Kanafeh

1 hour
30 minutes
1 hour 30 minutes
4 to 6
Kanafeh is a traditional Palestinian dessert made with a cheese filling but the flavor profile is sweet, not savory! It is the most delicious dessert loved all across the Arab world with a crispy exterior and creamy interior, all covered in a sweet floral syrup!
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Kanafeh

Kanafeh is a traditional Palestinian dessert made with a cheese filling but the flavor profile is sweet, not savory! It is the most delicious dessert loved all across the Arab world with a crispy exterior and creamy interior, all covered in a sweet floral syrup!

Thank you to my friend Rayyan Aburajab’s mom for teaching me how to make kanafeh using a mix of ashta and sweet cheese back when I was in college years ago!

What is Kanafeh?

Kanafeh might be the most popular dessert in the Arab world. Everyone loves it and there are so many variations when it comes to this dessert across different countires so you’re bound to find a version you like. The premise of this dish is that it’s a crispy dough on the exterior with a creamy and/or cheesy filling in the center and then soaked in a sweet simple syrup. You’ll typically find ground pistachios on top for some color, texture, and taste. If you have never heard of this dessert before, you might be like, wait cheese in a dessert? But after one bite, all your questions will fade away! It is sweet NOT savory!

There are two types of kanafeh in Palestine, one is called Kishneh and the other is called Na’ameh. Kishneh is the type we made in this recipe and my favorite kind using shredded phyllo dough. It’s super crunchy and flakey. Kanafeh na’ameh, which just translates to smooth kanafeh, is made using a ground semolina dough which also still turns out crunchy. I have never made it the na’ameh way but I have eaten it several times. Fufu’s Kitchen, a Palestinian blogger, has a recipe for it if you’d like to try this method too!

For the filling, there are also some variations! Some prefer a more cheesy texture, even getting a big cheese pull by using Nabulsi cheese, mozzarella cheese, or sweet cheese. Kanafeh is said to have originiated from the city of Nablus and they used Nabulsi cheese to make it. Some prefer it more creamy, using only ashta which is like a pudding/custard. The way I learned how to make it from my friend Rayyan’s mom is using a mix of both ashta and sweet cheese and it is my favorite way to make it.

In Palestine, kanafeh varies from family to family based on their preference for the more fine dough or more flakey phyllo.

“People in Nablus eat it inside a pita bread pocket! I was raised in the West Bank so we just ate it with a fork. There’s a fun “debate” among Palestinians about whether it’s pronounced Knafah or chnafah lol but it’s knafah with a K if anyone asks you.”

“Every Palestinian loves it… we serve it in weddings and events and it is well known to the city of Nablus… they even eat it in sandwiches in Nablus!”

My mom’s from Gaza and Gaza has a very special unique kind of knafeh. Walnut knafeh. It tastes amazing and only Gaza makes it that way!

There this ongoing (friendly) war about whether the kheshneh (tough خشنة) or naameh (smooth ناعمة) is the true knafeh. Word on the street is that city people (مدنيين) prefer kheshneh and village people (فلح) prefer naameh, which just fuels the eternal argument of who is better: villagers or city folk

Making the Ashta

Ashta is like a custard or thick cream used in a lot of Arab/Middle Eastern desserts such as kanafa. It’s absolutely delicious and this recipe for ashta is the best I ever had. Definitely do not buy it premade from the store. You have to make it fresh to have the right consistency for this recipe and it also just tastes a million times better. I promise it’s also really easy. Once you become a pro at making it, you’ll be able to make so many other desserts that require it.

HERE ARE THE INGREDIENTS YOU WILL NEED:

  • heavy whipping cream
  • whole milk
  • white sugar
  • cornstarch
  • all-purpose flour
  • vanilla extract

To a small pot over medium heat, add the heavy cream, milk, sugar, cornstarch, all-purpose flour, and vanilla. Whisk together continuously so there are no clumps and bring to a boil. Drop the heat to low and it will begin to thicken, just make sure to continuously whisk and scrape the sides of the pot as well as the bottom to avoid clumping. Once it has a thick consistency, take off the heat and transfer to a bowl. Cover the top with Saran Wrap and pop it in the fridge to cool down.

You can also buy ashta from the store instead of making it from scratch. They’re sold in cans at a lot of Middle Eastern grocery stores but I prefer to make it from scratch because the flavor and consistency are better.

The Shredded Phyllo

The easiest part of this recipe is prepping the phyllo. You can buy shredded phyllo dough from a Middle Eastern grocery store or even some supermarkets. The most popular brand is called Apollo.

Allow the shredded phyllo dough to thaw out and then add the phyllo to a food processor to chop it up into smaller sections. Make sure not to chop it up too much, you don’t want it too small, the perfect length is 1.5 to 2 inches long. You can also just use scissors to chop it up smaller.

NOTE: If you are using a food processor, break up the phyllo dough into three different sections. Otherwise, it will not cut up evenly. Work in smaller batches.

Add the chopped phyllo dough to a mixing bowl and combine with melted ghee or melted unsalted butter. If you would like the kanafeh to have an orange color, you can add kanafeh dye which you also can find at Middle Eastern grocery stores. A little goes a long way. If you’d like more of a golden/yellow color, do not add the dye.

The Simple Syrup

A lot of Arab sweets are covered in a simple syrup so it’s a really good recipe to learn from kanafeh and baklawa to katayef and warbat. The list goes on and go. The best part is it’s really easy to make!

YOU ONLY NEED THREE INGREDIENTS:
  • water
  • granulated white sugar
  • orange blossom water

Just bring it all to a boil in a pot until the sugar is completely dissolved and then simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and allow it to cool to room temperature.

Assembly and Cooking

Now that all the components are prepared, it’s time to assemble and cook the kanafeh.

You can use any large circular tray to make the kanafeh and you can also make it in the oven. This is how I typically make it but I recently wanted to try making it over the stove in these trays specifically made for kanafeh and it was so fun to make it with this method.

Start by greasing whatever tray you’re using really well all over and even on the sides. Then add the shredded phyllo that’s been mixed with ghee or melted butter and press down into the pan, covering the bottom and the sides. The layer does not need to be thick, just fully covered.

Add a good amount of the ashta and sweet cheese filling on top and then cover the top completely with more of the shredded phyllo.

Transfer over an open flame or if you have an induction top like me, just use a heat diffuser plate. Cook on medium heat for 8 to 9 minutes on one side until golden and crispy. This next step can be a bit tricky. Using another tray that is also greased, line the trays up and flip over carefully. Allow the other side to get golden, toasty, and bubbly. Take off the heat and immediately add syrup on top, covering the whole surface. Feel free to add as little or as much syrup as you want depending on how sweet you like it. Also, know that you can add more syrup after you cut each slice.

Garnish with chopped pistachios and rose petals on top, cut into individual slices, and enjoy!

If you tried this recipe and loved it, drop by down below and let me know how you liked it with a rating and comment! Feel free to also leave a question there about this recipe and I’ll get right back to it.

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Kanafeh

Kanafeh is a traditional Palestinian dessert made with a cheese filling but the flavor profile is sweet, not savory! It is the most delicious dessert loved all across the Arab world with a crispy exterior and creamy interior, all covered in a sweet floral syrup!

Kanafeh is a traditional Palestinian dessert made with a cheese filling but the flavor profile is sweet, not savory! It is the most delicious dessert loved all across the Arab world with a crispy exterior and creamy interior, all covered in a sweet floral syrup!

1 hour
30 minutes
1 hour 30 minutes
4 to 6

Ingredients

ASHTA
  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/4 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
FILLING
  • 8 ounces crumbled sweet cheese
  • 1 1/2 cup ashta
SIMPLE SYRUP
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
SHREDDED PHYLLO
  • 12 oz shredded phyllo dough about 4-5 cups
  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter or ghee melted
  • 1/4 teaspoon kanafa dye optional
FOR ASSEMBLY
  • ghee or butter, for brushing pans
  • chopped pistachios, optional
  • dried rose petals

Instructions

MAKE THE ASHTA
  1. To a small pot over medium heat, add the heavy cream, milk, sugar, cornstarch, all-purpose flour, and vanilla extract.
  2. Whisk continuously and bring to a boil. Once bubbling, reduce the heat, bring to a simmer, and continuously whisk so it doesn't become clumpy until it thickens up.
  3. Once thick, transfer to a bowl and cover the top with Saran Wrap, making sure it's touching the cream. Transfer to the fridge to cool down.
  4. When it cools, add the crumbled sweet cheese to the ashta and mix it all together. Set aside.
MAKE THE SIMPLE SYRUP
  1. While the ashta cools down, make the simple syrup. In a pot over medium heat add the water, sugar, and orange blossom water.
  2. Bring to a boil so all the sugar is dissolved and then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool to room temperature so it thickens up a bit more.
PHYLLO
  1. In a food processor, pulse phyllo dough until shredded into short pieces. Do not over-pulse. Transfer to a large bowl.
  2. Melt the butter in a small bowl and add the kanafa dye. Whisk and pour on top of the shredded phyllo dough. Mix very well to make sure all the shredded phyllo is coated in the butter evenly.
ASSEMBLY AND COOKING
  1. Prepare the kanafeh pans by brushing generously with ghee or melted unsalted butter.
  2. Cover the whole bottom and sides with the shredded phyllo mix.
  3. Add a generous amount of the cheese and ashta mix on top and then cover completely with the shredded phyllo mix.
  4. Transfer over a preheated flame or flat stove top. You may need a plate for heat transfer if you have a flat stove stop.
  5. Cook for 8 to 9 minutes until golden on one side. USe another tray that is buttered as well to flip over. Cook the other side for 8 to 9 minutes until toasted and bubbly as well.
  6. Take off the heat, cover in simple syrup, and garnish with pistachios and rose petals to enjoy!
Tips & Notes
The recipe makes more ashta than called for so you can either half it or make more filling to make more kanafeh.
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