Knafa (الكنافة) is the all-time Ramadan dessert, and is just as good any other time of year. Everyone from the Arabian Gulf, to the Levant, to Turkey, Greece, and Northern Africa make it and call it theirs. Its true origin? None other than our mother land of Palestine. Knafa affectionatos might have tried the entire spectrum of fillings: thickened cream, kiri cheese, ricotta, mozzarella… But the real way to go is the surprisingly lip-pucking salty salty akawi cheese. Preferable goat’s milk akawi cheese, no less. Knafa is not a fast food. You want fast knafa make kiri knafa buns.
You want authentic Palestinian knafa, invest two days of prep and make this. The salty salty cheese needs to be broken up and soaked and drained using cold water until the water runs clear. It then needs to be soaked in cold water overnight. Only then, when it has been de-salted, can the knafa making begin.
Adapted from Xawaash.
450g akawi cheese (or mozarella)
2 cups sugar
1 cups water
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp rosewater + 1 tsp orange blossom water
1/2 cup cream cheese
1/4 tsp orange-red food color powder
1 Tbsp + 3/4 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup whole milk
450g kunafa pastry (shredded filo)
To desalt the cheese, cut into chunks and pulse in a food processor into pea-sized chunks.
Put the cheese in a bowl and cover in cold water. Strain over a sieve to catch any pieces, and repeat the process until the water runs clear, at least eight to ten times. Cover the cheese in cold water and refrigerate overnight. Next day, drain the cheese over a sieve and let drain completely of all water.
Pat dry using paper towels if necessary. Combine with the ricotta or cottage cheese.
Using medium heat, boil the sugar, water and lemon juice for 10 minutes.
Add the rose water after turning off the heat. Let it cool down completely.
Butter and colour the bottom and the sides of a 10 in. (25 cm) round, 2 in. deep pan with 1 tablespoon melted butter and ½ teaspoon kunafa pastry colouring.
Shred the kunafa dough using a food processor. Using your hands, add the milk and lukewarm butter and toss until coated and fluffy.
Place two thirds of the knafa dough in the pan. Press down hard and along the base and sides of the pan, packing the dough as much as possible.
Place all of the cheese surrounded on all sides by the dough; level and press down.
Cover with the remaining third of the kataifi. Press well to pack and compress with the palms of your hand.
Bake in a preheated oven at 350F for 45 minutes. Let the kunafa cool down for 10 minutes before inverting it into a large platter or cake stand.
Decorate with ground pistachio. You can pour the cool syrup over the entire kunafa or pour on individual servings.
If using the akawi, you will need to de-salt it. To do that, crumble the cheese roughly in a food processor, then with cold water rinse then drain it six to eight times until the water is somewhat clear.
Soak it again in water and refrigerate over night. Rinse it twice more then drain it one last time in a sieve and set aside to dry.
Make the sugar syrup: combine the sugar, water, and lemon juice in a saucepan.
Boil for 10 minute, remove from the heat, then stir in the rosewater or orange blossom water or both. Set aside to cool.
Brush the base and sides of a large round baking dish with a table spoon of soft or melted butter and the orange-red food coloring powder if using.
In a bowl, using your hands rub together the shredded kunafa dough with the three-quarter cup melted butter and half cup milk until combined and absorber.
Press two thirds of the dough over the base and sides of the prepared dish. Make sure to press and compact very well.
Press all the filling in the dough. The filling should be in contact only with the dough and not the dish so it will not melt and stick to the dish.
Press the remaining dough over the surface; compact well.
Bake in preheated 350F oven for 45 minutes.
Invert while still hot on serving dish, and serve hot or warm with the cooled sugar syrup.