wellington!
I pause and consider the last time I had knafeh. And then I consider the first time. I was spoiled then. At six or seven years old, I was convinced that this was a thing people enjoyed several times a month. I was constantly surrounded by so many aunts, uncles, and cousins that a steaming tray of knafeh was bound to appear if you just hung around long enough. This is still somewhat true, although as an adult I find myself waiting for the brief string of big family gatherings that happen between November and January. It’s then that I can rely on someone else to bring the goods. For the rest of the year, I’m on my own.
At last I arrive at the right page. I don’t recognize two of the six ingredients because they’re written in Arabic. I don’t know where I would shop for them either. Defeated, I begin searching for nearby Middle Eastern bakeries and restaurants instead.
But more on that later. First let’s backpedal a few hundred years...
Knafeh is a colorful, gooey confection made from white cheese, stringy noodles or noodle-like pastry, and simple syrup. It is most commonly reserved for special dinners or for breakfast during Ramadan, when Muslims must fast between sunrise and sunset.
It may seem strange to indulge in such a saccharine dish before sunrise, but there are age-old precedents that help explain this custom. As the story goes, in the Middle Ages, doctors would prescribe knafeh to hungry caliphs during Ramadan. The richness and alleged warming effects helped them fast comfortably until sunset. Considering a career change? Ibn al-Jazari, a 13th-century scholar, gave accounts of a sweets inspector who would ride through Damascus at night carefully weighing ingredients and assessing their quality. All of this to ensure that the morning’s serving of knafeh was up to par for the fasting citizens.
Some believe that long ago in Cairo, members of the Muslim ruling class introduced knafeh to locals during festivals put on solely in an effort to win them over and possibly convert them to Islam. Today, knafeh remains a staple party food throughout the Islamic world, no matter the occasion.
But what is knafeh exactly? It depends on where you are. In fact, the spelling I’m using—“knafeh”—is one of at least three official ways to write it in English. You’ll also find that knafeh is prepared slightly differently in Turkey than it is in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Greece—or in Nablus, a city nestled between two mountains at the midpoint between biblical Nazareth and Jerusalem. A different cheese might be used, the crust may be made of dough or noodles, or the pastry itself might be structured like a roll instead of a square slice. My go-to is the Nablus version. Rightly so, I say. The entire identity of the city might as well be founded on this single dish.
Nablus knafeh uses its namesake Nabulsi cheese, which is covered in threads of wheat instead of dough or noodles and drizzled with sweet syrup. Yes, knafeh is such a staple in Nablus that they named the cheese after it. It’s cut into squares and served like a thin slice of cake. While I can appreciate the creativity and subtle flavor nuances of a cream-filled or rolled knafeh from a bakery in, say, Cairo, I’ll always be a Nablus devotee at heart.
I’ve sharpened my taste for knafeh over the course of 25 years and several hundred family parties, and I’ve come a long way since the night I begged my grandma for a crash-course via telephone. In the end, I accepted her advice that knafeh is just as good from a bakery as homemade—and without the hassle of having to track down a specific kind of shredded phyllo dough or orange blossom water. Honestly, it took until adulthood to realize that no one really makes this stuff at home.
The following months took me all over Chicago, comparing knafeh at different restaurants and bakeries that local family members recommended.
Chicago is an adventurous diner’s paradise, so it struck me as strange that it was so difficult to find a restaurant or bakery here that was strictly Palestinian. Sure, you have your falafel shops and shawarma joints, and you can buy hummus in practically any grocery store. But I’m talking about commercially available versions of dishes my mom and grandma used to make.
The struggle makes more sense when you consider that only about 3% of Chicagoans are Palestinian, and most are concentrated in the suburb of Bridgeview, about 15 miles southwest of the city. Even when you’re able to find a Middle Eastern restaurant or bakery, it’s unlikely that it’ll serve Palestinian food or dessert. You’ll be offered a choice between baklava or chocolate cake so often that I wouldn’t blame you for wondering if Middle Easterners have spent millennia stubbornly eating the same two sweets.
I finally found not one but two places that served the knafeh of my dreams: Nablus Sweets and Selma’s Sweets and Frozen Treats. Both are located in Bridgeview just a few miles apart. These counter-service bakeries serve perfectly sweet, melty, and comforting Nablus-style knafeh that I am not embarrassed to introduce to other people. Each shop is equipped with a spacious induction cooktop that keeps the knafeh at a perfect temperature until it’s ready to be served. As a general rule of thumb, knafeh is exponentially better the sooner you eat it after it comes off that cooktop. A lot of its best components—gooey cheese, thin syrup—rely on heat.
The only discernible difference between the two is that Selma’s serves a slightly more sugary slice. They’ve found a big fan in my sweet-toothed wife this way. A typical car ride between the city and the suburbs isn’t complete without her request to stop at Selma’s. I tend to gravitate toward their competitor personally, but no matter which you choose, be sure to request a splash of extra syrup and a spoonful of crushed pistachios to top it off.