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Knafeh, a Levantine pastry staple

Imagine a dessert that perfectly balances crunchy and soft, sweet and cheesy. That’s knafeh for you!

At its heart, knafeh is a luscious, cheese-based dessert, ingeniously hidden under a layer of crispy, golden shredded phyllo dough or semolina. This delightful concoction is soaked in a sweet, rosewater or orange blossom-infused syrup, creating an irresistible aroma that beckons from streets and bakeries. Often crowned with a sprinkle of crushed pistachios. A real feast of the senses!

Historical accounts suggest that knafeh was first concocted in the kitchens of the Fatimid Caliphate, as a hearty, energizing start to the day during the fasting month of Ramadan. In Fatimid Cairo, Qatayef, imported from Baghdad, were placed on top of each other and made in lozenge form. Fatimid Egyptians would call this kenefiten, which is a word believed to have been a loan from Ancient Egyptian language which means “a kind of loaves” according to Sohair S. Ahmed’s collection of title professions in the Coptic Language. As with many great dishes, knafeh’s journey through time and space has led to a delightful variety of interpretations. In Cairo itself, the dish continued to evolve beyond its original form, and became a separate dessert from Qatayef under the Ayyubid and Mamluk eras. Later on, the dessert spread across the Levant, from the streets of Nablus in Palestine, famed for its Knafeh Nabulsiyyeh, to Beirut, where people consume it in a sandwich format. Specifically in Nablus, in Palestine, the Knafeh dessert was made with readily available ingredients, which democratized the dessert. 


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How to make the perfect Knafeh?

To create this delightful dessert, start with a base made from either thinly shredded phyllo dough or finely ground semolina, laid out in a buttered baking dish to form a crisp foundation. For the filling, a generous layer of unsalted cheese—traditionally Nabulsi or Akkawi—is soaked to remove excess saltiness before being spread evenly over the base, offering a creamy contrast to the crunchy layer beneath. Cover this with another layer of phyllo or semolina, pressing down gently to encase the cheese in a snug sandwich. Bake in a preheated oven until the knafeh turns a golden hue and achieves a crisp texture, signaling its readiness. The finale involves drizzling a sweet syrup made from sugar, water, lemon juice, and a splash of rose or orange blossom water over the hot knafeh, allowing it to absorb the fragrant sweetness. Finally, garnish with crushed pistachios and a sprinkle of ground cardamom or cinnamon for a nutty crunch and an extra layer of flavor, and serve warm to unveil a dessert that sings with flavor.

See also

3 Middle Eastern comfort foods to make during these troubled times

Published on 22 February 2024

#Middle East