A Dessert Worth Starting a War
Baklava is a rich, buttery pastry of layered phyllo dough and chopped nuts, drenched in a sugar syrup — no wonder it’s such a popular dessert throughout the Middle East, Mediterranean, and even parts of East Asia. Food historians generally agree that baklava first appeared in ancient Syria during the 8th c. Assyrian rule of the region, its earliest version consisting of layered bread dough and chopped nuts drenched in honey. Up until the mid-19th century, baklava was considered a luxury good, consumed only by the elites, and represented sophistication, wealth, and privilege. Until the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the elites of Istanbul even kept two phyllo chefs, one who specialized in making phyllo for baklava.
As baklava spread from these elites and across the region, it was transformed by the cultures of the regions that adopted it, often incorporating local ingredients. The main sources of variation in baklava lies in the mixture of nuts and spices, as well as the size and shape of the pastry. The Syrian recipe calls for walnuts, while southeast Turkey around Aleppo incorporates renowned, locally-sourced pistachios. Hazelnuts, cashews, and pine nuts populate baklava from other regions as well. Spices are just as crucial to the makeup of the nut mixture and the sugar syrup. For instance, the Syrian version of syrup is a mix of water, sugar, and lemon juice, and the Armenian recipe employs cinnamon and cloves, while countries located in the Arabian Peninsula commonly incorporate rose water and cardamom. And within these specific countries and regions, there are even more specific variations.
Due to baklava’s widespread popularity, it’s unsurprising that many countries vie to claim both ownership and superior artisanry of the dessert. In 2006, the Cypriots claimed baklava as their “national dessert,” causing Turkish bakers to threaten an uprising and inciting what is now known as “The Baklava War.”
Let’s get to the point: a dessert worth starting a “war” for is most definitely worth making at home…especially when store-bought phyllo dough is on hand. Here’s the recipe!
Chop nuts — you can use a food processor, coffee grinder (based on personal preference of size), or hand-chop for coarser texture.
- Chop nuts — you can use a food processor, coffee grinder (based on personal preference of size), or hand-chop for coarser texture.
- Combine nuts, sugar, cinnamon (and other spices) in a medium-sized bowl. Mix thoroughly. Set aside 2-3 tbsp of mixture for garnish.
- Unroll phyllo dough and trim slightly if necessary to fit a 13 by 9 baking pan.
- Feel free to play around with different baking pans. I’ve seen round baklavas, smaller dishes, etc.
- To make the dough easier to work with, make sure your phyllo doesn’t dry out. In order to do this, place your phyllo dough on one slightly-damp towel and cover it with another.
- Don’t make the towels too damp — wet phyllo will stick and be even harder to work with.
- Damp paper towels work too.
- Brush baking dish with some butter. Line baking pan with one sheet of phyllo. Fold in excess if necessary. Brush the sheet with butter.
- I’ve also tried just pushing excess up sides of pan to create an envelope.
- When buttering, start with corners and edges before brushing the rest of it.
- Place another phyllo sheet on top and brush with butter. Repeat until you have approximately 15 sheets in your pan.
- Spread ½ of your nut mixture over the top sheet.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Layer approximately 10 other sheets of phyllo dough on top, using the same process as before
- Distribute the rest of the nut mixture over the top sheet.
- Layer another 15 sheets of phyllo dough on top, using the same process as before. Brush the final layer of phyllo with a generous amount of butter.
- Cut diagonally across the pan from left to right. Make cuts approximately 1 ½ inches apart. Do not cut all the way to the bottom of the pan. Repeat from right to left.
- Bake on a low rack for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Make sure to check your baklava as it bakes. As the baklava is baking, make the syrup.
- In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, water, lemon juice, honey, and spices. Bring to boil on medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Reduce the heat to medium-low and allow to boil for 3-4 more minutes without stirring. Remove from heat and let syrup cool.
- When the baklava is ready, remove it from the oven and immediately pour the cooled syrup evenly across the pan. You should hear sizzling as the syrup hits the baklava.
- Garnish with remaining nut mixture and allow syrup to set for a few hours (preferably overnight).
- Carefully cut the baklava the rest of the way through to the bottom of the pan before serving.