This Kunafa recipe is going to not only introduce you to the BEST middle eastern dessert ever, but also show you how incredibly EASY it is to make! Kunafa (or sometimes pronounced knafeh) comes together in under 30 minutes and it is an impressive dessert to serve to anyone. Stay with me and I'll walk you through it!
What is Kunafa?
First things first... what is it even? Kunafa is made from Kataifi which is shredded phyllo dough. This shredded dough is spread onto a pan and stuffed with either cheese or ashta (thickened cream), baked, then drizzled with simple syrup and garnished with pistachios. It's a crunchy, sweet, cheesy, creamy dessert. I'm sure most people have tried it at a restaurant, and not many people realize just how simple it is to make at home. It's typically served during celebrations and during Ramadan, alongside other classic desserts such as Luqiamt, Znoud El Sit, and Namoura.
Kataifi dough is also used in various other desserts like baklava, and you can typically find it in the frozen section of your local middle eastern shop. There's a photo of it below to help you spot it!
Now Kunafa comes in various different forms and its a dish that's been around for centuries, enjoyed in numerous Arabic and middle eastern countries like Turkey. Firstly, the stuffing can be either cheese or cream (ashta). And secondly, it is made with either kataifi (the more popular version) or a semolina based dough. The semolina dough, which has a smooth texture, is referred to as Knafeh Na'ameh and it originates from the city of Nablus in Palestine.
The version in this recipe is the most classic type of kunafa, but using Mozzarella cheese instead of Akawi cheese which is typically used in Arabic countries. It's also the easiest version so this is where you want to start!
Ingredients you’ll need to make this recipe
The main "unusual" ingredient is Kataifi dough, which is shredded phyllo dough. Its typically found in the frozen section of your local middle eastern shop.
You also need mozzarella cheese with at least 50% moisture content. Don't buy the low moisture blocks of cheese. You want the fresher circular one because it has a lot less salt, and you don't need to soak it. Traditionally, Akawi cheese is used, and it is a very salty cheese so it requires soaking for hours to get rid of the salt. It's also not as stretchy as mozzarella, which is why I don't use it.
Finally, the last ingredient that is optional but totally worth it is a can of thick cream. I mix this cream with the cheese to add a lot more creaminess and decadence. Highly recommended if you can get your hands on it! You can see a few brands below that I tend to use.
How to make this recipe
Make your simple syrup and set it aside to cool. For the Kunafa, start by either grating or chopping up the cheese into small cubes. Then mix it with the can of thick cream and set aside.
Next, prepare your kataifi dough. If it is frozen, make sure that you thaw it overnight in the fridge, and take it out an hour or so before you plan to use it. Open the packaging and break it up using your hand and place it in a food processor. Whizz it a few times until it's finely shredded.
If you don't have a food processor, you can also shred it with your hand. Pour the melted butter on top and use your hands to massage the butter into every strand of dough. Make sure you fully saturate it and incorporate it well! This will ensure it gets extra crispy.
Next, brush your pan with some of the melted butter and pack it with half of the kataifi dough. I used a 9 inch pan for this recipe; you can use a slightly larger pan and your kunafa will just be less thick, which is fine. Use the back of a cup to really pack in the dough and bring it up along the sides so it forms an edge. Then, spoon in the cheese and cream mixture and evenly spread it out.
Finally, spread over the rest of the kataifi dough to cover the cheese completely and press it down lightly. Bake it in a preheated oven at 350F for about 40-50 minutes, until the edges and top are deeply golden. To serve, flip it over onto a serving platter, drizzle with simple syrup and garnish with crushed pistachios.
Mini Kunafa or Kunafa Cupcakes
If you want to make these super adorable mini kunafa, you simply follow the exact same recipe but just use a muffin tin and make individual ones. This recipe would make roughly 12 pieces. They're great for smaller gatherings and they would also need less baking time.
This specific recipe ended up making me a 9 inch large kunafa on the thick end (see picture), as well as 6 individual muffin sized ones. You'll have to think about your preference here - I like a good amount of pastry so I can feel the crunch, with a good amount of cheese inside. Some people like it really thin with a lot of cheese.
You can make the same amount as me (9 inch one and 6 small ones), or you can use a larger 12 inch circular sheet pan to make one big one. If you don't have a larger circular pan, you can also use a rectangular pan.
FAQs and Expert Tips
What does Kunafa Taste like? It has a crunchy exterior, with a gooey and cheese interior. It'll be really cheesy and stretchy when you break into it, drenched in a sweet sugar syrup. So basically it tastes like heaven.
How is Kunafa served? Kunafa is typically served either in its own baking sheet or flipped onto a serving platter, with lots of simple syrup drizzled on top and garnished with pistachios. It is also served with extra syrup on the side for those who like it extra sweet. You cut up into smaller square or triangular slices and serve onto individual platters.
Where can I buy Kataifi pastry? Kataifi dough is not typically found at mainstream supermarkets. You would have to visit your local Middle Eastern shop and look for it in the freezer aisle - you will definitely find it there.
Other dessert recipes you will love
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Crispy Kunafa with Mozzarella Cheese (Easy!)
For the Simple Syrup
- 2 ½ cups sugar
- 1 ¼ cups water
- 1 tablespoon rose water or orange blossom water optional
- 1 squeeze lemon juice
For the Kunafa
- 454 g Kataifi Dough (shredded phyllo dough)
- 1 cup melted butter
- 600 g mozzarella cheese, high moisture at least 50%
- 170 ml thick cream (see photos in post)
- ½ cup crushed pistachios to garnish
- 2 tablespoons dry rose petals for garnish optional
For the simple syrup
- In a medium saucepan, combine the water, sugar and squeeze of lemon and place on high heat. Allow it to come to a boil
- Once it boils, lower heat to medium and allow it to simmer for 10 minutes then turn off the heat. It should have a runny syrup consistency (not too thick). Add the tablespoon of rose water at the end if using, and allow it to cool to room temperature on the counter
For the Kunafa
- Take out the frozen kataifi dough and leave it to thaw for an hour or so on the counter. Preheat oven to 350F
- Shred the cheese or cut it up into small cubes, and mix it with the thick cream
- Break up the kataifi dough and place it in a food processor. Whiz it for a few seconds until it is broken up into small pieces. If you don't own a food processor, you can do this with your hands or by cutting it up using a knife.
- Place the shredded kataifi dough in a bowl and pour over the melted butter. Using your hands, massage the butter into the dough making sure you saturate every strand. The better you incorporate it, the more evenly crispy it will be
- Brush the bottom of your pan with a bit of butter. Use a 12 inch pan for one large one or you can make 2x 9 inch ones. (see notes)
- Take half of the kataifi dough and pack it into the bottom of the pan using the flat bottom of a cup. Pack it to form a slight edge around the perimeter
- Spoon the cheese mixture inside and spread it out evenly
- Take the remaining kataifi dough and spread it over the cheese, covering it all and packing it in lightly
- Bake for 40-50 minutes or until the outside is deeply golden and crispy
- Immediately drizzle the kunafa with about ¾ of the simple syrup, ensuring you cover the full surface. Reserve some syrup to the side for anyone who wants extra
- Allow it to cool and soak the syrup for 10 minutes or so, then invert it onto a serving platter (you can also keep it in the tray), garnish with pistachios, cut into pieces and serve
- This recipe can make 2x 9" kunafas or one larger 12" one. You can also make one 9" one and 6 mini kunafa using a muffin tin
- Be sure to reserve some of the syrup and not use it all. Some people don't like it too sweet and the idea is that people can add more to their liking
- Depending on your oven, if you start to notice that the top is browning too fast and the edges are still not golden, you can place a small piece of aluminium foil in the middle to cover it while the rest of it crisps up