Knafeh (or Kunafa) is a delicious Middle Eastern dessert with layered crispy pastry and sweet cheese soaked in syrup, and is believed to have originated centuries ago in Nablus, a city in Palestine, where it was made using local Nabulsi cheese. It is crunchy on the outside, cheesy and gooey on the inside, and overall just delicious!
There are two popular types of Knafeh: Na'ameh, which is made with ground semolina dough called farkeh, and Khishneh, which is made with shredded phyllo dough called kataifi. This recipe is for Knafeh Khishneh.
Although traditionally Knafeh is made on the stove in special silver plates, I know that's difficult for most people. Therefore, this recipe will rely on the oven and baking instead.
Before getting started with the recipe, I want to thank the kind Palestinian family that shared their recipe with me and allowed me to share it with you all. All proceeds from this blog post will be donated to humanitarian aid in Gaza, and you can find ways to support Gaza here.
INGREDIENTS NEEDED AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
Knafeh is not a complicated dessert as it requires only a few ingredients, but they can be a bit hard to come by. So let's cover them one by one:
- Kataifi. Kataifi is a shredded phyllo pastry, which is then broken into shorter strands (1-3") for Knafeh. There isn't any substitute for this (although if you can't find it, you can try making Knafeh Na'ameh). Kataifi is sold at most Middle Eastern and even South Asian grocery stores, and can be found in the freezer section along with puff pastry and phyllo pastry
- Ghee. Ghee is essentially clarified butter, and easily found at many grocery stores. However, you can also make your own ghee by browning butter and then straining out the brown bits. Or, you can just use butter!
- Knafeh food color. This is a beautiful orangish red food color added to Kataifi to give Knafeh its distinctive orange color. I found it at my local South Asian grocery store, but you can also just use any other red or orange food color you have (or skip it)
- Sweet Cheese. Sweet cheese or Nabulsi / Akkawi is traditionally used to make Knafeh, but unfortunately is hard to find! If you are not able to find it at your local Middle Eastern grocery story, you have the following options available:
- Queso Fresco Casero or Queso Fresco, which is found at most grocery stores. Try to find one that does not contain salt. If it does contain salt, you will have to soak the cheese in water for at least 2 hours to drain it out
- Ricotta Cheese - this is widely accepted as another alternate, although I have not personally tried it
- Fresh Mozzarella Cheese. This one is self explanatory! I suggest going for a full-fat mozzarella. Before using, you do have to dry out the mozzarella by placing it between paper towels and putting some weight on top
- Rosewater extract. This can also be difficult to find, but I would call it optional so don't worry if you can't get it
- Pistachios. Chopped pistachios are used to decorate Knafeh. I highly recommend blanching the pistachios in boiling water for 30 seconds and then peeling off their skin. Although tedious, this makes them much greener and prettier!
HOW TO MAKE KNAFEH
Take a look at this short video first:
Now let's discuss the steps:
1. Prepare the cheese
If you are using a replacement for Sweet Cheese which has salt in it (like Queso Fresco), first soak it in water for at least 2 hours. Then, slice it into ¼" slices, along with the fresh mozzarella, and place in one layer between paper towels. Place some weight on top (I used my cutting board) to help the paper towels soak up all the excess moisture in the cheeses.
2. Prepare the kataifi
Take the kataifi out of the freezer and shred it with your hands (or using a knife or food processor) into short strands about 1-3" long. Mix the melted ghee with the knafeh food coloring, and add to the kataifi. Using your hands, mix thoroughly to coat all strands with ghee. You will need a large bowl for this!
3. Layer the Knafeh
This recipe makes a large amount of Knafeh, I was able to use up one 9" pan and one 6" pan. But you are free to use any kind of large cake / baking pan you want; the ideal height of the Knafeh after layering should be less than 1".
Brush the pan(s) you are using with ghee or butter, then add in about ¾ of the kataifi. Press down firmly, ideally using the back of a measuring cup, pushing some up along the edges so the cheese does not come in direct contact with the pan. The tighter you pack, the more crispy the Knafeh will be.
Then, layer in the cheeses. You want to crumble in the sweet cheese, and tear the mozzarella in small strands (or chunks). I did one layer of sweet cheese followed by a layer of mozzarella. Press down firmly
Cover the cheese with the remaining kataifi and press down again.
4. Bake and prepare the syrup
Place the Knafeh in the oven (450F preheated) and bake for ~20-25 minutes until it becomes golden and crispy on the edges and bottom. It should become loose form the edges of the pan.
In the meanwhile, prepare the syrup by mixing sugar, water and rosewater extract in a saucepan, and bringing to a boil. Cook for just 1-2 minutes until the sugar dissolves, then remove from heat and let cool down.
5. Soak, decorate and serve!
Once the Knafeh has baked, carefully turn it out onto your serving plate, and soak it generously in the syrup. I suggest using a large spoon to add the syrup slowly and evenly - you want the Knafeh to be thoroughly wet but not so saturated that the syrup is spilling everywhere.
Once soaked, decorate with chopped pistachios, slice, and serve! Knafeh is best eaten warm (or hot) so the cheese inside is nice and molten.
WHAT PAN TO BAKE KNAFEH IN?
Traditionally Knafeh is made in metal plates used specifically for Knafeh, and cooked on the stovetop. However, this recipe is modified for the oven.
You can use any kind of oven baking pan you have which is large enough for all the ingredients. I used a 9" pan and a 6" cake pan, but you could also use a 9x13" rectangular pan. Just ensure the Knafeh does not become taller than 1" as that might be a bit too thick for the syrup to soak through.
You can also make this Knafeh into individual cups by using a muffin tray (in fact, this was the recommendation of the Palestinian family as it is more beginner friendly). Add the kataifi, press down using the bottom of a glass, fill with cheese, and add more kataiif on top.Print