When my family and I lived in Jerusalem when I was a kid, it was always a big thrill to go down to the old city with my dad to pick up Knafeh for the family.
Zalatimo, the sweet maker, first originated as a family business in Jerusalem, and until just a few years ago the father was still making his sweets the old fashioned way, rolling everything out by hand.
And I want to share the wonders of this dessert with you!
I have so many fond memories of venturing out with my family to get some delicious Kanafeh as a kid.
Sitting on the side outside of the shop on a bench devouring this sweet treat next to my brothers and sister.
It was one of my favorite family outings.
This is one dessert that I would love to see more mainstream in the States.
It’s a travesty that not more people get to enjoy this!
What is Knafeh?
It is also known as Kanafeh and Künefe.
This is an astonishingly good dessert, the flavors are wonderful, and will fill your mouth with pure joy.
The key though is that the Kanafeh has to be fresh.
The further it gets from fresh the less astonishing it is, and your taste buds will suffer!
It is kind of surprising that the combination of shredded phyllo dough, sweet cheese, and simple syrup could create such a masterpiece of taste, and a very popular Middle Eastern dessert.
Originating in the city of Nablus in Palestine, this dessert is found throughout the Levant.
Kanafeh in the Middle East
Believe it or not, we have Knafeh delivered in Jordan.
You have to order a full tray, it can be a small tray, but when you do, a little truck shows up at your house.
The warm Kanafeh is pulled out of the insulated, and heated compartment in the truck.
They bring you extra crushed pistachios and sugar water so that everyone gets some extra goodness.
Although not as good as when you get it on a plate and eat it immediately from the sweet shop, it’s still pretty amazing.
Have I mentioned how much I like Kanafeh?
I like it a lot!
Many desserts in the Middle East use phyllo is some form or another, often with nuts, butter, cheese, clotted cream, and sugar syrup.
Semolina is another common ingredient in desserts as well.
In fact there is a type of Kanafeh that has a coarse ground semolina topping instead of the shredded phyllo.
The one with semolina is referred to as ‘na’ameh’meaning soft in Arabic, as opposed to the shredded phyllo known as ‘khisheh’meaning rough in Arabic.
I prefer the shredded phyllo topping myself, but the are both popular.
Most every place that makes Kanafeh commercially makes a version of both.
What is Kanafeh Cheese?
The white Akawi cheese used in the Middle East for Kanafeh is often not available in the US and Europe.
You can substitute mozzarella cheese with very good results.
The main requirement is to have a white, non salty and stretchy cheese.
Most cheeses in the Middle East have some degree of saltiness, which necessitates the soaking of the chopped cheese that is used in the Knafeh in order to make it less salty.
It will always have a bit of saltiness to it but it is almost undetectable.
Plus sweet and salty flavors can complement each other like salty caramel chocolate or ice cream.
I don’t have a big sweet tooth, I can go without dessert pretty easily, yet Knafeh is a hard one for me to overlook if it’s in the vicinity.
A non savory cheese is used in a few desserts in the Middle East, the same way that cream can be used in the West.
So if you feel like it’s too much sugar you can think about all the protein you are getting from the cheese, which of course will balance out any sugar high.
Right? The perfect dessert!
What is Knafeh Dough?
Simply put, Kanafeh dough is phyllo dough that is sliced very thinly.
This is commonly used in most recipes for this sweet.
The crispy dough provides a satisfying crunch, which pairs wonderfully with the soft cheese and sweet syrup.
You can buy this kind of dough in most speciality supermarkets but the easiest way to buy it in the States is on Amazon.
I would recommend venturing away from traditional supermarkets when it comes to finding more authentic ingredients for Middle Eastern cooking.
Most US states have some kind of Middle Eastern supermarket.
And it’s so much fun to find them and open yourself up to a new world of ingredients!
Alternatively, you can also use semolina dough to make a ‘smooth’ version of this dessert.
How to Make Knafeh
The most traditional way to make Knafeh is in a large circular metal tray.
Firstly, chop the cheese in a food processor so you can easily press it firmly into the tray on top of the topping (this dish is constructed backwards).
You can always use a regular baking dish to bake your Kanafeh in.
Add the chopped phyllo dough into the tray.
This resembles shredded wheat that is soaked in melted butter.
Then press the cheese mixture on top of the phyllo.
Next, bake it in a preheated oven at a medium high heat until the topping is golden brown, although you can use an orangey red dye to give it a reddish orange color in the end.
Take it out of the oven and flip it into another tray so that the shredded topping is now on the top in its rightful place.
Then you douse hot sugar syrup over the Knafeh, that quickly soaks up into the dessert.
Then you sprinkle crushed pistachios on top.
And there it is!
Where to Buy Knafeh
Kanafeh isn’t very common to come across in your local bakery in the States.
And I’m always an advocate of making it yourself!
But if you have a craving and don’t want the work, there are a few options for sourcing this delicious dessert.
There are also great places in major cities like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle.
If you don’t live near one of these cities, or don’t feel like flying to them just for some kanafeh, there is one place that will ship it to you.
Once it reaches you, just warm it back up in your oven!
America really does think of everything.
But the best place, by far, to enjoy authentic Kanafeh is in the city of Nablus.
As you know, this destination is a little hard to visit nowadays.
Equipment I Used
Knafeh (Kanafeh/Künefe) Recipe
For the Sugar Syrup
For the Sugar Syrup
- Add the water, rose water, orange blossom water, sugar, and lemon juice to a pot. Stir well.
- Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Stir until the sugar has dissolved completely.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool.
For the Knafeh
- Preheat oven to 375ºF (190ºC).
- Melt butter. Add coloring to the butter.
- Pour butter over the phyllo and mix with your hands until phyllo is covered in butter. (Use gloves).
- Cover the bottom of the tray with the phyllo dough topping.
- Drain the cheese and allow to dry off a bit at room temperature. Press the cheese into the tray on top of the dough.
- Bake for 15 to 20 minutes - the cheese should have melted together.
- Remove from the oven and flip tray into a slightly larger tray.
- Pour sugar syrup over knafeh. Sprinkle with crushed pistachio nuts.
- Serve immediately.
Nutrition Per Serving
I’d love to hear from you about what your favorite desserts are, and what kinds of desserts you like to make and why!
And let me know in the comments below if you made this Kanafeh recipe.