Kunafah is a sweet Middle Eastern pastry, made of shredded pastry dough which is drenched in a simple syrup, and filled with a variety of delicious fillings ranging from crunchy cinnamon and sugar coated nuts, a sweet cheese, or a smooth filling of cream (kishta). Lately, there is a trend of filling kunafa with all kinds of delicious concoctions such as Nutella, a mangoes, coconut cream, cheesecake or whatever else you may fancy. I personally plan to try Nutella out next, following this same recipe but without the vanilla cream. The flexibility of this easy dessert makes it something worth trying out! This variation is my recipe for a vanilla infused kishta. Kishta is the Arabic word for heavy cream, usually a creamy and decadently smooth filling for pastries. My vanilla bean kishta is an adaption of a classic pastry cream filled kunafah as is made in Egypt.
Kunafa is a childhood favorite! Every Ramadan I crave it madly. The unique texture of the shredded phyllo is so delicious and crunchy, and I love the way it absorbs the sweet flavors like a sponge. I always thought this seemingly complicated dessert is only achieved from my mother’s kitchen, or Middle Eastern bakeries.
Lucky for us, this dessert is extremely easy to prepare and make, despite its uniquely complex appearance and textures. My mom always made it with a delicious mixture of nuts, raisins, cinnamon, and sugar and twisted it into a beautiful design. This is a far less complicated version made simply by layering in a pan, filled with cream. I like using a bundt to give it a special shape. You can sprinkle pistachios or almonds on top. I infuse the cream filling with real vanilla bean, and the creamy texture is reminiscent of my all time favorite dessert: creme brûlée.
You will need to purchase kunafah dough at a Middle Eastern market or online. I have no idea how it is made, or who makes it, but I will find out one day. Kataifi dough is almost always purchased in the store, as phyllo dough would be. It is called “kataifi shredded dough” in most cases. In Chicago, I go to Sanabel Bakery on Kedzie, which is a wonderful haven to get all kinds of Middle Eastern aromatic spices, herbs, and groceries. The dough is almost always sold frozen. You need to plan to thaw this in the fridge 12-24 hours before you use it. So be sure to get the dough ahead of time. In a pinch, you may leave it on the counter to thaw more quickly and use it the same day, but it must be completely thawed out so that you may work the dough properly. Thawing in a microwave will not work. Do not try it.
The first thing to do is to make the simple syrup, known as sharbat in Arabic, so that it has plenty of time to cool. The sharbat is very easy to make; it is sugar mixed with water and a squeeze of lemon juice. Many people add rose water or orange blossom essence to sharbat, but I strongly dislike that overpowering flavor and suggest avoiding it so that you may enjoy the main flavor of the vanilla cream in the pastry. Once the water-sugar mixture begins to boil, add a tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice and reduce the heat until it thickens. The syrup needs to cool so that when you pour it onto the hot, freshly baked kunafa, it absorbs quickly, or “drinks” the syrup. Thus the name sharbat which comes from the Arabic root word sharb, meaning drink. I always like to know the origin of commonly used culinary terms.
Next, you will prepare the delicious cream filling. This is my FAVORITE part. Your kitchen will smell amazing. I often spend too much money on vanilla scented candles to achieve this effect. So I just LOVE this step. When using a vanilla bean, place it against a cutting board and carefully slice open the top along the length of the bean, without puncturing through the bottom. The scent is divine, and once you begin to simmer it, the aroma will waft through your home. Simmer 2 cups of heavy cream over medium heat and add the vanilla bean. Scrape out all the glorious vanilla bean caviar from the pod until the cream is speckled with hundreds of beautiful aromatic vanilla bits. I also throw in the whole wooden pod to infuse more flavor, and the scent is just incredible! Alternatively, you could place the emptied wooden pod in a sugar container to have vanilla infused sugar for baking, or for tea and coffee. After simmering for about 5 minutes, you will need to remove the wooden pod and reduce the heat to prevent any scorching of the cream. In a separate bowl, stir 2 tbsp of corn starch with cold milk until dissolved, and then pour the corn starch mixture into the cream. Stir slowly until the cream thickens. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Now, for the kunafa dough. The thawed dough will most likely be rolled in a thick log of finely shredded pieces; you will need to separate all these pieces with you fingers and massage the shreds with butter in a large bowl or dish.
For this pastry, you need to use samnah, which is clarified butter otherwise known as ghee. Samnah is unsalted butter with all the salt and milk solids removed. It is easy to make. Simply melt unsalted butter and once it is melted, and begins to bubble, remove from the heat and skim off the top when cooled. The salt and solid matter left behind is a delicious treat to lick up with some bread by the way! Samnah could be stored in a container in the fridge and used in many, many other recipes. You could also just use ghee sold in jars in grocery stores, but the homemade clarified butter smells and tastes much better.
It is necessary to rub and separate the shredded dough with the butter as if you are massaging it and oiling every strand. This is a fun sensory activities for kids who want to help you bake! Once all of the shredded dough is separated, fluffed out, and massaged with butter, press half of the dough onto the bottom of a circular pan. Pour the cream in the middle and then cover the cream with the remaining buttered kunafa dough. Pour 1/4 c melted butter all over the kunafa and bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes, until golden. Making this in a bundt pan can be trickier to keep the cream in, but it looks so pretty!
As soon as the kunafa is removed from the oven, you need to pour the sharbat all over it to sweeten. After waiting a few minutes (2-3) for the syrup to drip to the bottom of the pan, flip it onto a serving dish, so that the now permanent bottom of the cake gets sweetened as well. Garnish with crushed pistachios or a mixture of nuts as is done traditionally and enjoy! This is often served with a cup of mint or clover tea.
- 2 cups or 6 sticks of unsalted butter
- 2 c sugar
- 3 c water
- 1/4 fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 2 tbsp corn starch
- 1/4 c cold milk
- 2 c heavy whipping cream
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 vanilla bean pod
- One box of kunafa shredded dough
- 3/4 cup clarified butter (soft, not melted)
- 3/4 cup melted ghee
- Prepare by removing the frozen dough from the freezer and thawing in the refrigerator 24 hours before cooking.
- This is best if you make it in advance.
- Melt the butter in a pot.
- Once it boils, turn down the heat. Allow to cool. Scrape off the particles that come to the top and allow to cool until softened.
- In a large pot, stir the sugar and water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, and the sugar has dissolved, add the lemon juice and reduce to medium-low heat. Allow to simmer until sightly thickened. This step could be done well in advance or even a day prior.
- Pour the heavy cream into a small pot and simmer on medium-low heat.
- Slice open the vanilla bean, scrape all the beans out, and drop into the heavy cream. Add the empty pod into the cream. Allow to simmer for about 3-5 minutes. Remove the wooden pod.
- Meanwhile, dissolve the corn starch in the cold milk.
- Turn the heat down to low, and slowly stir in the cornstarch mixture into the cream. Be careful not to let the cream stick to the pot or scorch. Stir until thickened and remove from heat.
- Loosen and fluff the kunafa dough in a large bowl. Massage the pastry dough with 1 cup of softened ghee or clarified butter. Rub all the dough until it is all well coated with butter and all loose.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (F), and move the baking rack to the center.
- Using half the dough, press it into the bottom of a circular pan. Press firmly so that the dough goes up the sides slightly, and there are not any openings or cracks. This will eventually be the top of the kunafa when you flip it, so make sure it is evenly spread.
- Pour the vanilla cream all over the bottom layer.
- Carefully place the remainder of the buttered kunafa dough over the cream, making sure all the cream is covered all the way to the edges, without pressing the cream to ooze out. Make sure you gently pat down any of the shreds down so they are not sticking up, or they will scorch in the oven.
- Pour the melted butter evenly over the entire pan to soak it in butter.
- Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes until the top is golden.
- As soon as the kunafa is removed from the oven, pour the cooled syrup all over, evenly. You might not need all of it. After about 20 minutes, flip the kunafa onto a serving platter. This is important to ensure the syrup goes to the bottom of pastry after flipping, so that is is not dry.
- Garnish with crushed pistachios.