A Journey Through Austin’s Knafeh Offerings with My Arab Dad: A Taste of Home, Connection, and Knafeh – Food
Dad with knafeh at Peace Bakery & Deli (Photos by Yasmin Diallo Turk)
My father was born in Jerusalem in 1938 and came to the United States as a teenager. Today, more than 70 years after his arrival in America, he still has a passion for the nostalgic Mediterranean flavors of his childhood.
At 84, he decided it was time to eat dessert first. One of his all-time favorites is knafeh (sometimes spelled “kanafa” or “kunafee”), a rich dessert usually made with shredded filo pastry covered with cheeses (or other fillings) then dipped in a simple syrup. Depending on regional preferences, it can be bright orange, topped with crushed pistachios, and contain a dash of orange blossom water.
With my dad staying at our multi-generational home for part of the year, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend some one-on-one time with him than enjoying knafeh at four locations around Austin.
My dad loves knafeh so much that one of my favorite childhood memories with him is when he made the effort to spend an afternoon teaching me how to make it in our kitchen at home when I was 11 years old. At that time, it was very rare to find prepared filo pastry and it was like such a rare treat. In some places outside of the Middle East, it can still be hard to find. Even today, in the international Facebook group Mama’s Palestinian Kitchen, members from many places are posting asking what they can use as a substitute for dough when it’s not available in their area.
In Austin, however, there are plenty of places to find shredded filo pastry and at least four places to find freshly made knafeh. With my dad staying at our multi-generational home for part of the year, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend some one-on-one time with him than enjoying knafeh at each of the Austin locations. Food has a special way of bringing out the storyteller in my dad, and that’s what I’m here for.
Our first stop on this knafeh tour was a place I’ve wanted to try since it opened in early March this year, Baklawa House (10205 N.Lamar #135, baklava-house.com). The only Arabic candy store in Austin, Baklava House is a nod to traditional Middle Eastern stores that offer a variety of candies, some I had never tried even in my time living. in my father’s country. Located in a strip mall in North Lamar, Baklava House is stocked with several types of baklava, sesame cookies and a melt-in-your-mouth semolina butter cookie called ghoraibah sold by the pound and in prepackaged gift trays. From the moment we walked through the doors of Baklava House, owner Mohammed Tabbaa made us feel welcome. We weren’t in the store five minutes before he handed us samples. The hospitality was undeniable which is essential to my dad before he tasted anything.
There are two main types of knafeh: smooth (naa’meh) and coarse (khishneh). Baklava House knafeh is made to order; during our visit we tried the smooth variety. Tabbaa says they make less common varieties of knafeh, including Nutella, cream and ice cream fillings. Tabbaa opened his cafe and bakery because Austin had no Middle Eastern confectionery. About knafeh, he said, “I had to have knafeh on the menu because it’s one of the most famous and delicious sweets in the world.”
Homemade Knafeh Baklava
My father’s opinion: “Baklava House has the kind of atmosphere where the lovely variety of desserts and hospitality give the knafeh its best taste. The knafeh had a good pull on the melted cheese when the fork lifted it. The taste was familiar and traditional and the quantity of pistachios was generous.”
After a few days of rest following our visit to Baklava House, we headed to one of my favorite places for Middle Eastern cuisine: Almarah Mediterranean cuisine (12129 RR 620 N. #450, almarahgrill.com). This restaurant is beloved among Austin’s Arab community. It offers sit-down meals and its menu features three different types of knafeh: the traditional orange-colored coarse knafeh topped with crushed pistachios, the cream-filled coarse knafeh, and a smooth type called Nabulsiya in reference to the city of Nablus, which is famous for this dessert.
We ordered all three varieties, along with Turkish coffee to go with them. I drink my unsweetened Turkish coffee when I have dessert, but my dad is a firm believer that sweetened coffee goes best with sweet desserts. His smile when he saw three plates of knafeh in front of him was priceless. He took the tasting seriously and, one by one, gave each serving its own time.
My father’s opinion: “The cream-filled knafeh was just the right amount of sweetness. The texture of the coarse shredded filo pastry had the right amount of crunch. Overall, it was a winning knafeh. The traditional knafeh and Nabulsiya had the stretchy cheese which is the telltale sign of good knafeh, but had a bit more syrup than some might prefer. I would definitely have all three again.”
Then we visited a Palestinian restaurant and bakery called Peace Bakery & Deli (11220 N. Lamar, peacebakerydeliaustin.com), which bakes fresh pita, sweets, salad, dips, many vegetarian offerings, and shawarma every day. This place, run by owner Nuha Hammad and her family, is the type that can feel right at home not only for the flavors but also for the customer service. They are always ready to help me decide what to taste on a given day. On a recent visit, while choosing from many delicious pastries, the owner’s son informed me that his mother had just made a new platter of a semolina and almond cake called basbousa and that I should not not let it pass. These are exactly the kinds of tips that make a difference in my experience.
Peace Bakery makes two types of knafeh: cheese-filled and cream-filled. On the day we visited, this restaurant had a large platter of traditional knafeh ready to go alongside their daily food and baked goods offerings. Ms. Hammad says of her knafeh, “It’s actually my own recipe that I created when I opened the restaurant. Over the past 9 years, I’ve been able to perfect it.” She warmed up our knafeh slices for us and we included Turkish coffee in our order to complete our knafeh tasting. This knafeh was especially reminiscent of the knafeh that my father had throughout his life. It was the familiar comfort food he loves. The filo was orange, the cheese was well balanced and the syrup was sweet.
My father’s opinion: “Good solid knafeh. Generous portion and well matched with Turkish coffee.” The filo wasn’t as crispy as he wanted, but would return to Peace Bakery any day of the week for the knafeh and the many other options they have.
Our final stop on this Austin knafeh tour was a restaurant on Oltorf called Cafe Mezze (504 W. Oltorf, mezzecafeaustin.com). We did things a little differently this time around and chose both the traditional coarse knafeh and a chocolate filled version. They didn’t have any syrup with them, which seemed like a red flag, but it was actually a hit with my dad. He liked the less sweet version. He had a nice filo crunch, just the way he likes it. As someone who doesn’t like chocolate, he didn’t particularly like the non-traditional version of knafeh. It didn’t go to waste, however, as my kids with palates less accustomed to traditional knafeh thoroughly enjoyed it.
My father’s opinion: “The crunch on the knafeh from Mezze Cafe was the winner of all the knafeh we tried. It wasn’t drenched in syrup, but it’s still a great dessert.” Chocolate isn’t for knafeh in my dad’s book, but he was glad his grandkids were keen on it.
At the end of our knafeh tour of Austin, all samples were approved by Arab dad. Even bigger than the knafeh itself was the time we spent together eating delicious treats, talking about the memories those beautiful experiences evoked for both of us, and creating new memories centered around the knafeh. For our next culinary adventure, my dad asked for his second favorite dessert: apple pie.