They say good things come to those who wait.
I’m inclined to agree.
Since going vegan over 5 years ago now, there have been only a handful of “conventional” dishes that I’ve struggled to recreate. Tofu Halloumi for example was not an instant success, and took many a failed flop before I was able to strike the right balance of flavour and texture.
Vegan omelettes were also a tough one to crack (pun completely intended) but that changed when I discovered the wonder that is an eggless frittata.
And today, joining the ranks is a recipe I have spent over 3 years trying to get right – if that isn’t dedication, then I don’t know what is.
The funny thing about Arabic sweets (and desserts in general, if I’m totally honest) is that I only really started to crave them after I went vegan. I’m not sure if this is down to an evolution of tastes, having had a predominantly savoury tooth for most of my life, or perhaps a subconscious desire for that which I could not have, but regardless – almost every Ramadan without fail I find myself hankering for traditional sweets. Luckily, said cravings have resulted in some pretty successful vegan versions of basbousa, muhallabia and Egyptian pumpkin pie.
If I had to pick a favourite Arabic dessert however, Kunafa would hands down be the winner.
- 1 cup soaked cashews (or boiled, for 15 mins)
- ¼ block of firm tofu (approximately 115 grams or 4 oz)
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tsp apple cider vinegar
- 4 tbsp Tapioca starch (AKA Tapioca flour)
- 2 tbsp nutritional yeast
- ¼ tsp sea salt
- 1 cup of water
- ½ a packet of shredded phyllo pastry, defrosted
- 4 tbsp of vegetable ghee or vegan butter melted
- Agave or simple sugar syrup with 1 tsp of orange blossom water
- Pistachios to garnish
- Start by preparing your cheese. Drain and rinse cashews then add all remaining ingredients to a blender and blend until completely smooth. The mix will be watery at this point.
- Pour the cheese mixture into a small pot on medium heat and cook while stirring regularly. As the mixture heats it will start to form clumps before taking on a gooey and melty consistency. The longer you cook it for the more firm it will become, but you still want it to remain spreadable so don't overdo it. If your cheese firms up too much you can add water and stir on low heat which should soften it up.
- Turn off the heat and set aside.
- Pre-heat your oven to 150 C.
- If your phyllo pastry is in long strings you'll want to shred it by pulsing gently in a food processor until you have verimicelli length shreds first.
- Place the shredded pastry in a large bowl and massage thoroughly with the vegetable ghee.
- Grease a medium sized pan (12-16 in) with any excess butter and press half of the kunafa mixure into the base so that it forms a compact even layer about 1 cm thick.
- Pour the cheese mixture on top and spread evenly. Cover with the remaining kunafa mixure and pat down gently.
- Bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until the pastry is a light golden brown - you could broil to achieve a deeper colouring on top but be careful it doesn't burn!
- Allow to cool then drizzle with agave or a simple sugar syrup and pistachios to serve.
Crispy phyllo pastry, creamy and slightly salty cheese, all drenched in a orange blossom water infused syrup and topped with crushed pistachios – what’s not to love?
Let the record show that this Kunafa was non-vegan approved and loved. My mother marvelled at how close it tasted to the “real” thing and was genuinely impressed with the taste and texture of the creamy cheese filling.
And now for the all important recipe notes:
- Tapioca starch is absolutely essential if you want to get that stretchy and gooey texture – other thickeners like arrowroot and cornstarch don’t yield the same results but will still give you a denser cream-like mixture.
- Vegetable ghee is admittedly not the healthiest of ingredients (and some brands may contain Palm oil, for those who wish to abstain for ethical reasons), but personally I’ve had the best results making this particular dessert with it. Vegan butter like Earth Balance also works, and I’m fairly certain coconut oil would as well assuming you don’t mind the coconut taste.
- Red food colouring is an ingredient often used in some Kunafa recipes but I personally chose to omit because most red dyes contain carmine (extracted from Cochineal bugs) and as such are not vegan-friendly. Plus, the inclusion of food colouring is purely aesthetic and adds nothing to the taste of the dish.
- If you are soy-free you can substitute the tofu for an additional 1/4 cup of cashews and 1/4 cup of water.
- To make a simple sugar syrup just dissolve 1 part sugar in two parts water and a tbsp of lemon juice then reduce on the stove for 3-5 minutes. I like to add a teaspoon of orange blossom water as well but it’s not essential.
If vegan baking has taught me anything, it’s this:
With a little bit of patience, a lot of sugar and a pinch of faith – anything is possible.
Until next time, friends.