Knafeh, also spelt varyingly as kanafeh and kunafeh, is a Middle Eastern sweet made from shredded phyllo pastry (called Kataifi/Qatayfi pastry) stuffed with delicious gooey cheese drenched in scented sugar syrup. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? So many Middle Eastern desserts and sweets do share this typical combination of pastry and syrup bath, resulting in a sickly sweet flavour that many Western palates take a bit of getting used to. But once converted, you’ll never get enough!
Many of you will know that it is now Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. It is customary to break one’s fast with something sweet and Knafeh makes a regular appearance at the Iftar (breaking of the fast) table; its high sugar and high fat content is just perfect to make up for a whole day of fasting.
There are many different types of Knafeh out there, suffice it to say that the difference depends on:
- the region (all across the Middle East and some parts of the Mediterranean)
- the pastry used (phyllo or semolina)
- the filling as well (cheese, cheese and more cheese. And nuts!)
Knafeh can also be made/shaped in different ways. My “all in one” version here, is the old, traditional Knafeh Nabulsi, and to me, is the easiest and quickest to make, but, it isn’t always the neatest or prettiest looking when cut up, unless you use a whole lot of pastry to “toughen up” the ensemble.
You could also make knafeh rolls, in effect making a thin layer of pastry, topping it with the cheese filling, then rolling it up like you would spring rolls. These are called Khishnah Kanafeh, as in the top image.
My other favourite way of making it and I definitely get my little helping hands involved, is to make little cups of pastry in a cup cake or mini muffin tin like this one. We then top it with our cheese filling and bake for a shorter period, then soak in syrup and top with pistachios. No cutting required and very cute and pretty looking indeed but of course, just a little more time consuming with filling up the muffin tin. Having said that, it only takes me about 10 minutes to fill a 12 cup cupcake pan. And as you can see in the image below, it is very pretty and easy to eat!
We shan’t go into the Mediterranean variation of stuffing it with nuts like the Baklava, because let’s face it, that’s just way too much information!
Now let’s talk about the cheese. I know. You thought we were on the recipe already, didn’t you?
The traditional cheese used in Knafeh Nabulsi is Akkawi cheese (variant spellings: ackawi, akawwi, akawi), named after the Aker region of Palestine where it originated. Commonly made from cow’s milk, it is a soft, unripened, slightly salted cheese that’s popular right across the Middle East and is a common table cheese. It doesn’t completely fall apart when heated and has that stretchy texture synonymous with mozzarella, which is why the latter makes the perfect substitute for those of us who don’t easily have access to akkawi.
I learnt to make knafeh in the mid 90s, from one of my Egyptian colleagues, Sarah. We used to make it with akkawi all the time as living in London gave us access to so many exotic ingredients, but there was the odd occasion when we would resort to a combination of mozzarella and ricotta.
A couple of years into my knafe “experience”, being a huge mascarpone fan, I made the natural move towards using mascarpone instead of ricotta, by that time also, I was giving weekend Italian cooking classes, so I always had mascarpone! Well, I suppose I always had ricotta too, mmm, maybe I ran out one day? Suffice it to say, I think mascarpone’s creamy texture and flavour is perfect in this.
Incidentally, the Turkish version of Knafeh, called künefe (above), is actually eaten with clotted cream.
So here we are, finally, at the recipe! I shall give you the instructions for Knafeh Nabulsi, the easiest one to assemble.
I use my 8″ x 8″ square baking dish for this. Use something similar and at least 2″ deep.
The mozzarella is soaked overnight to desalt it as this is a sweet.
And if you fancy more desserts, Middle Eastern or otherwise, check out the Desserts page for delicious recipes like:
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Easy Knafeh recipe to make at home using mozzarella and mascarpone. Also spelt as Kunafeh and Kanafeh, it's a popular Middle Eastern sweet. You will need a square baking dish that's 8" x 8" and at least 2" deep or something similar.
Chopping up the pastry into really small shreds will make for easier cutting after baking.
Total tim does not include prep work from the day before.
Knafeh (Kunafeh), a Middle Eastern Pastry and Cheese Dessert
Easy Knafeh recipe to make at home using mozzarella and mascarpone. Also spelt as Kunafeh and Kanafeh, it's a popular Middle Eastern sweet.
You will need a square baking dish that's 8" x 8" and at least 2" deep or something similar. Chopping up the pastry into really small shreds will make for easier cutting after baking. Total tim does not include prep work from the day before.