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!
What is Knafeh?
Knafeh is a Middle Eastern dessert most often eaten in the Levant area of the Middle East, the countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria.
It is also known as Kanafeh and Künefe.
Knafeh is an astonishingly good dessert, the flavors are wonderful, and will fill your mouth with pure joy.
The key though is that the Knafeh 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 Nablus in Palestine, Knafeh can be found throughout the Levant.
Of course it has gone well beyond the Levant, in fact as far away as Australia, and given rise to the famous ‘Bearded Bakers’ of Sydney.
Believe it or not Knafeh can be delivered over here 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 Knafeh 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 Knafeh?
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.
Baklawa probably being the most famous of the sweets from the region.
Semolina is another common ingredient in desserts as well.
In fact there is a type of Knafeh 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 Knafeh commercially makes a version of both.
What is Kanafeh Cheese?
The white Akawi cheese used in the Middle East for Knafeh is often not available in the US and Europe.
Mozzarella cheese is often substituted 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!
How to Make Knafeh
Knafeh is traditionally made in a large circular metal tray.
The cheese is chopped in a food processor so it can be easily pressed 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 Knafeh in.
Into the tray goes the chopped phyllo dough which resembles shredded wheat that has been soaked in melted butter.
Then the cheese mixture is firmly pressed on top of the phyllo.
This is then baked in a preheated oven at a medium high heat until the topping is golden brown, although an orangey red dye is used to give it a reddish orange color in the end.
Once it is out of the oven the tray is flipped into another tray so that the shredded topping is now on the top in its rightful place.
Then it is doused with a hot sugar syrup that quickly gets soaked up into the dessert.
Crushed pistachios are sprinkled on top.
And there it is! Your Knafeh!
For the Sugar Syrup
For the Knafeh
- 1.2 lbs Shredded Phyllo Dough
- 2.2 lbs Akawi Cheese mozzarella is a good substitute
- ½ cup Butter melted
- 1 cup Pistachios crushed
- 50 ml Orange/Red Food Coloring optional
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
- Defrost the shredded phyllo dough.
- Spread phyllo dough apart using your fingers.
- Place dough in a large bowl.
- 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 cloves.)
- 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!