Lebanese Knafeh Jibneh with Orange Blossom Syrup

One of the greatest of all Lebanese pastries is knafeh jibneh with orange blossom syrup. Knafeh is shredded phyllo dough (find it in Middle Eastern markets) which is filled here with a wonderful cheese blend for a melty, salty-sweet (mostly sweet . . . ) pastry. The Lebanese eat knafeh traditionally for breakfast in a pocket of sesame ka’ik bread. Hearty!

The knafeh was the saving grace that morning. We were driving from Beirut to Tripoli on a quest, my quest, to see the famous Hallab bakery at its source. There had been the friendly assistance of a Lebanese chef in the U.S., who was connecting me with the owners of Hallab in hopes of a tour of the back of the house where all of the pastry is made.

The machinations were comical, with someone at the hotel, the Four Seasons Beirut where we were staying, making all of the phone calls for me in Arabic. It seems I had stepped into some kind of family feud, because when we finally got a hold of the king pin to secure the tour with his cousin at the shop in Tripoli, he denied knowing anyone by that name at all.

We went for it anyway, the ride north to Tripoli, to see what we could see. There was a detour to deal with a camera glitch (of the sort with which I am all too familiar), plus Beirut traffic, and then finally our arrival in Tripoli. What we saw of the city upon entering it did not excite, and our driver, Hitham (HIGH-sum), was not in familiar territory. He was one cool cat as a rule, but I think I saw him break a sweat navigating Tripoli’s traffic jams.

Once inside the bakery, there was no holding back on our table full of treats. I was dead-set on the knafeh jibneh, a royal display in a huge flat platter looking like a golden cake which when cut, revealed its melting, gooey cheese filling. I’d first tasted the knafeh at Al Khyam bakery in Chicago years ago, where I had gone to interview George, the owner, about his shop and especially his thin pita-making method. His trademark Lebanese hospitality that morning included a small plate of knafeh, which he cut for me from one of those gigantic platters and poured a healthy glug of orange blossom syrup over top. It was rich, but in the most unobtrusive way. Before I knew it my little plate of knafeh was gone and I was accepting another, against my better judgment.

At Hallab, Hitham joined us at the table for our morning indulgence, and he ate his knafeh with such gusto that I found this more instructive than any tour of the bakery might have been.

He placed his knafeh into the sesame bread that came in a little basket alongside (a version of ka’ik) and rolled his eyes closed while he ate one mouth-watering bite after another. I followed suit. When he finished, he pulled out his cigarette and smoked one as though he was spent on more than just a plate of knafeh. There I did not follow suit, but understood his response to knafeh that good.

When I reminded my mother and sister about the knafeh we had that morning in Tripoli, they both shrugged it off. Not so much, Peg said when I raved about how good it was. Her memory was more for the sumptuous boxes of chocolates we bought there as gifts for our Lebanese cousins, and for the crazy streets of Tripoli. My mom’s experience with knafeh is more like baklawa, with a nut filling in little nests, still with orange blossom syrup (we’ll make that version sometime too).

The knafeh combination, granted, is unusual—like a cheesecake, but not—a buttery phyllo crust filled with unsweetened (and if it’s mine, slightly salty) cheese, and all of it topped with the orange blossom syrup. Knafeh makes for a hard-hitting breakfast that would take most of us all the way through to dinner, or breakfast tomorrow; I suspect many would prefer it for dessert or a snack. But I’m with Hitham on this: knafeh jibneh earns its place as an object of affection among the cognoscenti. It gives us a rich, satiating, and indulgent experience, and if it’s your thing (which it is still, astonishingly for many in Lebanon), one worth following up with a smoke.

Lebanese Knafeh Jibneh with Orange Blossom Syrup

Maureen Abood
There are several different ways knafeh with cheese is made (just as there are so many spellings: kanafeh, kenafeh, kunafeh, kataifi...). This recipe, based on one from DeDe Med, is most similar to the knafeh I’ve had at bakeries in Lebanon, with a finely-textured crust and melting cheese layer which is best eaten warm. The cheese layer is sometimes made from ricotta, the cheese by itself without milk or farina, or with sweet cream rather than cheese. Traditionally the knafeh is eaten for breakfast or a snack, and is often tucked into a version of ka’ik that is a savory sesame bread. Ackawi cheese is a white, firm Arabic cheese that can be found in Middle Eastern markets. An equally good substitute is fresh mozzarella. If the cheese tastes very salty, slice it and soak it in water for a couple of hours to remove some of the salt. I like my cheese for knafeh to have a little salt flavor, though, so that the knafeh has a bit of wonderful salty-sweetness to it.
Servings 8

Ingredients
  

For the Orange Blossom Syrup

For the Pastry

  • 1/2 package shredded phyllo knafeh dough (kataifi), or 3 cups
  • 1 cup panko or plain dry breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup orange blossom syrup, plus more for serving
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella or ackawi cheese
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1/3 cup farina (cream of wheat)
  • 1/4 cup pistachios, chopped, for serving

Instructions
 

  • To make the orange blossom syrup, in a small heavy saucepan, combine sugar, water and lemon juice and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the orange blossom water, pour into a heatproof container, cool to room temperature and refrigerate to chill.
  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees with a rack in the middle position.
  • In the food processor, pulse the shredded phyllo dough for about a minute to make it into a fine meal. Place the phyllo in a medium bowl with the breadcrumbs. Add the melted butter and ½ cup of orange blossom syrup and stir until the phyllo is completely coated.
  • In a 10-inch pie plate or cake pan (or a similar sized sheet pan), add the buttery dough mixture. Compress it very well by pushing it into the bottom of the pan firmly, first with your hands, then pressing with the flat bottom of a cup, or something similar.
  • If the cheese is too salty, slice and soak it in cold water until some of the salt is pulled out. Change the water every 10 minutes or so. Either with a large, sharp knife or in the food processor, chop the cheese to a fine dice (in the processor, pulse until the cheese looks like coarse meal). Place the cheese in a medium bowl.
  • In a medium heavy saucepan, heat the milk over medium-high heat until it is hot, but not boiling. Add the farina and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the mixture is slightly thickened. Pour the farina over the cheese and stir to combine.
  • Pour the cheese mixture over the knafeh dough in the prepared pan, and smooth the top. Place in the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the knafeh is deep golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool for 15 minutes.
  • Turn the knafeh out onto a platter and drizzle with ¼ cup of orange blossom syrup. Garnish with pistachio nuts. Serve immediately or set aside and reheat before serving. Cut into squares or slices and serve the knafeh warm, with more orange blossom syrup poured over each piece.

 

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50 Comments

  1. TasteofBeirut on May 3, 2013 at 10:28 AM

    it reminds me of a tour of all the knefeh eateries in my ‘hood, in beirut, with an iraqi friend until we finally landed at a good one in front of the sea next to the mosque; unfortunately now this place is gone and replaced by..Starbucks! \good news is `hallab has an outlet in Beirut and the knefeh is still the best. most home cooks here `i asked make it at home with kaak or breadcrumbs or buy the fark (semolina dough) from a pastry shop and the cheese already unsalted; i did it once. love your clics.

    • Maureen Abood on May 3, 2013 at 11:24 AM

      Thank you Joumana–how lucky you are to get Hallab whenever you want it!

  2. Lisa the Gourmet Wog on May 4, 2013 at 5:25 AM

    Maureen this post makes me drool!! My late Mother in Law use to make this and I still remember the first time I tried it over 10 years ago now. The taste lingers on….

    • Maureen Abood on May 4, 2013 at 11:28 PM

      Great memory Lisa! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Saleem Antonios on August 12, 2013 at 1:01 PM

    Hi Maureen ,i’ve tried this recipe and i had good results .If you can help me with the recipe of the bread we eat kinafeh with I’ll be very gratefull .Cheers from Australia

    • Maureen Abood on August 13, 2013 at 4:22 PM

      Hi Saleem–I will work on that; I had it in Lebanon but have not made it at home (YET!).

  4. Sarah on April 1, 2014 at 10:21 PM

    Maureen, I love your pictures, writing, recipe… I had knaffe in Lebanon many times over the years and always ate it for breakfast. It was magical… there is no equivalent that Americans can relate it to, not really. This type of dish would be considered a dessert but is really perfect to consume first thing in the morning, with strong Turkish coffee or even tea… I believe this was my favorite culinary experience in Lebanon, and I’m not sure why, but maybe it is the perfect balance of sweet, cheese, crunchy, and hot… how I wish I could find some where I live now in San Francisco.

    Thanks for your beautifully written article and for all the juicy details you provide about your journey through Lebanon, which really makes the mind picture everything, like a beautiful tasty movie experience!

    Sarah

    • Maureen Abood on April 1, 2014 at 11:01 PM

      That’s beautiful Sarah, and you’ve put it so well, that this is perfect breakfast food! Thanks so very much.

    • Mara on July 20, 2014 at 3:38 AM

      I work in SF, Good Frikin Chicken on Mission St. sells good shawarmas and great knafeh! Hope you enjoy!

      • Maureen Abood on July 20, 2014 at 8:45 PM

        Great tip! Thanks very much!

  5. Margaret e. Curtin on May 22, 2014 at 10:48 AM

    I have to tell u how much I’m enjoying your receipes and stories..my daughter margaret Anne went to school with u..keep em comin

    • Maureen Abood on May 22, 2014 at 6:11 PM

      Hello! Thanks so much, and warm regards to my classmate Margaret Curtain from Waverly (and you too!)!

  6. 7alim on June 25, 2014 at 1:15 PM

    How many ounces of fresh mozzarella are 2 cups? I’m having difficult understanding how fresh mozzarella can be measured in cups, and I’d love to make this recipe soon 🙂

    • Maureen Abood on June 25, 2014 at 7:30 PM

      Great question, thank you–that’s 16 ounces of mozzarella. I hope you do make it and love it as much as I do!

  7. Alfred on November 2, 2014 at 7:21 AM

    Hi Maureen,
    I would love to try this recipe. Is there any way you could do a metric conversion? Also is there an alternative to farina? We don’t have farina in Australia.
    Thanks.

    • RitaN on December 25, 2014 at 1:30 AM

      Hi Alfred, instead of farina, we use in Australia Nurse’s Cornflour (yellow box) for the knafeh. You can find it at Coles or Woolworths. It is actually made of wheat starch. Interestingly this is what I found on the net: ‘Cornflour is the name given in Australia to the starch component of milled grains. Despite its name, it is often made from wheat. The whole ground grain is processed to remove most of the proteins (mainly gluten), leaving almost pure starch’. Happy baking…

  8. Marguerite on August 14, 2015 at 7:14 AM

    Hi Maureen! When we visit my in-laws in Ottawa, there is always an early trip to the bakery to pick up kanafe. It’s our traditional farewell breakfast. Your recipe inspired me to surprise them when they were visiting U.S. since we have no place local to buy. I was all set to make this version but then I looked at your book and noticed the recipes were a bit different. I made the version in the book to rave reviews. Thank you!! I’m curious though as to why the recipes are different.

    • Maureen Abood on August 14, 2015 at 10:24 PM

      Hi there! Thanks for your comment! I published this recipe some time ago here on my blog, and then when I wrote my cookbook I redeveloped the recipe and tweaked it a bit. Both recipes are excellent, though! So glad you enjoyed it!

  9. peter @feedyoursoultoo on January 15, 2016 at 9:15 AM

    I was looking for a Middle Eastern dessert and our mutual friend Suzy (The Mediterranean Dish) sent me over to your blog. Love it.

    • Maureen Abood on January 15, 2016 at 1:23 PM

      Welcome! Wonderful!

  10. Christine on January 25, 2016 at 4:00 PM

    Just came back from my first trip to Beirut and have been craving Knafeh ever since! Going to try to make it for my girlfriends this weekend. Thanks for the recipe.

    • Maureen Abood on January 31, 2016 at 6:17 PM

      It’s just so delicious! Hope you enjoyed every bite!

  11. Clare Hadea on April 30, 2016 at 8:56 AM

    Hi Maureen. I want to make this for a dinner party. Have you ever made and froze this dessert ahead of time? I live in Maine and bought the akwari cheese in Boston this week so I need to use it soon I think. I don’t know how long it can sit in my fridge. Dinner party is in 2 weeks. Any advice about the shelf life of the cheese and possibly freezing the dessert would be appreciated. Love your recipes. Half-Syrian Clare Hadea

    • Maureen Abood on May 1, 2016 at 8:49 AM

      Hello Half-Syrian Clare! The akawi cheese will last at least two weeks, and much longer, in the refrigerator. You will be fine to make this for your dinner party. Interesting question about freezing knafeh. I’m not sure how that would go for the texture, so best to bake it when you’re ready to serve it. Sounds like a great finish to your party!

  12. Clare Hadea on May 5, 2016 at 7:38 AM

    Thanks Maureen. BTW just bought your new cookbook. Really looking forward to using it! Was just given a collection of Mamoul molds and want to put them to use. Clare

  13. Maggie L on December 21, 2016 at 5:05 PM

    I can’t believe I found this recipe. I lived in Beirut for 3 years and later Jordan for 10 years and just loved Knafeh Looking forward to trying to make this

  14. Michelle Whitten on January 8, 2017 at 6:55 PM

    Thank you so much for sharing!!! I live in the SE Michigan area, and am fortunate to have middle eastern markets, bakeries, etc. all near me! I love the food, the culture, and most importantly–the people! Every time I visit Greenland Market, I end up chatting with fellow women about recipes.

    Yesterday, I made my first stop at Lebon Sweets! I tried Knafeh, and was served it on a warm sesame-seed bowl-type piece of bread. It was unbelievable! It was quite filling, so next time I would have to split it with my husband or neighbors, as I could not eat the whole thing. I’m super excited to try your recipe, Maureen! Taste-wise, how would you say it compares to local Michigan-based middle eastern places? I’m curious to hear your input. I would love to hear any stories about your favorite Michigan Lebanese stores!

  15. San on February 25, 2017 at 9:27 AM

    I never heard of this until this week, my son sent me a recipe and said..make this! The recipe I have calls for ricotta, so that’s what I bought. I grew up with a Lebanese grandmother and don’t think I’ve ever had this. What do you think about the ricotta instead of Mozzarella ? It also said to use a “sweet cheese” That was Lebanese. Looked more like a solid cheese. Thank you.

    • Maureen Abood on February 25, 2017 at 9:35 AM

      Hi–thanks so much for this question. I think the mozzarella is the better way to go with the knafeh, as it creates a gooey chewiness that would be missing with ricotta. The Lebanese cheese used in knafeh is “ackawi” which is not as easy to find. It is very salty and would benefit from a little soak to remove some of the salt. But a totally salt-free cheese, which is traditional for this dish, is not as good in my opinion as having some salt to the cheese. Mozzarella works delightfully!

  16. Linda on April 9, 2017 at 3:05 PM

    Dear Mauree,

    Thank you so much for the great blog and the recipes. I have made few things from your recipes and all are working wonderful! I would like to add some pics from the Knafe I made today for the Palm day!

    Best wishes,

    Linda

  17. Joanne Azzie on April 13, 2017 at 9:38 PM

    want to make ahead several hours should I leave the Knafeh in its original pan and reheat or reheat on platter

    • Maureen Abood on April 14, 2017 at 1:52 PM

      I would reheat in its original pan, Joanne. Great question!

  18. Marie on May 11, 2017 at 12:04 PM

    Hello,I was wondering how can I make the syrup with less calorie for people following a diet on low sugar and low fat.
    Thank you

  19. angela on September 11, 2017 at 4:39 AM

    best knefeh in lebanon kenit w ba3da 3and l bohsali (y)

  20. Tania Tawil on March 24, 2018 at 9:57 AM

    Lovely post about something near and dear! Knafe has always been a Tawil family favorite for breakfast. After my father found out he had celiac sprue, he devised an ingenious way to make knafe gluten free with cream of rice and then cheese and atar syrup as usual. So many ways to make knafe (and all of its cousins, like osmalleya) but always delicious any way you cut it! As always, your posts warm the heart.

    • Maureen Abood on March 29, 2018 at 9:19 AM

      Tania, thank you for that. I’m fascinated about your dad’s gluten-free knafeh! I’d love to know more about how he did it with the cream of rice.

  21. Yomna on April 15, 2018 at 5:12 AM

    Hello, Im gonna try this soon, but i live in egypt and I’m not sure if i will find Farina here, I’ve never seen it in the supermarkets here before. Is there anything that i can substitute it with?
    Thanks

    • Maureen Abood on April 16, 2018 at 1:44 PM

      Yomna, look for Cream of Wheat cereal. You could also substitute polenta.

  22. Nat on May 30, 2018 at 11:30 PM

    I am making this now and got to the breadcrumbs and pastry part. I measured everything to a tea but it looks really wet.. not like your picture. Any suggestions to why this is and how to fix this next time ?

    • Maureen Abood on June 1, 2018 at 5:34 PM

      Hi Nat–hmmm, it’s hard to say without knowing exactly what you had in front of you. Was it wet even after baking?

  23. Natasha on June 9, 2018 at 6:12 PM

    Hi Maureen I think I figured out what happened. My butter was still hot from melting it and once it got cooler the mixture turned out great. The knafeh was amazing and everyone enjoyed it. I will be making this time and time again.

    Thank you for a perfect recipe !!

    • Maureen Abood on June 11, 2018 at 12:54 PM

      Oh wonderful news!!!!

  24. Rebecca F King on August 8, 2019 at 11:14 AM

    I make farmer’s cheese from a recipe on Allrecipes. That way I control the salt. I think I will try it in this recipe and report back.

    • Maureen Abood on August 12, 2019 at 7:32 AM

      Can’t wait to hear….

  25. Simone Levy on November 6, 2019 at 9:46 PM

    Is the farina the stuff we make basboussa with?
    So i am confused, the the kounafa is on the bottom and the cheese on top when u babe and nothing on top? Just 2 layers? I use ricotta in my regular kounafa and it is like eshta heavealy. I will try ur recipe. Farmers cheese sounds delish too.

    • Maureen Abood on November 7, 2019 at 4:25 PM

      Hi Simone–yes, my recipe has one layer of the phyllo/knafeh and one layer of cheese. You turn the knafeh out afterwards and then the knafeh layer is on top. Give it a whirl! The farina is cream of wheat.

  26. Cindy L Grgurich on January 1, 2020 at 9:49 AM

    I have never seen the shredded dough..only in sheets. Suggestions? Cindy

    • Maureen Abood on January 2, 2020 at 8:40 AM

      Hi Cindy–knafeh/kataifeh is not typically in standard grocery stores, but is in Middle Eastern and other Mediterranean markets (frozen). You can also order it online on Amazon and elsewhere!

  27. Elise Maloof on November 6, 2021 at 3:26 PM

    My “SIti” used to make what she just called Smeed (with the guttural language in there!) that as far as I know was just farina, milk and sugar then baked with dotted butter all over the top and then cinnamon. DO you know this recipe PLEASE? I have been trying to mimic it but without much success. Elise Maloof

    • Maureen Abood on November 17, 2021 at 7:02 AM

      How interesting–we also make “smeed” but it is a coarse bulgur pilaf and smeed refers to bulgur. Your smeed sounds just fabulous. I don’t know your specific recipe, I’m sorry!, but I’ll put that on my “to learn” list!

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I'm so glad you're here! You'll find among these pages the fresh and classic Lebanese recipes we can't get enough of! My mission is to share my tried + true recipes -- and to help our Lebanese food-loving community keep these culinary traditions alive and on the table. What recipes are you looking for? Let me know!

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