Ask anyone from Arab countries what their favorite dessert is, and without hesitation they will most likely respond: Kanafeh. This iconic dessert, spelled a myriad of ways, from kanafeh to knafe to kanafeh, is undoubtedly the most popular dessert among Arabs the world over. This layered confection consists of shredded phyllo dough called “kataife” doused with ghee or melted butter, covering a layer of gooey sweet and melted cheese. The whole pastry is then doused with a sweet syrup accented with lemon, or even rose water depending on preference. Chopped pistachios crown the top with extra crunch and contrasting color. Eaten together, the rich layers are sweet, creamy, buttery, and crunchy.
The dough is usually dyed a bright orange, so most people can spot the massive disks of melted buttery goodness in bakeries from a block away. While there are several theories on the origins of this legendary dessert, most historical roads lead to the town of Nablus in Palestine. The kunafa bakers from Nablus are renowned, often passing on family recipes handed down to them from hundreds of years ago. Nablus certainly is the most plausible area of origin, as the town is famous for their Nabulsi cheese. This cheese is made fresh from goats roaming the picturesque olive tree studded hills, making the ultimate foundation for kanafeh. To solidify their place in world history, 170 Nabulsi bakers got together in 2009 to make the largest kanafeh, in an attempt to break the Guinness World Record. The pastry covered the city like an orange carpet spanning 75 meters wide and weighing in at 1550 Kilograms. To see a video on my visit to Nablus, click on the very bottom of this blog.
While kunafeh was a well kept secret in Arab countries and Turkey, recently the secret has leaked out into the American mainstream, with the arrival of this dessert at Trader Joes. While the uninitiated might welcome this novel and niche dessert in a conventional supermarket, this frozen version does not even come close to the ones made at home or found in bakeries. For many, visiting Nablus to eat the authentic dessert is not practical, but with just a few ingredients you can make a superior version of kanafeh in your own home. Many middle eastern markets sell everything you need, from the dough and the cheese to the orange dye and ghee.
To see a tutorial of how we make authentic knafeh at home, click on the video below:
- 1 1/2 pounds Akawi sweet cheese, or farmer’s cheese (Mexican queso blanco)
- 1 pound thawed, shredded phyllo dough
- 1 ½ cups ghee (or melted butter)
- 1/4 teaspoon knafeh orange coloring I personally love Ziyad brand
- 1/2 cup ground pistachios
- 1 Recipe for Attar
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- A few drops of rose water (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. If using salted farmer’s cheese, place the cheese in a bowl of water and let soak overnight. This will extract the salt, resulting in a sweet cheese. Drain the cheese, and pat dry with paper towels. If using Akawi cheese you can skip this step. Place the cheese in a food processor and process until cottage cheese consistency is achieved. Set aside. Chop the phyllo dough into slices, then shred with your fingers. Put the dough in a large round pizza pan on low heat on a stovetop burner, and add the ghee and orange coloring. Work with your hands (preferably gloved) to incorporate the ghee with the dough. Remove ⅓ of the dough and set aside in another bowl. Spread the remaining ⅔ dough evenly in the pizza pan, and press down firmly as you will invert the knafeh and you want this layer to hold together. Spread the cheese over the dough evenly. Top with the remaining shredded phyllo and pat down evenly as well. Cover with foil and bake on the lower rack for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake another 15 minutes. In the meantime, make the Attar recipe or sugar syrup. Add 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar to a saucepan, and boil. Then reduce the heat to a simmer, and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add 1 tbsp lemon juice, and optional rose water. Set the syrup aside. Remove the knafeh from oven, and invert upside down using another pizza pan. Drizzle with sugar syrup to taste. Any remaining sugar syrup can be served on the side for guests to add more if they wish. Sprinkle ground pistachios over the knafeh and serve immediately.