Sweet Cheese Kunafa (Knefe)

by Caterina Borg, Good Food Gourmet on March 28, 2011


Both of my parents were born and raised in Cairo, Egypt and although our Nationality is Greek, the food we ate at home was inevitably influenced by the Middle Eastern flavors and textures of their youth. One of the items that we used quite often when making desserts is a product known in the Greek culture as Kataifi (pronounced ka-ta-yi-fi). In the Middle Eastern culture which covers many different nations, this is known as Kunafa (pronounced ku-na-fa) or Knefe (pronounced kn-e-fe). These very thin strands of dough have been mistakenly identified in many recipes as shredded filo…but this an incorrect description. Kataifi or Knefe, is made from a very thin batter that is drizzled from a hopper looming above a swirling hot, rotating griddle, where very thin strands of dough are instantly cooked as the batter hits the hot surface. This entire process is completed in seconds, and after the cooked product is collected from the rotating griddle, it is followed by the next batch. Here is a wonderful link showing how the kunafa is made.

Some of the more traditional fillings include an assortment of nuts mixed with assorted spices and dried fruits, but the most popular ones are made with either a simply made custard or a custard mixed with the traditional akkawi cheese that is similar to mozzarella but saltier. Before the cheese is added to the custard, it is soaked in water for a few days to remove as much salt as possible. This cheese may be difficult to find in the USA and I have used mozzarella cheese as a substitution with great success. If you happened to come across this delicious dessert in a traditional Middle Eastern bakery, you will notice that the dough has an orange tint to it. You can achieve this by either purchasing a bottle of the Kunafa pastry coloring, or simply add a little red and yellow food coloring along with the butter…but this is unnecessary and I usually skip it. Some recipes use ricotta cheese, but I have found this to be too watery and grainy in texture.  This dessert is very easy to make, so when you want to serve something very unique, this is definitely it…just make sure to serve it warm right out of the oven with a generous helping of that beautiful aromatic syrup.

Here is another great link quickly showing how the cheese kunafa is prepared then served and enjoyed.

Sweet Cheese Kunafa (makes 1-12” round)

1-16oz package of Kataifi dough

2 sticks sweet butter, melted and cooled

2 cups of whole milk

2 tablespoons finely ground semolina (not semolina flour or you can use cornstarch)

4 Tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract **optional, but I always use it

½ cup heavy cream

2 cups finely shredded mozzarella

Kunafa Syrup

4 cups water

3 cups sugar

1 cup honey

2 tablespoons orange juice

1 tablespoon orange blossom water (or you can use rose water if you prefer)

2 cinnamon sticks

4 cloves

4 cardamom pods

First cook the syrup by adding everything together in a pot and cooking over moderate heat for about 10-15 minutes. Syrup should still be the consistency of maple syrup. Once it has cooked, set aside, but keep in a warm place.

Make sure to thaw the kataifi overnight in the refrigerator and not on your counter.

When you are ready to prepare your dessert, finely shred the kataifi with your hands into small pieces. Some people use a food processor. If you choose to do this, you will have more control over the final result if you pulse it until you get small shreds.

Gently pour the melted butter over the shredded dough and mix it well with your hands until all of the dough is coated with the butter. Make sure to use a very good quality sweet butter, because it makes all the difference in the final product.

Add half of the shredded dough to the bottom of your pan and pack it down tightly. I create a little elevation of dough on the outer edge to capture and enclose the filling well.

Next make your custard by whisking together the whole milk and the semolina (or cornstarch) over moderate heat until it has thickened. Then add the sugar and vanilla, and begin to thin out the custard a little at a time with the heavy cream.  Pour your prepared custard onto this base of shredded dough. Use an offset spatula to cover the entire base and then add the shredded mozzarella cheese.

Top with the rest of the buttered dough and tuck in the edges all the way around for a neat presentation. This recipe is enough for 1-12” round shallow cake pan but I used 2 biscotti pans that measured 12” by 6”. Bake this in a preheated 350°F oven for about 40-45 minutes until the dough is evenly golden brown all over, and as soon as it comes out of the oven, slowly pour over the entire quantity of syrup. Serve warm.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Maria/Maja March 28, 2011 at 10:44 p

Caterina………what an interesting recipe and story……….I am happy that the Kataifi are available in the frozen section in stores…….I am not sure I would want to make them. Did you make the ones in you beautiful cake and photograph??????????
The cakes looks really wonderful…………..and I am sure it is delicious….

avatar Caterina Borg, Good Food Gourmet April 1, 2011 at 7:17 p

Thanks Maria! It is absolutely delicious…you should try it…

avatar Ginger May 20, 2013 at 6:25 p

I’ve had a couple different kinds of Kunafa from different restaurants and I know which one I like more, but I don’t know what the differences were, to be able to make sure I’m using the “right” recipe. And before I go through all the work of making the “wrong” recipe, do you know what the different variations are from the different regions where this dessert is popular? One restaurant I went to, looked at me like I was crazy, when I asked them to heat it, and it tasted odd to me both heated and unheated. And although your recipe sounds absolutely delectable, I don’t think the one I’ve been eating has all those aromatics. Any thoughts?

avatar Caterina Borg, Good Food Gourmet May 26, 2013 at 4:49 p

Hi Ginger, thanks for your email! The traditional knefe made in the Middle Eat uses a cheese called Akkawi. It is available here and can be found in the international markets. You were right to ask for it to be heated, because when it is made with this cheese, it is served warm and the cheese gets very gooey, like mozzarella.The Middle Eastern recipes generally use just orange blossom water to make the syrup, so if you want to stick to something more traditional, that’s the way to go. They also add the orange food coloring to the knefe along with the butter, to give it that golden color that is also traditional. I like my soaking syrups to have a little more flavor, so I add the things I grew up using. I hope this helps you find the right recipe for you!

avatar Rrm May 20, 2016 at 2:52 p

What’s sweet butter? Just seen salted and unsalted butter

avatar Caterina Borg, Good Food Gourmet October 22, 2017 at 11:32 p

unsalted butter is sometimes called sweet butter

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