Out of all the Ramadan desserts, the konafa has become the preeminent delicacy that Egyptian pastry chefs experiment with from year to year. Unlike basbousa, katayef or baklava, whose recipes remain unchanged in Cairo patisseries, konafa — the iconic golden dessert made from a light, noodle-like crust — has stood out from the crowd as it evolves away from the traditional cream or nut-filled varieties.
This year and the year before, a number of articles emerged on lifestyle sites showing how far experimental konafa fillings have come, from blueberries to Oreos, Maltesers, Snickers, Nutella, sweet potatoes, dates and even red velvet cake. The desserts now come in the shape of a pie, large and individual bowls, cups, cones and mini-bites.
But long before blueberries and Snickers bars found their way into the konafa, the famed dessert is said to have originated during the reign of the Ummayads in Syria. In a story on the beloved dessert’s history, Community Times magazine quotes Aida Khattab, a member of the Egyptian Society for Folk Traditions, as saying that Calif Muawya Ibn Abi Sufian (661-680 AD) was having a hard time fasting in Ramadan. His doctor advised that he increase his sugar intake for the late-night sohour meal, which started the tradition of Syrian sweets in Ramadan. Konafa is said to have been born out of this practice.
That need for sweetness in times of hardship has only grown exponentially, and today we find ourselves in a full-blown konafa-topping madness. This fanaticism can be traced back to two factors, the first being the emergence of the famous mango konafa at Dokki’s Le Carnaval in the mid-2000s. This paved the way for experimenting with the traditional konafa recipes that every other patisserie was presenting.
The second factor is the general dessert craze sweeping through the Egyptian capital ever since the start of the Italian coffee trend in 2001, when Cilantro cafe opened its first branch in Zamalek. Before Cilantro, Egyptians were used to drinking either Turkish coffee or Nescafe, and while some restaurants had been serving espresso for years, a cafe culture around it did not emerge. But after Cilantro was established, western-style cafes sprouted about, with local coffee shops (like downtown Cairo’s popular Kafein) and international chains serving variations of espresso and desserts that were new to the Egyptian consumer, such as brownies, chocolate cake and cheesecake. Then, after the revolution, the global cupcake invasion made its way to Cairo, with bakeries such as Nola, Crumbs and Devour Cupcakes relying on people’s sweet-tooth to build a successful business.
All these factors have led to a Ramadan full of konafa variations this year. So with a friend of mine, I decided to host a konafa sampling event, building on the success of a mango konafa sampling event we threw the year before. This year’s theme was “Avant-Garde Konafa.” Guests were asked to find some of the craziest konafas on the market, and we would provide a light salad-based iftar before the sampling began.
The konafas were judged through a very intricate process. Excel sheets were printed out and put next to each konafa. Guests had to judge from 1 to 5 (Konafa Catastrophe to Konafa Climax) in four categories: presentation, texture and crunch, overall taste and creativity. A final question was a yes or no: Is it trying too hard?
A large bowl housing layers of Nutella, konafa, cream and bananas looks much more appetizing than it tastes. It earned itself an average rating of 2.7, and scored high only in the konafa creativity category. One has to admit that the Heliopolis-based bakery’s Facebook page does have very appealing konafas pictured. But this one is only for those with a serious sweet tooth, as it is essentially a sugar attack.
Was it trying too hard? Fifty percent of our guests said yes, and 40-something percent said no. One person said “eh.”
Carousel, 57 El Horreya Street, Heliopolis. Open 10 am – 11:30 pm, Mon-Sun. Contact: 01.01.64.46.688.
In fourth place came two konafas. Grand’s konafa is the classic cheese-filled Nabulsi variety, native to the historic city of Nablus in northern Palestine, and widely enjoyed in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. While it’s not creative per se, it is relatively new to Egypt — its popularity is growing here thanks to the Syrian diaspora that’s making a new home in Cairo. Grand Kunafa, a Syrian bakery in Mohandiseen, delivers the dessert, which you then heat up and serve with the accompanying sweet syrup, according to your liking. This control definitely gave Grand’s konafa an edge over its contenders — you can savor the crispy crust and cheesy center while controlling how much sugar intake is involved. It scored a 3.3 average, with high scores in both the texture and overall taste categories.
Was it trying too hard? A unanimous no came from our taste-testers.
La Poire’s red velvet konafa, on the other hand, scored highest in the presentation category with a whopping 4.7, due to its sleek layering of konafa, cream and red velvet cake, while still managing to make it all hold together in cake form. However, it scored significantly lower in the texture and overall taste categories. The red velvet element somehow felt imposed, and didn’t mesh well with the konafa layer.
Was it trying too hard? Eighty percent said yes.
Grand Kunafa, 25 Syria Street (in front of Bank Al-Ahly), Mohandiseen. Contact: 01.02.74.03.010, 01.02.74.03.101
A classic not to be messed with. The guest who brought it admitted it was not the most creative choice, but argued “it just had to be there.” The Batter Half’s variation of the dish was comprised of layers of konafa, creamy icing and mango. However, there were only two layers of mango, and several of konafa and cream, which compromised the cake’s overall taste. Not to mention that it isn’t mango season yet, so the fruity flavor wasn’t at its peak. Its overall score was 3.6, with a particularly high score in the categories of presentation, texture and overall taste, but a low ranking in the creativity category. However, the audience response shows that even though the mango konafa wasn’t the winner of the evening, it’s still a Cairo favorite.
Was it trying too hard? A unanimous no, and a smiley face.
The Batter Half & Co, 17 Mohamed Mazhar Street, Zamalek. Contact: 02.27.37.00.36
Delight Sweet House has been around for some time, and is most famous for its mouth-watering banana cream pie. The bakery’s blueberry konafa was simple and to the point: a konafa base supported a thin layer of cream and blueberry jam. It scored high in the presentation category with 3.9, and the rest of the categories remained between 3.5 and 3.7. This is clearly an above-average konafa overall, though it didn’t particularly shine (or stumble) in any one category.
Was it trying too hard? Mostly no, said our testers, with one surmising that “it didn’t even try.”
Delight Sweet House, multiple locations. Contact: 16469
The dark-horse of the race (literally, as the guest bringing it arrived late) was The Batter Half’s Nutella-banana konafa cones, with an overall 3.8. The konafa-base cones are about the size of an ice-cream cone, and create a delicate, crackled golden swirl surrounding the Nutella and banana filling. It scored exceptionally high in the presentation category with a 4.6. It also scored relatively high in terms of konafa texture, which came as no surprise, as this was the only contender that actually crunched. Its creativity was also relatively high, while its overall taste was just above average at 3.2 — probably because aside from the appropriately crisp konafa cone, the fillings weren’t that impressive.
Was it trying too hard? Mostly nos, though the two people who gave it the lowest scores answered yes.
The Batter Half & Co, 17 Mohamed Mazhar Street, Zamalek. Contact: 02.27.37.00.36
To conclude, my sampler summed up the results of our judgements in the following infograph. “This is the kind of graph that should be done in a bar, not a pie,” he says, “but the theme called for it.”
Click on image for full view. (Courtesy of Youssef Faltas).