Kunafa is an iconic Middle Eastern dessert, made with shredded Kataifi (phyllo) pastry dough, kashta (ashta or cream) and cheese, smothered with a sweet orange blossom simple syrup. Baked to golden perfection, enjoy this Kunafa recipe with stringy cheese pulls and relishing subtle flavours of the cream filling.
There are many Kunafa connoisseurs out there who may scoff at my Kunafa recipe and point out that it is “Kanafeh”. But hear me out please before you inundate me with scorn and pictures of real Kanafeh.
As you may know by now, I grew up in Saudi Arabia and being one of the commercial points of the Middle East, it is a melting pot of not only Arab cultures but of diverse cultures from around the world. On the same street you’ll find Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian, Turkish and even Indian style Shawarma, just take your pick depending on your mood!
Knafeh or Kanafeh is the Levant spelling/pronunciation which isn’t common in Saudi Arabia, part of the Arabian Gulf. In this part of the Middle East, it is Kunafa. When it comes to Kunafa, we would buy our Kunafa from Kunafa House – a specialty shop dedicated to the art of crispy, sweet, creamy, stringy Kunafa.
The version where the shredded phyllo pastry is broken down to a pulp isn’t as popular as the more voluminous, less shredded phyllo pastry version. The semolina topping version that is reminiscent of the Palestinian specialty is also popular. There are no sprinkles of pistachio, it is simply kashta (ashta or cream), cheese, shredded phyllo pastry baked to golden perfection and drenched in sweet simple syrup. Oh the fond memories! My father would buy a tray of Kunafa while we waited in the car and we couldn’t wait to tear up the bag to dig in to one of the wonders of Middle Eastern desserts!
You need stringy cheese to make Kunafa, and Akkawi cheese is generally used that melts beautifully. It’s not that easy to find in non-Arab countries, so to make it easier for myself and for you beautiful people, I substituted with the universally available Mozzarella. I hope you don’t huff and puff at me, Kunafa Connoisseurs! It is still stringy and subtle in flavour, and aren’t we just trying to make life easier?
Now, you could make Kunafa simply with the cream filling or with the Mozzarella filling – I combined both cream and cheese to stay true to my childhood favourite. Double the dairy, double the damage – uh, I mean fun.
I suggest making the simple syrup first. I used orange blossom water to make the syrup fragrant, easily available in any Middle Eastern grocery store. If you like the taste of rose water, then you could add half the recommended measurement of orange blossom water. If you don’t have either, simply leave it out and it will still taste delicious! You want the syrup to cool before you pour it over your Kunafa.
The shredded phyllo pastry is also known as Kataifi pastry and can be found in the frozen section (next to other pastry and doughs) of most supermarkets, or visit your local Middle Eastern grocery store and ask them for Kunafa pastry.
If you have got any leftover kataifi pastry, you may want to make something savoury like my Kataifi Karides (Kataifi Prawns)! This is a delightfully easy appetiser that can be enjoyed any time of the year.
Grate the Mozzarella once you have got the cream filling ready so that the cheese doesn’t melt and get clumpy. While fresh mozzarella is best, you could use pre-shredded Mozzarella.
Once you have it assembled, bake till it’s nice and golden and then pour the cooled simple syrup over the dessert.
You can decorate with pistachios if you desire, the nutty taste and crunch are a welcome addition. But I like it as it is. Slice, watch the stringy cheese pulls and devour! It’s soooo good, I’m not joking.
You can freeze the Kunafa before baking for up to 3 months. Just thaw and bake as per recipe instructions.
I am not sure if this version originates in Egypt – if any of you have the answer, dear readers, please do let me know in the comments! Also let me know how you like this version as opposed to the more traditional version!
Try the classic Middle Eastern dessert Kunafa. This version is made with a cream filling (kashta) and mozzarella cheese, doused in a sweet orange blossom simple syrup. Bake till golden brown and enjoy warm for best flavour.
- 1 1/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp orange blossom water or 1/2 tsp rose water (optional)
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup cream (kashta or heavy cream)
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 4 tsp cornstarch
- 2 1/2 tbsp milk (to dissolve cornstarch)
- 250 g mozzarella cheese, grated
- 250 g kataifi (shredded phyllo) pastry
- 3/4 cup melted butter
Preheat oven to 180C.
Combine sugar and water in saucepan. Bring to boil.
Add lemon juice. Simmer for 10 minutes until thickened.
Take off heat. Add orange blossom water or rose water, if using.
Lightly pull apart kataifi pastry.
Place in a bowl and add melted butter.
Combine well to coat majority of pastry strands.
Combine milk and cream in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Keep on medium heat.
Add sugar and stir to dissolve.
Simmer for 10 minutes.
Dissolve cornstarch in 2 1/2 tbsp milk and add to milk mixture.
Stir and simmer for another 5 minutes until thickened.
Remove from heat and cool.
Layer a round pie dish (24-30cm) with the cream filling.
Cover with grated mozzarella.
Add buttered kataifi pastry on top, ensuring the cheese is hidden.
Bake for 35-40 minutes until golden brown.
Remove and immediately pour cooled orange blossom simple syrup over the pastry. Ensure kunafa is well soaked.
Cut, marvel at the stringy pulls of cheese and devour.
- You may leave out the orange blossom water or rose water if you can't find them at your local supermarket or Middle Eastern grocery store.
- Ensure syrup is cool before you pour over hot Kunafa.
- Kataifi pastry is also known as shredded phyllo pastry or kunafa pastry, found in the frozen section of most supermarkets or Middle Eastern grocery stores.
- Grate Mozzarella once you have got cream filling ready so that the cheese doesn’t melt and get clumpy.
- While fresh mozzarella is best, you could use pre-shredded Mozzarella.
- You can freeze the Kunafa before baking for up to 3 months. Just thaw and bake as per recipe instructions.
Watch how to make Kunafa here:
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