How to make knafeh - this Middle Eastern sweet cheese dessert combines shredded phyllo dough strands (kataifi dough) with stretchy cheese, which is baked and then soaked in a lightly scented sugar syrup – then served hot or cold!
If you haven't already, you'll first need to prepare the sugar syrup – this takes just a few minutes. For kunafa, it's typical to use a 2:1 ratio of sugar – though you could use 1.5:1 if preferred.If you want to add the rose water or orange blossom water to the syrup, it’s a good idea to do so after it’s cooled for several minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400ºF/200ºC.
Step 2: Prepare the kataifi dough
Kataifi dough comes in a package as very long strands. So the first thing to do is to get that down into small pieces. The easiest way to do this is to blitz it in a food processor or blender a few times. Alternatively, you can hand chop the dough into around 3/4-inch pieces.
Once processed into small pieces, transfer the dough strands to a large bowl and combine with the melted butter or ghee. Use your hands to mix the ingredients well.
Step 3: Assemble the knafeh dessert
Prepare your baking pan by greasing it with oil or butter. I used a 12-inch/30cm round pan.
Transfer half of the kataifi dough to the pan and use your hands or something flat-bottomed (like a glass) to spread and level out the layer.
Add the cheese, spreading evenly. You can either add slices of mozzarella or shred it – either will work well. I recommend leaving an inch of space around the outside so the cheese doesn't ooze out the sides of the kunafa.
Add the remaining dough and level it, pressing lightly.It's a good idea to add the dough to the edges first and press to help "seal" the edges and stop any cheese from leaking while it bakes.
Step 4: Bake the Knafeh
Transfer the baking pan to the center rack in your oven and bake for 45-60 minutes until the kunafa is a deep golden-brown color.
Once ready, remove the pastry from the oven and immediately pour the syrup over it. I recommend doing so from the outer edges to the center in a circular motion.
Set it aside for 10 minutes to allow it to absorb all the syrup.
Finally, top the pastry with ground pistachios, slice, and serve while still warm (for the ultimate cheese pull dessert!) or at room temperature.Optionally, you can flip the kunafa out of the pan before topping it with the syrup and pistachios and serving. To do so, I recommend placing a large, clean baking tray over the top of the round pan and flipping it over. Once the pastry is on the baking tray, you can transfer it to a round dish. Make sure to use a dish that is slightly concave or has a lip (for when you pour the syrup over it).
How to Make Ahead and Store?
Make ahead: you can prepare the sugar syrup in advance, ready for whenever your knafeh cravings hit! You can also assemble the unbaked knafeh several hours (up to a day) in advance and keep, covered, in the refrigerator. Remove it from the fridge 30 minutes before baking, then bake as usual.Store: you can store the leftover kunafa in an airtight container in the fridge for 3-4 days. After that, it will become too soft.Freeze: I prefer to freeze the unbaked kunafa. Line your baking tray with plastic wrap, assemble the kunafa, then freeze until solid. You can then use the plastic wrap to remove the kunafa from the tray, fully wrap in another layer of plastic wrap, and freeze for up to three months. Place back in the baking tray before thawing (overnight), then bake as written, adding a few minutes to the baking time, if needed.Reheat: you can either reheat the knafeh in the microwave in 15-20-second increments (soft texture) or oven (slightly crisper) at around 360ºF/180ºC for 10-15 minutes until warmed through.
Optionally serve with extra syrup: you can pour some of the syrup over the dessert, then serve the remainder in a little jug for guests to pour over their dessert to adjust how sweet/sticky it is.
If you only have whole pistachio kernels: rather than spend AGES hand-chopping the nuts, transfer them to a blender/food processor and pulse several times.
Adjust the cheese amount: feel free to add more/less cheese based on how thick you want the middle layer to be.
Make mini knafeh: instead of making one large dessert, you could make several smaller ones using mini tart pans. For example, you could use three or four 4-inch (10cm) pans. Reduce the baking time accordingly until golden brown.
For orange knafeh dough: it's popular in one variation of knafeh to use orange food color to dye the shredded phyllo dough (kataifi dough). To do so, add a few drops of natural orange food coloring to the ghee/melted butter before mixing it into the dough. I usually skip this step.
The baking time will vary: based on your particular oven. So I recommend you check on it at 30 minutes and continue to check every few minutes until golden brown. It will become dark very quickly.
If you're using akkawi/Nabulsi cheese: you may need to de-salt these cheeses by soaking them in water for 6-8 hours, changing the water a couple of times.
Optional Add-ins and Recipe Variations:
Rosewater OR orange blossom: either of these (or both) can be added to the sugar syrup to add extra flavor (and are popular inclusions). All you need is 1/4-1/2 teaspoon – for a light flavor. You can optionally add some to the cheese layer too.
Lemon: since this dessert uses a lot of syrup, I recommend adding a little lemon juice to balance the flavor. Just 2 teaspoon should be enough.
Sugar: if the cheese is particularly salty, you can add a little sugar to the cheese layer, too.
Edible rose petals: mostly for garnish, but this Middle Eastern dessert looks amazing topped with crushed pistachios and edible roses.
Cream: you can optionally add some whipping cream/clotted cream to the cheese layer for a creamier, softer filling, OR use it as a topping - add a dollop on each portion before sprinkling with the crushed pistachios.