Bertha's Knafe: A Middle Eastern Dessert by Way of Colombia

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Culinarian Sandra Di Capua's family came from Europe and the Middle East, and after searching for a better way of life ended up, like many Jewish Emigres in Latin America.  Her Jewish Lebanese grandmother and Jewish Italian grandfather met in Bogota at a party at the French Embassy.  They spoke to each other in French, their common language as neither had yet learned Spanish.  Di Capua looks back other memories of this special dish which her grandmother would make according to her best friend Bertha's instruction.  

When she passed, Sandra asked Bertha for the recipe and recorded each step and special instruction.  For her, making it religiously step by step is a way to recreate the past and keep alive the memories and traditions of her family and their journeys.  She shares about it in her own words here:

I grew up eating knafe after festive dairy meals at many friends’ houses. Some were made with mozzarella, making them delightfully chewy, some were made with a cornstarch-thickened filling which made them more like a French pastry, and some eschewed butter and dairy in favor of an abundance of nuts in order to make them parve, or non-dairy. But the best one was always the one that my mom made, which she learned from my paternal grandmother, who got the recipe from her best friend, Bertha. My grandmother, Lydia, and Bertha grew up together in Beirut, moved to Colombia during World War II, and remained best friends throughout their entire lives. I began making knafe after I graduated from college, moved into my own apartment, and wanted to make something that tasted like home. I never realized how easy it was to make, the most challenging part being finding the ingredients that the recipe called for. This knafe has a wonderful combination of crunch and creaminess, of sweetness and richness, of floral notes and a nutty finish. For me, it’s a taste not only of home but also of centuries of women who nourished their family and friends through the power of food. -Sandra Di Capua

Serving Size: 8 People


1 16 oz. package kataifi

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese

1 container sweetened condensed milk

8 ounces heavy cream

1/2 cup toasted chopped pistachios

1 cup shira (recipe below)



Yield: 21/2 cups

3 cups sugar

3 teaspoons rose water (or to taste)

1 teaspoon lemon juice 


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. 

Gently pull the kataifi apart.  Massage the softened butter throughout. 

In a bowl, whisk together the ricotta, condensed milk, and cream.

Place half of the kataifi in the bottom of an oven-safe baking dish. 

Pour the ricotta mixture over it. Top with the remaining kataifi.

Bake for 25-35 minutes or until golden at 350 degrees.

While hot, garnish with toasted pistachios and drizzle with the cold shira. Serve the knafe warm.*


Combine the sugar, lemon juice, rose water, and 1 cup of water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly until it boils.

Simmer until it reaches 220 degrees (about 15 minutes).

Allow to cool before using or refrigerate until ready to use. If it doesn't pour easily, put it in the microwave for a few seconds

Cook's Notes

*Bertha swears that the secret to the perfect knafe is the difference in temperatures between the knafe and the shira. If the knafe is hot, the shira has to be poured over cold. If the knafe has cooled, the shira has to be heated before it’s poured over the knafe. Who am I to argue?