Turkish cuisine is famous for its sweet and syrupy desserts like baklava and şekerpare (sheh-KEYR' pah-RAY'). It's equally famous, however, for a luscious and cheesy dessert from the southeastern region of Turkey called, künefe (kyoon-eh-FAY').
Künefe is a crispy cheese-filled dessert made with kadayıf (kah-dah-YUF'), which is a traditional shredded wheat dessert with pistachio filling. Künefe is served hot out of the oven (so that the cheese is soft and stringy), and the best desserts can be found at restaurants serving grilled meats and kebabs.
Künefe is cooked and served in a very shallow, round metal pan that's especially designed for making this special dessert in. It's so delicious that Turkish people and tourists alike keep coming back for more.
The History of Künefe
Native to the southeastern parts of Turkey that border the Mediterranean sea, Künefe represents regional Turkish cuisine well. In fact, the best Turkish kebabs also come from this area of the country. It's no coincidence that künefe is found only in restaurants that sell kebab fare.
The traditional recipe for künefe is believed to originate from the city of Hatay, and many cities in the region lay claim to inventing it. Important southeastern cities like Mersin, Adana, Gaziantep, Kilis, Şanlıurfa, Diyarbakır, and Mardin all have their own variations of the dessert. It's also popular in other parts of the Arab world, like the Levant, Egypt, Turkey, the Caucasus, and Greece.
Also known as kanafeh, the Palestinians say that it originated in Nabulus, due to its use of white-brine cheese called Nabulsi. Said to be invented in the 10th century, the main ingredients are the same and involve sugar, cheese, pistachios, rose water, and kaymak. Other versions of the pastry are made with a crust from long thin noodle threads and semolina dough.
How to Prepare the Dessert
Künefe is hard to prepare, so it's almost never made at home. Most people wait until they eat at a kebab house to enjoy the authentic dessert. If you're up for the challenge, however, you can try making it. It is recommended that you have a shallow and metal künefe pan, or a small and shallow cast iron skillet. If you're traveling in Turkey, you can buy a specific künefe pan at restaurant supply shops, local bazaars, or at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
The first main ingredient in künefe is kadayıf, the finely shredded dough that's been partially baked to dry it. First, a large clump of kadayıf is pulled apart to separate the shreds. Then, it's chopped into fine pieces. The pan should be heavily buttered before pressing the chopped kadayıf into the bottom to make an even layer.
Next, a filling of low-salt Turkish cheese like kashar, lor, or dil is placed in the middle. Another layer of chopped kadayıf is then pressed on top of the cheese to make the top layer. Then, large amounts of clarified butter are drizzled over the top to saturate the kadayıf. Finally, the tray is placed in the oven and baked until the top becomes brown and crispy.
Before serving, the top of the künefe is sprinkled with bright green and grounded pistachios. Then, it's cut into wedges and served piping hot so that the cheese remains soft and stringy.