There is an ongoing debate about where kunafah, a sweet cheese “pie” usually eaten for breakfast, originated. Some claim Turkey as its country of origin, others swear it is Palestine, and others claim it is from Syria. There isn’t enough research for us to tell for sure, but what is certain is that there are two main types of kunafah. In kunafah Nabulsiyah, from Palestine, the kataifi pastry— called “hair” pastry because it is made in very thin, long strands—is colored red and used as is. The Lebanese version is known as kunafah mafrukah (meaning “rubbed”), because the strands of kataifi are buttered, then rubbed and rubbed until they become like fluffy breadcrumbs. Also the Lebanese version has no coloring. In Lebanon kunafah is made into a sweet sandwich by stuffing it inside the fat part of a sesame bread that looks like a handbag, with a handle and a fat pouch part, then drenching it and the inside of the bread in sugar syrup.
It is fairly simple to prepare and all you need is to buy kataifi fresh or frozen from a Middle Eastern store.
You can make this in the oven (as below) or on the stovetop. You can vary the cheese by using 1 pound (450g) Arabic clotted cream (qashtah) and follow the instructions as below.
SERVES 4 TO 6
10 1/2 ounces (300 g) akkawi (see below) or fior de latte mozzarella (cow’s milk mozzarella)
9 ounces (250 g) kataifi (“hair” pastry)
8 tablespoons (115 g) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
3/4 cup (180 ml) sugar syrup (page 454), cooled
*Akkawi cheese -This is a semi-fresh white cheese used to make the Lebanese Sweet Cheese “Pie”. If you cannot source it, use mozzarella made with cow’s milk as it is less wet than buffalo mozzarella, and make sure you pat it dry before using.
A few hours ahead: Slice the cheese into thin slices, about 1/4 inch (6 mm) thick, and
put to soak in cold water. Change the water regularly until the cheese has lost all traces of saltiness—you will probably need to change the water up to ten times in the space of 2 to 3 hours.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
Chop the pastry into pieces 1/2 inch (1 cm) long and transfer to a large skillet. Make a well in the center and add 7 tablespoons (100 g) of the diced butter to the well. Place over low heat, then, with your fingers, slowly rub the melting butter into the pastry until it is well coated and completely crumbled.
Grease a 9-inch (23 cm) round baking dish with the remaining 1 tablespoon (15 g) butter. Spread the shredded pastry across the dish in an even layer, pressing down hard with your hands. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown.
Meanwhile, drain the cheese and pat it dry with paper towels. Take the pastry out of the oven and spread the cheese slices evenly over it. Return to the oven and bake for 10 more minutes, or until the cheese is melted.
Brush a serving dish with a little sugar syrup so that the melting cheese does not stick and turn the pie over onto the dish to reveal the crisp golden pastry. Pour a little sugar syrup over the pastry and serve hot, with more syrup on the side.
NOTE: Spread the cheese slices over the pastry before cooking and place the round baking dish over low heat. (Here it would be a good idea to use a copper dish, if you have one, as most other baking dishes will not go over the fire.) Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, turning the dish regularly to make sure the pastry browns evenly. By the time it is done, the pie should move in one block if you shake the dish from side to side.
Reprinted with permission from FEAST copyright 2018 by Anissa Helou. Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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