On Arabic Sweets and the Middle East: Kunafa and the Secret Recipe!

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I had been in Jordan for several weeks and my love affair with Arabian sweets had reached a lofty peak. In fact, I would begin and end each day with a platter of pastries, smothered in honeys and syrups that would flood through heaps of pistachios on my plate.

Then it happened… I voraciously reached junkie status. More, more. Never enough! Every bakery that caught my sight was fair game,  out for a greater high, exploring the labyrinthine neighborhoods for the more legendary bakeries. But it was in Wadi Musa where my friend, Khaleed, led me right into the snare of Kanafeh.

An unmarked door led to an unnamed bakery where, despite the raging 100f degree day, a father and son were cheerfully slaving away, racking out sheets of pastries. They were using round, shallow pans and alchemy to produce what many call “Arabian cheesecake”.

This “cheesecake” was Kanafehe

A definitive oxymoron- soft and crunchy, sweet’n’salty, cheesy, gooey and crispy. All neatly encased in a glaze of simple syrup and rose water. Good enough to make one prostrate in reverence to the baker.

The ingredients are few yet they lend themselves to an endless array of pastries. We all know and love baklava but it wasn’t until I discovered Kanafeh that the Arabian culture opened up before me, so delicate and sweet behind that mysterious veil.

Now, please excuse this appauling photograph…

…but 1879!!!

Knafa, Kanafeh, Kunafa? Whatever it is… Tel Aviv, Israel

Let’s just say there’s no right/wrong way to spell it- “A rose by any other name” and all that-

Kanafeh in Ramallah, Palestine


Kanafeh and assorted pastries in Wadi Musa (Jordan)

There are three variants of kanafeh but in this recipe we’ll focus on khishnah (rough Kunafa)


  • 1 Package- Kataifi Pastry (kataifi is something like spun phyllo. Rather than laid out in thin sheets, it is processed in a way that produces vermicelli-like noodles. Check out this great video to see how it’s made)
  • 1 cup- Ghee
  • 2 cups- Akkawi cheese (you can substitute with mozzarella)

Simple Syrup

  • 1 cup- water
  • 1 1/2 cup- sugar
  • 2 tbsp- Rose water (or orange blossom water)
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice

Optional Toppings

  • Pistachios (crushed)
  • Almonds (whole or crushed)
  • Whatever else catches your fancy (if you dare stray from pistachios…)

As with all recipes- preheat your oven (350f/180c)

Prepare the simple syrup (so that it can cool entirely before the kanafeh is finished) by mixing the water and sugar in a pot- bring to a boil. Add the lemon juice and continue boiling for 10 minutes or until the mixture has thickened. Promptly remove the syrup and allow to cool for several minutes. Then add the rose water, or orange blossom water.

At this time, you’ll want to begin shredding the kataifi. This is best done with a food processor but can be achieved by hand. As packaged, kataifi comes in endless noodles and you’ll need to shred them further- so that the average noodle is around one inch in length.


Once you have the noodles at the right size, place the kataifi in a large mixing bowl and gently incorporate the melted ghee (clarified butter.)

As the noodles set, begin the process of cutting down the cheese, or even shredding it if possible. I’ve experimented with many cheeses, some sweeter, some saltier, and there’s no rule for what you use. Just be sure to have 2 cups of a quality melting cheese to your liking either shredded or cut in long, narrow strips.

Taking a 9×13 pan, spread out a generous layer of the processed kataifi (about 2/3 of your noodles). Press the noodles firmly into the pan working it into a flat, even surface so that you can then evenly distribute the cheese, all of the cheese.

Follow the cheese with the remaining kataifi and, again, pack the noodles into the cheese, evenly.

With the oven heated, cook the kanafeh until the noodles have become a golden brown (around 10-15 mins)

Once the kanafeh has baked through you’ll want to allow it to cool for 10 mins

At this point, the kanafeh should have become more firm and set into its cheesy, sexy self.

Now, carefully place a cookie sheet atop the baking dish with the kanafeh and invert the pan so that the kanafeh is now on the cookie sheet.

Litter the surface with crushed pistachios and drown your darling with the simple syrup/rose water concoction.


OK, so the example given below, about that. I had a tough time finding kataifi, so I substituted the noodles for simple phyllo sheets… no harm done. Yet, I will admit that iteration does neglect all the pleasing textures that comes along with kataifi. However, i’ll take what I can get. So get creative.




So, any takers?




19 thoughts on “On Arabic Sweets and the Middle East: Kunafa and the Secret Recipe!

  1. I spent years in Turkey and künefe is one of my favorite desserts! There it’s more like a flat round cake of shredded wheat with a layer of melty cheese in the middle, all drenched in light syrup. Restaurants always make it to order, meaning it’s a bit of a wait but always comes out hot and crispy and melty and sweet and incredible. Well worth the wait.

    Thanks for this post! It’s cool to see all the different variations that are out there.



  2. I used to live in Berlin near a part of the city that is home to a large Turkish population. My host father introduced me to kanafeh, and I literally could never get enough (and it is probably to blame for the weight I gained that year)! Reading this post just made me drool. Thanks for the bringing back such good memories!


  3. Nicholas,

    I am glad I found this blog.
    I appreciate you for informing people about the beautiful cultures of the Middle East at a time all American Media offers is the violence and wars going on in that part of the world.
    There is so much to learn, see, and taste over there.
    I applaud you for your courage and curiosity.
    I am looking forward to reading your stories as you post throughout your journey.

    If there is such a thing, I am your new biggest fan.




    1. Woo! Haha, isn’t it too easy to let leftover phyllo go to waste? I always wind up with a few sheets too many. And, you know what, throw some mozzarella, nuts, and honey over and in-between the sheets for a quick kanafeh-esque fix. Don’t worry about the syrup, just load on the honey. Then bake it for several minutes. Not quite the same, but equally satisfying 😉


  4. Omg this post looks sooo delicious, I could eat the photos! Great post! I just discovered something else awesome they do here in egypt with kunafa – its the top and bottom layer for galaktoboureko! I’m totally adicted, lol


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