An iconic Middle Eastern dessert, knefeh is to Lebanon what waffles are to Belgium. There are no records of its origins, but according to local legend the cheese-filled pastry comes from the Palestinian town of Nablus, and now it exists in different variations around the region, including in Lebanon. (In Turkey, it is known as künefe.)
When you walk into any local confectionery, you will find trays of Arab pastries, but the one with the fresh-baked, rich copper-brown cake steals the spotlight. Knefeh consists of a soft cheese baked in a semolina crust, topped with pistachios and doused with orange blossom syrup. While usually enjoyed for dessert, the cake also has a place at the Lebanese breakfast table, especially when it is sandwiched between the sesame seed bread known as kaak. It’s the kind of breakfast that can take you straight through to dinner.
Nearly everyone in Lebanon has their own favorite patisserie where they get this sugary breakfast staple. In recent years some patisseries have begun to experiment with this traditional favorite, even serving knefeh with chocolate inside a croissant. For the purists, though, a knefeh should be sweet and not too rich or heavy, but unfortunately, more and more sweets shops are using poorly processed cheese, making the knefeh tasteless and overwhelmingly heavy on the stomach.
The knefeh from the famous Bohsali patisserie in Downtown Beirut is the real deal. Located in the heart of the capital, Bohsali can claim the title of the city’s oldest sweets shop, having opened its first branch in Martyrs’ Square in 1870. Although the original shop was destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War, the other downtown branch in Riad al-Solh Square, which was opened in 1955, still survives to this day.
On a humid August morning, we found Amer Bohsali enjoying his coffee and supervising his immaculate, white-marble-floored shop. The scene was a throwback, with the employees in their perfectly ironed green and white uniforms wrapping boxes in green paper. Upper-class Beirutis – dressed to the nines like always, despite the searing summer heat – stopped in to check on the orders they would be bringing to family functions.
When asked what special ingredients make their knefeh stand out, the great-grandson of the founder, Saadeddine Bohsali, merely clicked his tongue. “All the recipes are from my great-grandfather and are a family secret,” he said. “Everything is made in-house, even the kaak. These are true Beirut recipes only found here.” We pressed him further. “The cheese we use is a raw white cheese, not processed. That’s as much as I can tell you. No one else can replicate our sweets.”