Kunafe Nabulsia ~ The Queen of Arabic Sweets

March 14th, 2012

If there’s one dessert that rules as the Queen of Arabic sweets, I would nominate Kunafe Nabulsia, the sticky pastry made of gooey sweet cheese sandwiched between layers of shredded kunafe pastry. This specialty from the Palestinian city of Nablus is prepared in enormous round trays, saturated with rose-scented syrup, cut into slabs and garnished with chopped pistachios.

In the Middle East, people don’t typically prepare kunafe at home. Kunafe is an occasion to go out. That’s how I first got to know it—in pastry shops in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, such as Al Jaffar & Sons pastry shop in the Old City.

And yet there are those who do make kunafe in their kitchen—typically Arabs in the diaspora, longing for home. So, I ate kunafe in Jerusalem, but learned to fully appreciate it in Seattle, where it’s lovingly prepared by homesick immigrants.

Last year, inspired by the photo and tips in the cookbook When Suzanne Cooks by Suzanne Husseini, I attempted to make kunafe again. And so, I’ve made it many times over the past year (always a big production) for house guests and dinner parties. Kunafe offers a “wow” factor to any celebration or meal, and it never fails to impress. Recently I made kunafe as the dessert for a good-bye dinner for a nephew and his family immigrating to Canada. As Palestinian immigrants, I suspect they will be making kunafe for themselves in Toronto one day.

While kunafe is my favorite Arabic sweet to eat, I confess, it can be a challenge to make. However, I believe I have worked through all the kinks that deter home cooks.

Things to know about making kunafe

Tools: Most recipes for homemade kunafe require a 30 cm (12 inch) round pan. However, I use a 15 inch deep-dish pizza pan from Crate & Barrel. Since the pan is a few inches bigger, the pastry comes out thinner and more like what’s found in pastry shops. You can also use a rectangular cookie sheet with sides.

You will need a serving tray that is the same shape and size as the baking pan—or slightly larger—to invert the pastry into. Most Arab bakers I know use two identical baking pans and flip the pastry from one pan to the other. You’ll also need a food processor and pastry brush.

Specialty ingredients: The cheese filling is what trips up most people. The standard cheese for kunafe is akawwi, a mild, slightly salty cheese that holds its shape when baked. Find akawwi in the deli or cheese aisle of most Arabic supermarkets. If you live outside the region, look for it in Middle Eastern grocery stores or substitute ricotta, which is softer, but still a good stand-in.

Whichever cheese you use, you’ll mix it with mozzarella, which gives the pastry its gooey quality so distinctive of kunafe. Fresh mozzarella is best, but any mozzarella will do. Most recipes call for a total of 1 kg (2.2 lbs.) cheese. I like to use a little less, as this also makes a thinner and more delicate kunafe.

Because it’s a sweet dessert, the mozzarella and akawwi cheese require desalting—a simple task of soaking it in water for a day. (No need to do this with ricotta).

The kunafe pastry comes shredded and looks like vermicelli. It’s readily available in the Middle East and sold in 500 g packages in the freezer section. In the US, look for it in specialty supermarkets or Middle Eastern grocery stores.

To give kunafe its traditional orange color, you’ll need orange food coloring—either drops, paste or a special power made just for kunafe. I’ve tried it all and I prefer using cake decorating paste. The orange coloring is worth the extra effort, as it gives kunafe its festive appearance which looks exquisite with the green pistachios on top.

Finally, this recipe requires scented simple syrup and clarified butter, both easily prepared at home.

Below is my recipe for this Queenly dessert.

Kunafe Nabulsia

Serves 8-10

Ingredients

700 g akkawi cheese (or substitute 500 g ricotta)

200 g mozzarella (if using ricotta, use 400 g mozzarella)

1 package (500 g) frozen kunafe pastry (thawed one hour on the counter)

1½ cups butter to make slightly more than 1 cup clarified butter, melted and hot

4 Tablespoons sugar

3 Tablespoons orange blossom water

4-8 drops orange food coloring (powder, paste or drops)

3 cups rose-scented simple syrup

½ cup ground pistachio, to garnish

Method

1. The day before, slice the akkawi and mozzarella cheese into thick slabs. In a plastic container, cover with water to soak overnight in the refrigerator to desalt the cheese. Change the water several times the first day.

2. Also in advance, prepare the rose-scented simple syrup so it’s completely chilled before the kunafe comes out of the oven.

3. About one hour before cooking, remove the kunafe pastry from the freezer to thaw on the counter. Make the clarified butter.

4. Prepare the pan—a 30 cm (12 inch) round pan or a 15-inch deep-dish pizza pan. Spread 4 Tablespoons of the clarified butter in the pan. Add the orange coloring a little at a time. Using a pastry brush, spread the butter and the coloring evenly all over the pan and up the sides.

5. Preheat the oven to 350° F (190° C).

6. Prepare the kunafe pastry. Remove from package and cut into four sections. In a food processor, gently grind one quarter of the thawed pastry at a time with a few pulses keeping it coarse.

7. Place pastry in a large bowl and gradually pour the remaining hot clarified butter over top. Use the full amount of butter or the pastry will be dry or stick to the pan. Using your fingers, mix in the butter to evenly coat the strands of pastry.

8. Drain the desalted cheese and pat dry with a dish towel. Grate cheeses into a large bowl. (If using ricotta, no need to grate.) Sprinkle the sugar and orange blossom water over the cheeses and gently mix together.

9. Layer the pastry. For the bottom layer, sprinkle handfuls of the buttered pastry and press into the prepared pan going slightly up the sides. Use approximately half the pastry mixture or a bit more to completely cover the pan. (This will be the top when the pastry is flipped.)

10. Add the cheese filling, spreading the cheese evenly and pressing to cover completely.

11. Cover with the remaining layer of pastry, evening it out and pressing gently.

12. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes until pastry becomes crisp and slightly golden.

13. Remove pastry from oven and give it a gentle shake. The kunafe will separate from the sides of the pan. If not, separate with a butter knife. The moment of truth: invert the hot kunafe onto a serving platter. As you flip it over, say bismillah (In the name of God).

14. The orange pastry should be slightly crisp. Pour the cold simple syrup over the hot pastry until the kunafe is saturated and glistening. Reserve the remaining syrup to serve in a small pitcher on the side.

15. Cut the kunafe into squares or diamonds, 2 inch x 2 inch or larger. Garnish with pistachio nuts and serve while still hot. Leftovers can be stored for up to four days in the refrigerator and warmed up in the oven or microwave.

 Question: What are your experiences with making or eating kanafe?

  1. Amanda
    March 15th, 2012 at 01:45 | #1

    I actually prefer the ones with the creamy filling, I dunno what they put in it but there’s definitely no mozzarella cheese in it. It tastes sweeter with the cream. =) do you know what they put in it?

  2. Tasqeen Akoo
    March 15th, 2012 at 05:43 | #3

    Holly, I absolutely LOVE your photographs! I always wondered about the orange coloring :) Thanks for sharing. Definitely making this today.

  3. March 15th, 2012 at 12:40 | #4

    In Egypt they are using a cream filling made of milk, corn starch and egg yolks and sugar-vanilla of course, I think in English it is called custard. Sometimes only nuts are used as well. I never knew about the coloring, I am not sure it is done in here. Also, the cheese is never used. Otherwise – my favorite ;)

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      March 16th, 2012 at 08:35 | #5

      Nele, so many variations with Arabic cooking. I’m looking forward to trying this Egyptian version that you describe. Thanks for reading and for the comment.

  4. March 15th, 2012 at 19:49 | #6

    Oh my goodness! This looks so incredible. I’ve never had it before, so I think I may have to go find a bakery to pick up some samples before attempting at home. I wish I had some to go with my tea today :)

  5. March 15th, 2012 at 22:43 | #7

    So impressed that you made this, not once but several times. The step by step instructions are brilliant. Have always wanted to make something with akkawi cheese – although the comment from Nele turns my head too (custard!)

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      March 16th, 2012 at 08:36 | #8

      HI Sally, yes, well, custard is your theme, so you should go with the custard!! Sounds delicious and decadent. Thank you for the comment. :)

  6. March 16th, 2012 at 00:22 | #9

    Holly this is simply wonderful. I so miss these desserts here in Weimar. I make baklava often but have never quite ventured towards making a kunafe (mostly because we just do not get the dough here). You make it look so easy. I want to roll up my sleeves and get into the kitchen to make this.

    Very looking forward to meeting you in Dubai!

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      March 16th, 2012 at 08:39 | #10

      Hi Meeta, Thank you for stopping by. Over time one gets addicted to these cheesy and nutty pastries from this part of the world. You reminded me of baklava. Have not made that in years! Maybe now is the time. :-) Looking foward to meeting you in April. Thanks for the comment.

  7. March 17th, 2012 at 01:44 | #11

    Kunafe is one of most favorite Arabic desserts! I with definitely try your recipe! Thanks for sharing! :)

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      March 28th, 2012 at 23:08 | #12

      Sara, great! Tell me how it turns out.

  8. Inga Molzen
    May 4th, 2012 at 16:17 | #13

    These images and tips are supportive inspiring and inviting to follow at home. Thank you

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      May 4th, 2012 at 20:19 | #14

      Inga, Thanks for the comment. Tell me how your kunafe turns out.

  9. Kate Saunders
    June 11th, 2012 at 15:18 | #15

    Thank you for sharing your recipe! I have Lebanese friends here in Australia, and I’ve eaten kunafe (bought from a specialty shop, not home made) at one of their functions.

    My husband and I loved it, and I’ve been looking for a (not too complicated) recipe so I could try and recreate it myself. Thanks for the advice about substituting the cheeses because that was the last obstacle I was trying to overcome!

    Yum, kunafe here I come!

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      June 14th, 2012 at 23:55 | #16

      Kate, Oh I’m so glad the recipe is useful for you. If you can get past a couple obstacles, like the cheese, the pan, etc, authentic kunafe can be yours. :-)

  10. Lori Salim
    June 12th, 2012 at 17:00 | #17

    Mmmm! Kanafe! My first experience was in Nablus! We were on a visit to Nazareth from the Ramallah area and everyone who knew we were going asked us to bring back a kilo of Kanafe from Nablus. Thanks for the recipe!

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      June 14th, 2012 at 23:54 | #18

      Lori, you ate Kunafe Nablusia at the source! Nothing tastes as good as the real thing.

  11. Laura
    July 25th, 2012 at 19:28 | #19

    Hi,

    I made the Kanafe last night for the first time, and it was amazing. Everyone, even my mother in law loved it. Thank you for posting it, in step by step instrucions with pictures. I look forward to you posting more recipes.

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      July 25th, 2012 at 23:11 | #20

      Hi Laura, I’m so glad it turned out well. Thank you for letting me know. One of my children was just asking about this pastry. I haven’t made it in a while; I guess it’s time! Happy baking & Thanks for stopping by. :-)

  12. nadira
    August 7th, 2012 at 12:07 | #21

    hi holly i have a question. in kuwait we get kunaf which is only vermcily on top and cream is down. how we can make that pls can u help me. i mean there are not two layers of vermicly. thanks

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      August 7th, 2012 at 14:41 | #22

      HI Nadira, I’m not exactly sure about preparing this type of kunafe, but I have seen it. As far as I know, there is no need to “flip” the kunafe. Just bake it with two layers: a layer of cream & a layer of vermicelli. You may have to experiment to get it just right. Enjoy.

  13. nafisa
    October 4th, 2012 at 10:47 | #23

    Thank u so much. So beautifuly explained…i just love kunafe ..best sweet …so heavenly it tastes…m gona try this for sure..but i coudnt fiind kunafae pastery dough here in australia.. i hv being searchn…:( but thanks again for sharing dis recepie…jazalalah :)

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      October 4th, 2012 at 23:41 | #24

      Hi Nafisa! Thanks for stopping by & commenting. Maybe you can search online for Middle Eastern, Lebanese or Greek grocery stores in your area. Sometimes you can find it at gourmet supermarkets. Usually these things appear when you least expect it. Good luck.

  14. sobiya
    October 17th, 2012 at 14:17 | #25

    hI Holly…i live in dubai as well and i have always loved the kunafa at the halawaat place near MOE n their stalls in the global village….i simply love it but have not been able to get a recipe for the one made with smeed….wonder if u can help..thanks.

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      October 19th, 2012 at 20:16 | #26

      Hi Sobiya … Hmmm Unfortunately I have not seen a recipe for this either. I wonder if you can just experiment with it. Mix the smeed with clarified butter, pack it on the cheese and see what happens. If you don’t like surprises, maybe ask those guys at the Feras pastry shop near MoE what they put in theirs. If you find out, please let me know. Thanks for reading!

  15. Ela
    October 21st, 2012 at 05:29 | #27

    tryed it today.DELICIOUS!!thank you for advices and recipe:)

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      December 21st, 2012 at 17:28 | #28

      Ela, Oh, I’m so happy it turned out. Thank you for letting me know! Holly

  16. Cocosmom
    December 24th, 2012 at 21:05 | #29

    Holly,

    I am making this for our Christmas dinner and to impress our Arab friends who will be joining us. My question is if I can make this in advance? I know it’s best to have it hot out of the oven with the scrumptious simple syrup melting into the Knafe. I plan to bring to my mom’s home. Is it okay to leave at room temperature or keep it in the fridge until ready to eat?

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      December 26th, 2012 at 19:29 | #30

      Hello Cocosmom,
      I just saw this. I hope it turned out!!
      I would say to prep it in advance and then bake it just before serving.
      You can bake it in advance and then re-heat it … However, it’s it’s best right out of the oven.
      I hope your christmas was lovely. Happy new year!

  17. Jacqui
    April 7th, 2013 at 07:18 | #31

    Great recipe!

    We had great success with it here in Australia, using a mix of ricotta, goats cheese and mozaarella.

    We are a bunch of Israelis recreating the flavor of Arabic sweets from home. Peace through dessert :) Excellent recipe. Thank you.

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      April 18th, 2013 at 21:13 | #32

      Hello Jacqui,
      Thank you for reading and commenting. So glad the recipe worked out for you! All the best to you.

  18. Alexandra
    April 21st, 2013 at 10:25 | #33

    Hello,

    I will be attempting to make this tomorrow, it’s a kinda surprise for someone, I’ve never tasted it before, so I am really going into this blind…. Is this the traditional way of making Kunafe? I’m confused about the other comments and the whole custard thing? I really want to make it as close to the original/traditional way possible.
    I brought all the ingredients today running around town hehe.

    Right now my cheese is soaking :)

    Also I understand that you make the sugar syrup using orange blossom or rose water, you had both on the ingredients list so i brought both but not sure which one is the best to use. Do I use both if so how? or is there a particular one, you would recommend?

    Could you please help me out. This is important to me and I really want to impress.

    Thank You :)

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      April 21st, 2013 at 13:23 | #34

      Hi Alexandra,
      Thanks for reading & trying my recipe! In answer to your questions:
      The custard is another type of kunafe, not the kind with cheese, so don’t worry about that.
      As for the flavorings… You can use either rose or orange blossom or both! The difference would be very subtle. If you are preparing this for people that may not be familiar with rose, you can use less of that and more of the orange.
      The trickiest parts for me are the color & getting it unstuck. Better to use less color and have a light orange color rather than use too much and have it turn out red.
      Also, make sure the pastry is unstuck from the pan and able to slide around before flipping it upside down. You don’t want it to stick.
      Good luck & let me know how it turns out! Holly :-)

  19. Alexandra
    April 21st, 2013 at 14:56 | #35

    Great,

    Thank you very much Holly, I’m very nervous as this person I’m making it for has had it many times before. There’s a little funny story behind it so I kinda want to nail it haha

    I will just follow your recipe as is, I noticed a little later on about the orange blossom on the cheese, so I’ll do that and use both for the syrup? I just hope i get the right amounts of each one…. again thank you very much for the tips & advice

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      April 21st, 2013 at 15:29 | #36

      HI Alexandra, Yes, you add it to both the cheese & the syrup. Like I said, it adds a subtle flavor. If it feels like too much for you, you can add a little less. It won’t make a noticable difference either way. Enjoy.

  20. Omar
    April 27th, 2013 at 04:35 | #37

    Hello Holly,

    What temperature do you preheat your oven to prior to baking?

    Thanks!

  21. Omar
    April 27th, 2013 at 04:37 | #38

    Nevermind, I just saw it.

    Thanks again!@Omar

  22. June 8th, 2013 at 06:38 | #39

    Mmmmm delicious I visited Amman Jordan and I tried kunafe for the first time and I fell in love with it. After that first time I had to have it 1-2 times a week in a bakery in Amman in the evenings with a delicious cup of tea and go for a light walk around the city after that. I miss that so much

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      June 8th, 2013 at 11:02 | #40

      Hi Ryna, Thanks for stopping by! I know what you mean about kunafe … I have so many memories of enjoying the pastry in different places. Maybe you can find it in a large city nearby…. Even so, it won’t be the same as eating in in Amman. ;-)

  23. June 8th, 2013 at 06:39 | #41

    I wish I could find a nice bakery in my home town where I could go for kunafe and tea

  24. Abidha Ayyoob
    June 20th, 2013 at 12:17 | #42

    MashaAllah <3 <3 Y dint i find this site earlier??? but anyway glad i found it before Ramadan :)

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      June 20th, 2013 at 20:19 | #43

      Hi Abidha, Wishing you a wonderful Ramadan this year … Thanks for stopping by. :-)

  25. July 9th, 2013 at 15:26 | #44

    Hi,
    I like your kunafa recipe. Thanking you very much.

    “Ramadan Karim”

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      July 10th, 2013 at 19:01 | #45

      Thanks for the comment. Ramadan Kareem to you, too. :-)

  26. Rahna Ajmal
    July 14th, 2013 at 02:51 | #46

    This looks awsome !!!!
    I jus lovd t at sight !!!!!
    Other than baking can this be done in stove top??
    I would badly love to make this at home.
    But i dont use an oven !!
    I eagerly waiting for your reply…
    Thanks,
    Rahna Ajmal

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      July 16th, 2013 at 05:29 | #47

      Hi Rahna, Yes, you could experiment with making kunafe over the stove. Use very low heat so as not to burn the pastry. Alternatively, you can cook the kunafe in a pan set over another large pan or pot with simmering water. This will allow the kunafe to cook slowly over very gentle heat without burning. Best of luck & Happy Ramadan!

  27. Jibril
    July 30th, 2013 at 01:11 | #48

    I just made kunafe using this recipe for a family iftar, they loved it!! Thank you!

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      August 1st, 2013 at 00:41 | #49

      HI Jibril,
      Thank you so much for letting me know!!! I’m glad it was a success. Happy Ramadan and Eid to you.

  28. Samee Picard
    October 6th, 2013 at 17:31 | #50

    Dear Holly,
    I love all you recipes, I usually try at least one once a week. The Kunafe is one of my favorites. Q: how can I make my own Kunafe dough?
    BR/Samee

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      October 14th, 2013 at 10:03 | #51

      Dear Samee, Thank you sooo much for reading my blog & having faith in my recipes. I better add some new recipes, as you will run out quickly!

  29. Eman Tai Ahmad
    November 21st, 2013 at 19:00 | #52

    Salams Holly! We are returning to visit Dubai after moving away a couple years ago. We would love to see you and catch up on family, cooking, eating, blogging, writing, and more.

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      November 24th, 2013 at 07:54 | #53

      HI Eman, That is great to hear! Would love to catch up & see your family. Let me know via FB when you are here.

  30. Kate
    February 11th, 2014 at 07:41 | #54

    Hey Holly! I just wanted you to know that I tried this recipe tonight and it was some of the best kunafe I have ever had. I’m so happy! Thank you so much!

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      February 11th, 2014 at 12:04 | #55

      Hello Kate,
      Thank you so much for letting me know. You comment made my day. Enjoy the kunafe & all the best, Holly

  31. caroline
    March 16th, 2014 at 11:40 | #56

    Hi holly
    The only pastry I can buy here in Qld Australia is the greek one called Kattieffi , do you think it would work?
    Thks

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      May 18th, 2014 at 09:21 | #57

      Hi Caroline, I’m not sure, but you don’t know until you try. It may just end up with a little bit different consistency, but stilly tasty. Good luck.

  32. Tina
    March 19th, 2014 at 05:19 | #58

    Caroline,

    (Sorry if I’m butting in, I thought I might be able to answer your question.) I actually wound up using Kataifi dough, as a lot of the other recipes I’ve seen for Kunafe call for just that. I don’t know if it’s exactly the same thing, but my understanding is that if it isn’t, it’s pretty darn close.

    Holly,

    I am so excited to make this. I did all my prep work tonight (soaking the cheese, made the clarified butter and the syrup), and will be making it tomorrow morning to bring to a work function. I experienced Kunafe for the first time in Amman last year, and these pictures look just like the kind I had… I have very high hopes that it will turn out wonderfully! No telling when I’ll get the chance to go back to Jordan (I desperately want to), but I suppose this will be the next best thing. Thank you so much for the recipe!

  33. araxi
    April 1st, 2014 at 22:29 | #59

    @caroline
    Hi Caroline, I grew up in Israel but am married in Greece, I can assure you that the Kadeifi pastry will make a very good substitute to the pastry originally used in Israel. So go ahead and use the greek kadeifi . Good luck!

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