Kunefeh, knafeh, kunafa — it can be spelled many different ways, but it all adds up to magic.
This is a dairy dessert, made with butter, cream and cheese, and scented with rose water and orange blossom water. Perfumed desserts are common in the Middle East and in Northern Africa. I adore them and their very exotic flavors, but if you are not accustomed to the taste, feel free to use lesser amounts of the rose and orange blossom water.
This dessert is perfect to serve for Shavuot and at life cycle events, for a brit milah or a bar or bat mitzvah. I won’t lie to you: It’s often saved for holidays because it takes time to prepare.
There are four main steps before the kunefeh is pieced together, baked and drenched in sugar syrup: making the simple sugar syrup; whisking up a semolina pudding; mixing a cheese filling; and preparing the pastry dough.
The recipe can be prepared a day in advance and baked right before serving. It is best served hot from the oven so that the cheese center is melted.
I suggest gathering all of the ingredients at once, because several of them are used in more than one step.
Simple Sugar Syrup:
2 cups white sugar
2 cups water
Juice from half a lemon
1 tablespoon rose water
1 tablespoon orange blossom water
Add the sugar, water and lemon juice to a sauce pan and bring to a soft boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat and let simmer on low for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, stir in the rose water and orange blossom water and set aside.
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 tablespoons white sugar
½ tablespoon rose water
Combine in bowl and set aside.
1 ½ cups whole milk
¾ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons white sugar
3 tablespoons fine semolina
1 teaspoon corn or potato starch, dissolved in 1 teaspoon of water
Put 1 teaspoon of water in a small glass or bowl, and stir in the starch until it is dissolved.
Over medium heat, combine the milk, cream, sugar and semolina flour, whisking together until combined. Add in the starch mixture and stir. Slowly bring the pudding to a soft boil, then reduce the heat, whisking constantly for about 3 minutes, being careful not to let it scald. Remove from heat and set aside.
1 1-pound package of frozen kataifi shredded pastry dough, thawed (available in Middle Eastern and Greek markets)
2 sticks melted butter, or 1 cup ghee
⅓ cup unsalted ground pistachios for garnishing
Thaw the kataifi pastry dough in the refrigerator overnight, or on the counter for several hours at room temperature.
Melt the butter over low heat and pour it through a strainer draped with cheesecloth to remove all of the milk solids. Strain the butter immediately into a Pyrex after it is melted, and set aside.
Place the kataifi, which looks like angel hair pasta, into an extra-large bowl. Slowly pull the pastry apart (it will almost triple in size). Once it’s fluffed up, pour the melted butter over it and mix well with your hands. Some people prefer to use gloves during this process, but I like to feel the pastry so that I know it is mixed well. This step can take 4-5 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400 F, and place the wire rack in the middle position.
Grease a large 12-inch round metal cake pan with butter, or two 8-inch metal cake pans. If you’re not expecting a large crowd, it’s best to prepare two desserts using the 8-inch pans, freezing one before baking it. When you need it, just thaw and bake. If you don’t have either size of the round pans, you can use a 9×13-inch rectangular glass baking dish.
Put about ⅔ of the pastry mixture into the greased pan, spreading it evenly across the bottom and completely up the sides of the pan. I use the bottom of a measuring cup or a glass and push it down on the sides and the bottom to really compact the pastry and to keep the filling in place.
Pour in half of the pudding mixture, smoothing it evenly out with a rubber spatula, then sprinkle the cheese mixture evenly across the pudding.
Cover the cheese mixture with the remaining half of the pudding mixture, then sprinkle the remaining pastry over the top.
Gently press down the top pastry layer with the glass or measuring cup. If you spread the pastry all the way up the side of the pan, use your fingers to fold it down over the top, combining it with the layer that you just sprinkled. (Imagine closing the top of an envelope down to seal it — you will do the same thing with the pastry dough.)
If using a 12-inch or rectangular pan, bake for about 50 minutes, or until golden brown. If using an 8-inch pan, bake for 40-45 minutes.
Remove from the oven and pour about ⅔ of the syrup evenly over the pastry.
Cover the pan of pastry with a large plate, platter or cookie sheet.
Using oven mitts to protect yourself from a burn, quickly turn over the pastry so that it falls out onto the plate.
Pour out the remaining syrup, which will well up around the sides a bit (if it looks very syrupy, you can reserve some of it for a later use).
Serve while warm, using a sharp knife and a pastry server. You can garnish with ground pistachios before serving.
This recipe is complicated, but is truly worth the time and effort to surprise your guests with something so uncommon and exceptional. Enjoy! PJC
Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.