That list of spellings for knafeh (kuh-NAF-ee), shredded phyllo dough, seems to go on and on. Knafeh dough is typically called kataifi dough, which is the Greek iteration of knafeh. Like the sheets of phyllo used for baklawa, the shredded dough is used to make several different kinds of Lebanese pastry, typically of the buttery, syrupy sort.
When you first open a package of shredded phyllo, the papery threads hardly seem edible. They look more like the stuffing used to buffer fragile items in a box from Williams-Sonoma than anything you’d want to eat.
But then there is that scent, that distinct flour-y phyllo scent that is the indicia that something good is about to happen—a party, or something fun and happy, because we pull phyllo out for pastry for most every special occasion. A party is official when there is something crispy, rich, and fragrant to eat.
When I called around to Middle Eastern groceries to see if they carried the dough, I just said: Do you carry frozen dough for knafeh? The one guy said, You mean shredded phyllo? I said yes, that’s it. Yes, he said, of course. Is it frozen? I asked. Of course it is, he said with a slight edge. I know that it’s always frozen but I asked it, I think, because I worry that this particular shop’s products aren’t always as fresh as they could be, so somehow my asking if it was frozen was akin to my Aunt Hilda asking if the pot of decaf in the restaurant is a fresh pot. If so, she’ll have a cup.
So it’s always frozen, just as phyllo is always frozen. That’s a good thing, because who knows how much turnover they have with this product?
I was happy to find Fillo Factory brand knafeh dough because I’ve used their phyllo a lot, it’s always so easy to work with, and it has good flavor. Fillo Factory’s ingredient list is short, and it’s vegan, sugar-free, no cholesterol, and yeast-free. Sometimes the knafeh dough is referred to as vermicelli, but I don’t see any similarity other than thinness of threads. There is nothing of pasta in texture or flavor of the knafeh dough, and there is no egg in the dough. It tastes instead of what it is: phyllo.
The shredded phyllo is handled very similarly to phyllo sheets in that it dries out quickly, so it’s best to keep exposure to air at a minimum. If the dough must be exposed to air for a few minutes, cover the dough with plastic wrap and a clean dish towel. There’s something terrifically fun in tearing apart the knafeh shreds, if you can get over the little threads getting all over the place. Do it over the sink, though, and problem solved.
Can you make knafeh dough yourself by very, very thinly slicing phyllo? Even I haven’t attempted that kind of mania, but if you do and it’s successful, please let us all know…
I can’t wait to share knafeh jibneh with you this week, a cheesy, buttery Lebanese sweet pastry. There are variations of this that do not require the shredded phyllo, but our version does. Give your local Middle Eastern market a try for knafeh (or kataifi) dough, or check it out online here and here.