Kunafeh, also spelt varyingly as kanafeh and knafe, is a Middle Eastern sweet made from shredded filo 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!
Types of Kunafeh
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!
What cheese to use for Kunafeh?
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 a stretchy texture.
Akkawi Cheese Substitute
What’s the closest to akkawi cheese, in terms of flavour and texture? Because of its stretchy texture and salty flavour, mozzarella makes the perfect substitute for those of us who don’t easily have access to akkawi.
A couple of years into my kunafeh “experience”, being a huge mascarpone fan, I made the natural move towards using mascarpone (and mozzarella). By that time also, I was giving weekend Italian cooking classes, so I always had these two cheeses!
We start by desalting the mozzarella, so always start the night before we intend to make the recipe.
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.
Let’s get our aprons on!
More Dessert Recipes
Images by LinsFoodies
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Knafeh (Kunafeh), a Middle Eastern Pastry and Cheese Dessert
- A baking dish about 8" x 8" (20cm x 20cm) and at least 2" (5cm) deep.
- 300 g (10.5 oz) Kataifi pastry
- 350 g (12 oz) butter melted
- 300 g (10.5 oz) mozzarella
- 250 g (9 oz) mascarpone
- 250 ml (1 cup) rose scented simple syrup
- 3 Tbsp coarsely ground pistachios
- 1-2 Tbsp dried edible rose petals
Rose Scented Simple Syrup
- 250 ml (1 cup) water
- 300 g (1 ½ cups) white sugar
- 1 tsp fresh lemon juice
- 2 Tbsp rose water OR orange blossom water
The Day Before
The Simple Syrup
- Place the water and sugar in a saucepan and let it come to boil.
- Lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes to thicken.
- Take off heat and place on cool hob, then add the lemon juice and rose water and stir.
- Cool to room temperature, then place in the fridge until the next day.
- Cut into slices and soak in plenty of cool water in a large bowl. Place in the fridge overnight and change the water at least a handful of times in that period.
- The water will get cloudy, don’t worry.
- Preheat the oven to 190˚C Fan 170°C/375˚F).
- Place in a food processor and pulse a few times until the Kataifi pastry is all shredded. You might have to do this in 2 go’s.
- Place the now shredded pastry in a large bowl and pour most of the melted butter in, leaving some behind.
- Using your fingers, mix it all in thoroughly, coating every strand of pastry with the butter.
- Add the rest of the butter if needed, mix thoroughly again and set aside as you get to work on your cheese.
- Clean the food processor with kitchen paper and place the drained mozzarella in.
- Blitz the mozzarella until it’s all diced up and resembles cottage cheese, ie, tiny lumps.
- Transfer the mozzarella into a roomy bowl and add the mascarpone in.
- Using a wooden spoon beat the two cheeses together until thoroughly combined. This may take a couple of minutes.
- Place half the butter soaked pastry into the bottom of your chosen pan and pat down firmly.
- Top with all of the cheese mixture.
- Top the cheese with the second layer of pastry and pat down firmly but gently, as you don’t want the cheese getting displaced.
- Bake in the oven, on the middle shelf, for 35-40 minutes until the pastry is a lovely golden shade.
- Leave to cool for 5 minutes, then using a butter knife or something similar, run it through the sides of the knafe to release any pastry and cheese that’s sticking to the dish.
- Take your serving plate, place over the baking dish and using your oven gloves or thick tea towel, flip the knafe over onto the serving plate.
- Pour the cold syrup all over the knafe until it’s saturated with the syrup and glistening, leaving the rest for serving.
- Leave to cool for another 10 minutes, then using a very sharp knife, cut it into little squares (easier than diamond!) by cutting through the pastry with the pointy end of your knife first.
- Serve with the leftover syrup in a little jug for those who fancy life extra sweet!
- Garnish with the pistachios and petals before or after cutting, completely up to you.
- 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 time does not include prep work from the day before.