Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

The Sweetness of Arabia via Small Town Virginia and Arts and Letters

The author, curator at the American Academy of Arts and Letter, grew up in the restaurant business, and hospitality continues to play a vital role in her professional life, as she describes.

Growing up in small town Virginia, neighborhood children of Jewish, Armenian, Greek, Irish, you-name-it descent did everything from making mud pies, building forts in the woods, sledding, and trick-or-treating together.  We were inseparable.  Like other ethnic communities, my family also tried to assimilate: pancake dinners, the country club, carpools, leaving out cookies for Santa, etc.  I was even baptized in the local Methodist church, despite both my parents being of Druze ancestry. Unfortunately, I wasn’t taught the Arabic language and I only know the names of food and curse words as a result.  We still managed to travel a few times to Lebanon as a family and I have vivid memories of those fascinating visits.

Souhad Rafey in her Manhattan kitchen
Souhad Rafey in her Manhattan kitchen

For Arabs, hospitality lies at the heart of who they are. My father owned restaurants and nightclubs (one after another).  Number two was called The Shiek and it had a Middle Eastern theme.  My mother was known for the delicious desserts she made for this establishment.  I have fond memories of listening to great live music at my dad’s club with everyone from Chubby Checker to Fats Domino, and of meeting celebrities like Frank Zappa and the Herman’s Hermits. Pre-rocker Pat Benatar made up part of the house band along with someone accompanying her on a grand piano.  She belted out slow, beautifully pitched songs while guests dined on exquisite Italian cuisine.  On breaks from college, I enjoyed bartending, hostessing, and waiting tables at The Farmer’s Market, my father’s last restaurant.

My mother was an amazing cook and she helped plan the menus throughout my father’s career.  At home, while our neighbors were chowing down on TV dinners and tuna casseroles, the Rafeys were happily trying out the many recipes my mother had gathered from Julia Childs and others.   And my parents entertained often, which had a huge influence on me. It’s always rewarding to share food with friends and family, who appreciate my joy which is a big part of it all.

After I moved to New York in 1984 to complete my degree in Museum Studies, I began taking in my baked goods to share with colleagues at The Hispanic Society and the Cooper Hewitt Museum, where I had internships.  After 30 years, I continue to make the same chocolate cookie crusted cheesecake with its hint of Crème de Menthe and Crème de Cacao, for staff, artists, and art handlers at the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Along with new artist friends, I’ve added many new recipes to the mix, exchanging recipes with artists who have come in over the years to help install their work for the Academy shows. Bob Yasuda, for instance, is one of the most inventive and adventurous cooks I have encountered.  Justen Ladda gave me a simple recipe for delicious cheese filled popovers that I continue to use; and, in exchange, I gave him seeds from my terrace for the public garden that he designed and maintains on the Lower East Side.  Just last year, Robert Chambers and Mette Tommerup, both having been included in Academy exhibitions, gave me a most unusual cake pan before they returned to Florida.

Following is the simplest recipe for a Middle Eastern dessert I know.  Some call it, Kanafa, while others say, “Kanafi”, or Knefeh…and its origin can also be disputed. Whatever they call it, everyone agrees that it’s delicious!


Kataifi (frozen shredded fillo dough)

2-3 bars butter

orange blossom water



ricotta cheese (2 small containers)

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of


Thaw the Kataifi for an hour.

In a bowl, pull it apart and pour melted butter on top, making sure it soaks through entirely.

Heat ricotta cheese for 5 minutes in a saucepan, on low.

Add 2-3 tsp. orange blossom water and stir

Grease a glass dish or metal pan

Place one layer (1/2) of the buttered dough on the bottom.

Put the ricotta mixture over this

Place the rest of the dough on top of this

Bake at 350 for approximately 40 minutes

To crisp the top, place under the broiler for a short time

For the syrup:

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 tsps. orange blossom water

Just as it boils, stir in the lemon juice (which prevents coagulation)

Reduce heat and stir for 5 minutes.

Pour syrup over the layered dessert.

(I like to serve this with ground pistachios on top and mixed berries on the side.)