Kunafa is a rich and creamy Arab dessert that dates back to the Ottoman Empire. However, there are several stories concerning the origin of kunafa. After the dessert become famous through the Turkish Ottomans, the Palestinians improved on the recipe by using quality ingredients and garnishing the dessert with crushed pistachios. It is also said to have originated in Egypt, where the Fatmid princes ate the dish in order to be full and sustained during times of fasting.
Kunafa is also a popular dessert during Ramadan, because it supplies the body with sugars that are necessary to sustain a fast while providing the system with necessary energy. It tastes delicious when you eat the sweet kunafa with a strong cup of good quality إيلي coffee to balance the taste. The mild taste of the pastry also makes it a favorite among people who don’t like their desserts overly sugary. The dish is said to have been a favorite of Mouawiyah bin Abi Sufian when he was the ruler of Damascus. Kunafa kept him full during the fast, which made it popular with the people he was ruling as well. The dessert often referred to as the Middle Eastern cheesecake.
The dessert is made from semolina dough and thin phyllo pastry that resembles noodles. Kunafa is stuffed with a soft white cheese, often Nabulsi, and has a crunchy outer shell that is saturated with sweet syrup. While the kunafa is often served plain, a number of Middle Eastern cooks are now adding mangoes to the dessert for even more refreshing sweetness.
To make kunafa, you’ll need:
1 kunafa pastry dough (this can be found in Middle Eastern and Greek markets)
1/2 lb of melted butter
1 1/2 cups of sugar
1 cup of water
juice of half a lemon
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract or rosewater
1/4 cup of blanched whole almonds
1/2 cup of golden raisins
2 cups of coarsely chopped walnuts
2 1/2 tablespoons of sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 lb of soft ricotta cheese (this is an alternative filling to be used instead of the nuts, raisins and cinnamon)
butter (for covering the pan)
In a saucepan on medium high heat and add water, 1 1/2 cups of sugar and lemon juice. Stir to make sure that the mixture is combined. Remove from the heat and let the syrup cool, then add the vanilla or rosewater.
Preheat an oven to 350 degrees and spread butter on a 12-inch round cake pan that is 2 inches high.
Loosen the pastry in a large bowl. Mix the pastry well with 1/2 pound of melted butter. In the cake pan, place the almonds in a decorative pattern of your choice. This makes the dessert even more beautiful to look at. Cover the almonds with half of the pastry and press it down lightly.
If you’re using ricotta cheese, spread this evenly over the pastry, and cover with the remaining half of the pastry. Press it down again gently.
If you’re using walnuts or raisins, sprinkle these over the pastry evenly. Sprinkle the dessert with sugar and cinnamon. Cover the entire dessert with the remaining half of the pastry.
Bake the dessert until its light golden brown, or for about 40 minutes. Keep in mind that the reverse side of the kunafa will be slightly darker when you turn it over after baking.
Once the pastry comes out of the oven, pour cold sugar syrup over the kunafa evenly. Let the pastry completely cool to room temperature. Turn the pastry over onto a serving plate. However, if you’re using ricotta cheese for the filling, kunafa should be served hot or warm. For the ricotta filling, it may be too difficult to invert the kunafa, so simply cut it like a cheesecake and serve. Use a cake cutter to cut the pastry into even pieces, since a knife may cause the kunafa to crumble too easily.
This dish can be served alone, but you can also add garnishes to make the dessert even more delicious. Fresh fruit like berries and mango can be served with the kunafa, or you can make a cream made from double whipping cream and a little sugar. It’s also a good idea to have some extra simple syrup on hand in case your friends and family want the dessert to be a little sweeter. The kunafa will keep for a few days when refrigerated, so you can enjoy the leftovers.