Flaky doughs used for phyllo and to make French croissants are believed to have originated with the ancient Egyptians. Over time, sweet layered phyllo pies made there way into Greece and the Arab world and ultimately to the freezer section of markets throughout the world. The ancient Egyptians created Kunafa bil Kishta (Coo-nahfa bill kish-tuh) by wrapping cream in shredded phyllo strands doused in fragrant syrup and sprinkled with chopped pistachios.
The ancient Egyptians held strong beliefs in an afterlife and it was especially important for the dead to present a life similar to the one they lived in life. Since a pharaoh was considered a god, they were buried in an elaborate sarcophagus (casket) carved in their likeness, and sealed in a tomb under a pyramid along with gold, jewels, their preserved organs and a sacrificial virgin or two. You can bet a few Kunafa bil Kishtas were included to ensure the pharaoh’s afterlife was deliciously decadent.
Kunafa bil Kishta- Cream-Filled Phyllo Strands
- Medium saucepan
- Large bowl
- 10-inch springform pan
- 2 cups Whole milk, divided
- 2 cups Heavy cream, divided
- 7 tbsp Cornstarch
- 1¾ cup Sugar, divided
- ¼ tsp Vanilla extract
- 1 tsp Ground cardamon
- 1 tsp Orange zest
- 1½ cup Melted butter or ghee
- 1 lb Package shredded phyllo dough (called Kataifi)
- 2 tbsp Softened butter
- ½ cup water
- ½ tbsp Lemon juice
- ½ tsp Orange blossom water, optional
- ½ cup Chopped pistachios
- Heat 1½ cups milk and 1½ cups cream, cardamom, sugar, and orange zest in medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir occasionally until sugar is dissolved. Cook another 5 minutes. While the milk mixture is simmering, whisk together cornstarch, vanilla extract, ½ cup milk and ½ cup cream. Add to milk and whisk to avoid lumps until mixture done with its 5 minutes of cooking. Bring milk mixture to a boil and cook 5 minutes more, stirring often to keep smooth as it thickens. Remove from heat and scrape into a bowl.
- Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). To keep things easy, purchase a bag of Kataifi (already shredded phyllo) online or from a local Middle Eastern market. Rip strands into 1-inch pieces and put in a large bowl. Separate stands with hands to remove any clumps. Add ½ cup sugar to melted butter and using hands, gently coat all the strands.
Assemble and Bake
- Generously butter or spray a 10-inch springform pan. Spread ⅔ of the phyllo strands across the bottom of the pan. With wet hands, pack it down and be sure it covers the whole pan up to the edges. Pour the milk/cream filling into the middle of pan and spread it evenly leaving a 1-gap away from the sides. Layer the remaining ⅓ phyllo strands over the filling and, with wet hands, press down to spread it evenly and seal the sides. Cut the ¼ cup softened butter into small slices and distribute over top layer. Cook until golden brown, about 40-60 minutes.
- In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine 1 cup sugar with ½ cup water and cook for 5 minutes. Add lemon juice and go another minute. Remove from heat and add orange blossom water, if using. Let cool.
- Let kunafa cool for 10 minutes. Invert it onto a serving platter. Decorate with chopped pistachios and pour syrup over. Serve.
- Filling can be made 1 day in advance and refrigerated covered.
- Shredded phyllo dough, called Kaifi, can be purchased online or at Greek or Middle Eastern food markets.