What is kanafeh?
Kanafeh is a Middle Eastern pastry made of kadaïf (more commonly called angel hair), akawi cheese and samneh or ghee (clarified butter). Once cooked, the kanafeh is drizzled with a rose water scented syrup and sprinkled with crushed pistachios or walnuts. Crispy on the outside and melting on the inside, this delicately scented dessert is a real treat and will make you travel to the Middle East from the first bite.
The sweet side of the dessert comes only from the thick rose-water syrup, which is drizzled on the kanafeh just before tasting. Doing it just before tasting makes it possible to dose the desired amount of syrup according to your taste for sugar. Rose water is a central ingredient of the recipe, bringing a lot of flavors and aromas to the pastry.
In the traditional recipe, a few drops of orange dye are used in the kadaïf and butter preparation to give it a beautiful bright color. Once cooked, the kanafeh is eaten immediately and always hot.
What is kadaïf?
Kadaïf dough (or ktaïf, kadaifi, kadayif) is a cousin of phyllo dough, consisting simply of water and wheat flour and prepared in the form of long half-cooked vermicelli. The word kadaïf normally refers to the dough, but can also apply to the whole dessert.
What is akkawi?
Akawi or akkawi is a cheese made from cow’s milk, but it can also be made with sheep’s milk or goat’s milk. This very salty cheese is commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine, for both savory dishes and pastries.
What are the origins of kanafeh?
Hugely popular in many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries for many centuries, it is difficult to trace the exact origins of knafeh. If this dessert is very common in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Israel or Algeria and Egypt, several books and culinary experts agree that the first kanafeh is of Syrian origin.
According to the legend, kanafeh was invented in Damascus in Syria in the 7th century by Mu’awiya I, the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. He would have asked his cook to prepare a dish rich enough to support the fasting period of Ramadan.
There are also traces of an ancient version of kanafi in a thirteenth-century medieval Andalusian cookbook called Kitab al-Tabikh. One of the recipes in the book called kunāfa describes a thin crepe stuffed with fresh cheese before being baked and drizzled with honey and rose water syrup.
Depending on the country, the word kanafeh can be written in many ways: knafeh, knefeh, konafa, kunafa, kunefe or kenafeh. The root of the name comes from the Arabic word “kanaf”, which literally means “to protect”, “to shelter”, probably a reference to the two layers of dough that contain the cheese inside.
The famous kanafeh from Nablus
Despite the Syrian origins of this pastry, it is the city of Nablus in the Palestinian Arab territories that is known worldwide as the cradle of knafeh.
The dessert is the pride of the people of this small town located two hours from Jerusalem and that most local pastry shops offer. Many large and old families of pastry chefs compete to claim the title of the best kanafeh in the city.
Variants of kanafeh in the Middle-East
Throughout centuries and different cultures, the authentic recipe for knafeh has been adapted and transformed many times. There are innumerable versions of this dessert today, depending on the country and the cafés and bakeries that serve it.
In Turkey, künefe is a candy baked in small individual metallic molds. Instead of akawi, this recipe uses dil peyniri, a Turkish cheese made from sheep’s and cow’s milk, which is quite stringy and unsalted. Turks like to accompany the künefe with kaymak, a kind of whipped cream.
In Lebanon, knefeh bi-jibn is a dessert made with wheat semolina and mozzarella, bathed in a syrup flavored with orange blossom. It is common in Lebanon to eat knefeh for breakfast with a sesame seed kaakeh, a traditional bread roll.
Finally, in Jordan, kanafa is prepared with a mixture of mozzarella and ricotta, giving the dessert a melting and creamy texture. A mixture of nuts, almonds and raisins is then spread on top.
- 8 oz. kadaïf angel hair
- 16 oz. akawi cheese
- ⅔ cup samneh ghee or clarified butter
- 3 oz. crushed pistachios
- ¼ teaspoon orange food coloring
- ½ cup water
- 1½ cup caster sugar
- 3 teaspoons rose water
- To desalt the cheese: Cut the akkawi cheese into slices (not too thin or too thick). Soak them in a large volume of water. Change the water very regularly. It must still be salty to prepare the knafeh.
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180°C).
- In a saucepan over low heat, melt the clarified butter with the food coloring.
Place the kadaïf in small amounts in a blender and pulse 3 or 4 times to disentangle and reduce their size.
- Transfer the kadaïf into a large bowl.
- Pour the melted clarified butter and stir with your hands so that all the angel hair are buttered.
- Line the bottom of a square, rectangular or round pan with just over half of the kadaif and butter mixture.
- Flatten with your hands in the bottom of the pan.
- Grate the cheese and cover the kadaïf with the cheese by pressing lightly.
- Cover with the rest of the kadaïf. Flatten with the hands so that it is leveled.
- Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the cake is lightly browned.
- While the cake is baking, prepare the syrup:
- Heat the sugar and water over low heat and leave on the heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.
- Add the rose water.
- Remove from heat and let cool.
When the kanafeh is out of the oven, drizzle the syrup over the kanafeh and sprinkle with crushed pistachios.
- Serve hot.