Downtown Jerusalem has some decent hummus shops, but in my opinion, Jerusalem’s best hummus is in the Arab shuk, which is just past the Jaffa Gate in the Old City. If you head down the main stairs of the shuk, hang a left and head toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but then peel off to the right again, you’ll pass a a couple shop owners who sit in their doorways and occasionally toss rice at children who walk by. Just keep going, and when you’ve gone down a few stairs, you’ll come upon Lena’s, which serves the best hummus in Jerusalem.
I found Lena’s on a recommendation from a shop owner in the shuk. He told me to get hummus and labneh there, and then to continue even deeper in the shuk for most of a kilometer – past the scarves and the hukkahs and the fish, ick – until I came upon a fluorescent-lit storefront on the left, called Jafar Sweets. There, he said, I would find dessert.
That was in 2006. I’ve been going to Jafar ever since, and I’ve never been disappointed with my spoils. Jafar’s got baklava in every imaginable combination of nuts. But what they’re really famous for is knafeh, a pastry of crunchy vermicelli sandwiching hot, syrupy cheese. Knafeh is made in massive round sheet pans and cut into big slabs for the hungry. It also happens to be my all-time favorite Middle Eastern dessert and will definitely be a post just as soon as I can find Kataifi, the crunchy shredded noodles.
For now, I’m settling to tell you about another fantastic Middle Eastern pastry from another pastry shop, this one founded in Jerusalem but now based in Amman. The shop is Zalatimo’s, and the pastry is Mutabbaq. It’s easy to make, requires no special ingredients, and tastes distinctly of the Middle East. Oh, and it’s really really good.
Yotam Ottolenghi is the one who clued me in to the fact that I can make Mutabbaq at home. He, and my friend Josh, who served it at a dinner party and had me jonesing to make it myself. It’s a phyllo pastry — think spanikopita — but stuffed with goat cheese and ricotta, then drenched in scented syrup just as it comes out of the oven, as with baklava. But unlike baklava, it’s not such a fuss to assemble. These days, I’d rather be fussing with a fancy summer cocktail. Speaking of which, stay tuned for one of those (I said fancy, not fussy) cocktails later this week.
Mutabbaq – Middle Eastern Cheese Pastry
adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem
Makes one half-sheet pan, enough to serve 8 with leftovers likely
2/3 cup (10 1/2 tablespoons, or 130 grams) unsalted butter, melted
14 sheets phyllo pastry, from one packet
2 cups (500 grams) ricotta cheese
9 oz (250 grams) soft goat cheese
1/4 cup crushed unsalted pistachios, to garnish
6 tablespoons (90 ml) water
1 1/3 cups (280 grams) sugar
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon orange flower water, optional
Make the syrup: Heat the oven to 450°. Brush a rimmed half-sheet baking pan (13×18 in) or two 9×13 pans with melted butter. If using the half-sheet pan, the phyllo sheets should fit your pan perfectly. If you’re working with two quarter-sheet pans, you’ll want to cut the phyllo down the middle.
Layer a sheet of phyllo into your pan, brush all over with melted butter, and top with another sheet. Continue layering sheets and butter until you have 7 sheets in the pan (or 7 sheets in each pan).
Put the ricotta and goat cheese in a bowl and mash together with a fork until the mixture is uniform. Spread over the top phyllo sheet, leaving 3/4 inch / 2 cm clear around the edge. Brush the surface of the cheese with butter and top with the remaining 7 sheets of phyllo, brushing each sheet with butter before layering the next sheet.
If you can, fold the edges of phyllo under the pastry to make a clean edge. (If not, don’t worry about it.) Brush the top with more butter, and use a sharp long knife to cut the pastry into 3-inch squares, sending the knife almost to the bottom of the pan but not quite.
Bake for 25 minutes, until pastry is crisp and golden brown.
Meanwhile, make the syrup: Put the water and sugar in a small saucepan and mix well. Place over medium heat, bring to a boil, add the lemon juice and orange flower water if using, and simmer gently for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.
The minute you take the pastry out of the oven, pour the syrup over the hot pastry, making sure it soaks in evenly. Leave to cool for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the crushed pistachios, and finish cutting into portions. Serve warm.