An Impressive, Sweet & Cheesy (Yes, Cheesy) Middle Eastern Dessert

Born in Beirut, Irene Sankari came to the U.S. with her parents when she was seven years old. They settled in upstate New York and began trying to acclimate to their new surroundings while preserving homeland traditions, swapping pita bread for Wonder Bread.

On holidays, her family would travel all the way to Sahadi’s in Brooklyn for Middle Eastern specialties like grape leaves. “Now, you can get hummus in fifty different flavors, right in the regular grocery store,” she exclaimed.

Irene taught me to make the easy and delicious Lebanese dessert knafeh (also spelled kanafeh). Interestingly, Irene’s mother is Syrian and her father Egyptian, but this dessert is served in those countries, too, and you can also find similar versions in Turkey and Greece.

A delicious cheese center is sandwiched between kataifi (shredded phyllo dough), and then Irene drizzles a sweet simple syrup made with orange blossom water to drizzle all over the top while it’s still hot from the oven. (I think of it like a dressed-up Danish.)

When preparing the kataifi, Irene likes to use margarine, but unsalted butter will also do the trick. Make sure the heavy cream is whipped to nice, stiff peaks to ensure a gooey yet creamy center.

A little bit higher now. Photo by Mark Weinberg

In regards to the cheese, Nabulsi is the traditional choice, but Irene found that shredded mozzarella—which is much easier to find—provides the same results. She insists any soft white cheese will do and told me that when she lived in Mexico City, they would fill the knafeh with Mexican cheeses they had on hand.

Irene serves this dessert right from the oven because it hardens as it cools. When her family is over for a big meal, the knafeh bakes up while they eat.

The syrup is what makes this dessert truly special. Generously poured over the top, it gives a sweet, floral hint. Irene doubles the batch, then keeps a bottle on hand to use in other desserts, as well.


I LOVE Kanafeh and it reminds me of my time living in the Middle East. Making this tomorrow and thank you for a great recipe!
Author Comment
Anna F. May 14, 2016
Awesome! I hope it takes you back to that time!! Let me know how it goes!
Monika S. May 12, 2016
wow, that looks so good !
June D. May 12, 2016
Is the mozzarella used in this recipe the fresh type packed in water? Like all Middle Eastern desserts, this must be absolutely delicious.
Author Comment
Anna F. May 12, 2016
no, Irene uses shredded mozzarella you can find in the grocery store. I hope you try it.
millay May 12, 2016
Oh I like having this at our local Turkish restaurant. For those who're making it for the first time - this an incredibly rich, rich dessert. We are a family of five and the first time we had it it was served in this tiny little metal plate, we thought it was too less. We completely changed our minds when we started eating it. Each small hotly sweet, crispy, and pleasantly stretchy cheesy bite was half a serving for each person almost. <br /><br />I'd say the one above will easily feed 10 people if they're not used to decadent desserts!
Author Comment
Anna F. May 12, 2016
yes, sweet it is! i hope you try this version. thanks for the comment!!