Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Deconstructed kadaif, reconstructed

I generally don't make dessert, but this is probably one of the world's easiest ones, and it is sublime: crisp pastry topped with sweetened ricotta cheese, date honey, and soft curly halva -- that's it. It is a cinch to put together -- finding all of the ingredients may be another matter, however.

Kataifi is like a finely shredded filo dough, though I think it is produced by and extrusion process rather than by rolling or stretching dough out superfine. It is generally used to produce a lazy cooks baklava that the Greeks call kataifi and in Arabic is known as kenaffy. You just stir melted butter into the dough, layer it with ground nuts, bake it, and then drench it in syrup. This dessert has nothing in common with regular kataifi, and I have only seen it at the Hummus Place, a chain of Israeli restaurants that serve very good hummus, shakshuka, and things like that, but not much else. I worked out my own version, and it is very simple to put together. The hard part is getting the right ingredients. You will need (in descending order of difficulty of finding)

Curly halva: In Hebrew it is something like Halva Mesoselet. The only brand I have every seen is Achva, and I have only found it at Kalustyan's market in the East 20s. It comes in 250 gram packages. I am sure it is available in some Israeli or kosher market somewhere, but I have checked every one that I have passed and have never seen it. Maybe you would do better in Teaneck or one of the Sephardi neighborhoods in Brooklyn. If you find some, pick up a lot, because it is also (too) good by itself with tea or coffee. It is light beige, soft and tender, rather than hard and crumbly, and resembles in shape the the pulled beef in ropa vieja, a Caribbean dish. The texture is similar to that of challah with a fine, long, crumb, pulled into shreds. Do not substitute the Turkish halva called something like Pismaniye, or thread halva. It's texture is more like cotton candy, fun to eat but not right in this dish.

Kataifi: I found the Apollo brand at the West Side Market on 110th st. I am sure it is available in other Greek and Middle Eastern Markets, and in supermarkets owned by folks from that part of the world. It usually comes frozen in 1 pound packages, and you will need about 1/3 of a pound to serve 6 people. Pull off what you need and defrost in a bag in the fridge for about 8 hours. If you forget to do this, take what you need, seal it tightly in a plastic bag, and defrost under cold running water for about 20 minutes or until you can pull it apart.

Date honey: I use Silan brand from Israel, which is usually available around Pesach, and a small jar lasts a long time. You can also use dibs, or Middle Eastern date syrup, or even a dark and aromatic honey in a pinch.

Ricotta Cheese and Yogurt: Although Hummus Place uses ricotta only, I like the combo. It is best with whole milk fresh ricotta and a full fat drained Greek yogurt like Fage, Total or Chobani, but would probably not be too bad with Polly-O by itself.

Superfine sugar: confectioner's and regular sugar won't do here -- it needs to dissolve in the cheese and yogurt mixture.   You can make your own by whirling granualted sugar in an impeccably clean spice grinder.  If you must, you can substitute agave.  The cheese will be darkened somewhat from vanilla anyway.

Method, for about 6 servings:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Spray or oil a baking sheet or jelly roll pan. If you line it with foil it will be easier to clean.
  3. Spray the kataif well and mix, and spread on the pan. Bake for between 12 and 20 minutes. It should darken to a very light brown. Watch carefully near the end to make sure it doesn't burn. ( Do not broil and stay near the kitchen.  Click here to see what can happen if you broil it. ) Set this aside on a large serving platter until almost ready to serve.
  4. Beat together about 1 cup of ricotta, 1/2 cup of yogurt, and superfine sugar to taste. Start with about 1/4 cup sugar and more if needed. It should be sweet but not cloying. Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla if you want. Set aside in the fridge until it is ready to serve.
  5. Just before serving, Spread the ricotta-yogurt mixture over the kataif with a spatula.
  6. Drizzle about 2-3 tablespoons of date honey over it.
  7. Scatter about 1/3 to 1/2 of a 250 gram container of halva over it, and serve at once. You may want to have more at the table for those who really take to it. (However, a guest once brought our leftovers home and said that his teenage daughter liked it just fine 4 hours later, at 2 a.m.)
  8. It can be fun to assemble this at the table.

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