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Kanafeh is a syrup-soaked phyllo dessert found throughout the Middle East, although folks seem to be divided over exactly what it is (and how to spell it). It starts with shredded phyllo, the ingredient for which the dish is named, but the filling (and spelling) varies from place to place. In Lebanon, you can find kunafeh filled with ashta, a floral-scented clotted cream, while in Palestine the knafeh is stuffed with local brined nablusi cheese instead. Some regions make a thick semolina pudding to fill the phyllo layers, while others include nuts for added crunch. The one thing that the best kanafeh all have in common is that they're a study in contrasts—crunchy phyllo against the creamy filling, sweet syrup balancing the salty cheese, and a stunning dessert made with minimal effort.
This dessert is ideal for all the non-pastry people out there, as it doesn't require any special equipment and isn't particularly challenging technically, but it's still a decadent showstopper. For my version, I generously coat shredded phyllo threads in nutty ghee before using it to sandwich a mixture of stretchy cheese and clotted cream. The savory cheese mellows the sweetness of the dish, while adding chewy texture to contrast the phyllo’s crunch. It’s baked in cast iron until the phyllo is evenly browned and crisped through, then covered in an orange blossom syrup, sprinkled with Sicilian pistachios, and served warm. It comes together to become a dessert you need to sit down for, so rich and sweet it’s almost immoral.
I start with the filling, which is a dead-simple mixture of clotted cream and a mild, stretchy cheese. I was lucky enough to find a Middle Eastern cheese called akkawi, but mozzarella, Monterey jack, or cheese curds work just as well. Each region uses their local cheese for the filling in kanafeh, so I think it’s perfectly in line with tradition to use what’s accessible to you. I like to include some clotted cream in the filling for the smooth texture it adds, but you can substitute tangy crème fraîche or cream cheese if that’s what you've got around.
The crust is made with shredded phyllo, which is a pastry that resembles angel hair pasta or vermicelli noodles. It’s similar to phyllo sheets in function; it quickly dries out if exposed to air and requires some help from fat in order to bake up light and crisp. It's sold in the freezer section in one-pound boxes next to the phyllo sheets and similarly requires an overnight thaw in the refrigerator before use. It can be utilized just as phyllo sheets, but it offers up a heartier crunch and unique texture.
I cut the shredded phyllo crosswise into shorter lengths before transferring it to a bowl to toss it with melted ghee. The strands come packed tightly together, so it’s vital to take the time to separate them and coat each shred with ghee. I find it easiest to do this with a gentle rubbing motion between my palms, fluffing the strands and distributing the ghee. Ghee is a South Asian clarified butter, where the milk solids are allowed to brown and infuse the fat with nutty flavor before being strained off. Clarified butter or browned butter can be substituted in a pinch, but avoid whole melted butter. The small amount of water naturally contained in whole butter prevents the kanafeh from fully crisping through. Ghee, clarified butter, and browned butter have all had the water removed from them through melting and heating.
I next distribute half the shredded phyllo into a cast iron skillet and press it down into a tightly packed layer. Pressing the shredding phyllo into an even layer ensures direct contact with the pan for better browning and prevents cheese from seeping through the crust. The heavy gauge of a cast iron pan provides even heat, resulting in a thoroughly golden brown final pastry, so I can skip the red dye some recipes add to the phyllo for color. I then spread on the cheese mixture and top with the remaining phyllo, which is also firmly packed into an even layer.
While the kanafeh bakes, I simmer together a syrup made from sugar, water, and lemon juice, cooked to the soft-ball stage. Cooking the syrup to this stage ensures that enough moisture has been cooked off to create a thick syrup that doesn’t make the pastry feel wet or soggy. Aside from adding a bright flavor to the dish, the addition of lemon juice prevents crystallization. I then finish the syrup by stirring in rose and orange blossom water to give it a floral touch.
Once the kanafeh has baked crunchy and golden brown, I drizzle on one-third of the syrup. While still warm, I then invert it onto a serving plate and pour on the remaining syrup. I finish the pastry with toasted, chopped pistachios and serve right away while the filling is still warm and gooey. This dessert takes the sticky, crunchy, appeal of baklava and crams it full of salty cheese for a delicious kanafeh—regardless of how you spell it.