In our family, we’re each known for a special skill in the kitchen. My dad is the grill master. My sister-in-law introduced us to chocolate pavlova (before I moved to Australia… a premonition?). My husband is the go-to guy for sauces. And my Seedo – grandfather, in Arabic – is the King of Knafeh.
Knafeh is an iconic Middle Eastern dessert of shredded qataifi pastry (or kataifi, per the Greek spelling), encasing gloriously stretchy sweet cheese, studded with almonds and doused in rose and orange blossom syrup. Over an afternoon, I snapped and scribbled away, learning Seedo’s famous recipe, step-by-step. As a boy, he learned it from his father – from whom we all inherited our sweet tooths, apparently – and I believe this may be the first time the recipe has been written down. So, I’m beyond proud to share this important family recipe. Let’s make it!
Step-by-step instructions can be found below each photo.
As knafeh is essentially a cheese pastry, the first step is to get the right cheese. Jibneh helwe – or sweet cheese – is a firm, white cheese that can be purchased in Middle Eastern shops. It is unsalted and tastes almost identical to fresh mozzarella. If you can’t find jibneh helwe, fresh mozzarella is a good substitute – just be sure to soak it to remove any salt from the preserving water.
Slice about 1kg (2lb) of the cheese into thin pieces, as above, and thoroughly pat dry with a paper towel. Set aside.
Meanwhile, prepare the pastry. You can also find this dough in your Middle Eastern dough – it will be labelled Shredded Thin Dough or Qataifi/Kataifi pastry – and it has the consistency of angel hair. Often it comes frozen – just put it in the fridge the night before.
Remove the dough from the fridge, and cut the strands into rough pieces. Place the pieces in the food processor and shred it until it’s very fine, like tiny cous cous. You can also do this with a pastry cutter and a bit of muscle. You’ll need about 7 generous cups of shredded dough in total: 5 cups for the base, 1+ cups for the sides and 1 last cup to sprinkle at the last step before baking.
At this stage, preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
Place the shredded dough in a large pot over low heat. Add 2-3 heaping tablespoons of ghee. Ghee is clarified butter, used widely in Middle Eastern and Indian sweets. Veggie Belly has a great recipe for it here, or just substitute butter.
Slowly melt the pastry and ghee, mixing for 5-10 minutes. When it’s warm enough to still handle, and starts clumping together, it’s done. Stir in one more tablespoon of ghee, until you can really clump it together in your hands, like the photo above. Sprinkle a few drops of orange blossom water into the dough, and mix – a special step for extra flavor.
Spread 1-2 more tablespoons of ghee to the bottom of an 11 x 16″ baking tray. This helps the pastry become crunchy and golden while baking.
Yes, there’s a lot of ghee in this recipe, and in all the best Arabic sweets. “This is not a time to cut back,” advises Seedo. Trust the man, he has been doing this a long time.
Place peeled, blanched almonds in rows, directly onto the ghee-covered tray, about 2-3 inches apart.
Sprinkle a thin layer of pastry crumbs evenly over the almonds. Keep sprinkling until the almonds are completely covered by about 1/2 inch. Then, gently start patting the pastry down with your hand, as above, to compact it.
Continue pressing until the pastry is firmly packed. Seedo presses a small cutting board into the center and corners to achieve the straight edges in the picture above. He takes his time with this process – pressing, ensuring the whole surface is even, pressing again with the cutting board. This is, after all, a labor of love.
Once the pastry is ready, add the cheese. Rest the pieces side by side, touching, in a border along the pan, leaving a 1/4″ gap around the edges.
Continue organizing the cheese until the entire surface of the pastry is covered. We did this together, tessellating the pieces into a cheese maze. Fill in any gaps with extra little bits. If my nephews were around, I’d ask them to help with this step – it’s fun.
Remember that this will all melt together and be flipped over, so the neatness of it isn’t paramount. It’s more important that the cheese slices are the same size, so you have a relatively flat top layer.
Then, use the remaining pastry to fill in the border between the cheese and the edges of the pan. Filling this space will encase the cheese, so it doesn’t spill out everywhere in the oven, and when you cut into it. Use your fingertips or a spoon to press the filling into the edges, so it’s snug.
Once the sides are filled, sprinkle the remaining dough above the top of the cheese. Gently pat it so it sticks. It doesn’t have to be firm. Cover the pan with foil, and place into the oven for 45 minutes. Check it at the 45-minute mark: Does it look deeply golden? If so, take it out. If it’s still just lightly toasted, keep cooking it in 10 minute increments until the color develops.
While it’s baking, you’ll want to make the rose and orange blossom syrup. This is a very simple syrup of 1 part sugar to 1 part water, with generous lashings of orange blossom and rose water added at the end. Follow my recipe for Orange Blossom Syrup here - you’ll need to double it for this knafeh. Feel free to be more generous with your flower waters as well. Seedo adds far more than I generally do, and from now on I’ll do it his way!
Remove the knafeh from the oven, uncover it, and let it rest 5 minutes. Then, very carefully invert it: place your (larger) serving dish on top of the baking tray, and flip the pans over so the serving tray is on the bottom. Let rest another 1-2 minutes to let gravity do its work.
Lift the baking tray carefully, revealing the golden, crunchy, aromatic knafeh.
While the knafeh is still piping hot, spoon a generous amount of syrup all over the top, until the syrup soaks into the crunchy pastry. How much you use depends on how sweet your tooth is, so add however much is best for you. Just be sure to cover every corner with syrup for consistency.
Serve immediately, or at room temperature, with extra syrup on the side. And, if you’re feeling as generous as my Seedo, pack some up in a carry case for friends and family to enjoy later.
And that, my friends, is not just a perfect knafeh, but my Seedo’s knafeh, the best one I have ever eaten and one that has kept him the reigning King of Sweets in our family for decades.
As with all family recipes – especially those documented only through oral history – it’s about practice. Only time and great care will yield as perfect a result as his, every time. I feel that in learning how to make his famous dish, and spending that afternoon talking about his childhood, his father, his love for this food, our relationship has grown in a way I couldn’t have expected.
I hope that when you make this – whether you’re trying it for the first time, or it’s an old favorite – that you feel it’s special, too.