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'). It is among the best pastry desserts that are easily found at Turkish restaurants serving grilled meats and kebabs.
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 the cheese is soft and stringy.
Künefe is cooked and served in a very shallow, round metal pan that's specially designed for making this dessert. It's so delicious that Turkish people and tourists alike keep coming back for more.
Native to the southeastern parts of Turkey that border the Mediterranean sea, künefe represents regional Turkish cuisine very 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, though 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 Arabic world, like the Levant, Egypt, the Caucasus, and Greece.
Also known as kanafeh, the Palestinians say that it actually 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 It
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 metal künefe pan, or a small, 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 main ingredient in künefe is kadayıf, the finely shredded dough that's partially baked to dry it. First, a large clump of kadayıf is pulled apart to separate the shreds. It's then 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. After that, 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 ground pistachios. It's then cut into wedges and served piping hot so that the cheese remains soft and stringy.