Today, I was given the gift of time. It’s one that I often don’t give myself during these summer months, and my full calendar for at least the next two weeks is proof of that. So tonight when volleyball was cancelled due to severe thunderstorms, I trekked home from the beach excited at the prospect of a commitment free night. So what I do I do?
I cook. And I write.
And it’s because of this extra time that I decided that I just couldn’t wait until tomorrow to talk about this baklava, so here I am. And it’s because of this extra time that you also get a recipe tomorrow. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
But first, back to the baklava. Baklava can be found all over the Middle East, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who ate it first. According to this, the Assyrians, around 8th century B.C., were the first people who put together a few layers of thin bread dough, with chopped nuts in between those layers, added some honey and baked it in their primitive wood burning ovens. This earliest known version of baklava was baked only on special occasions. In fact, historically baklava was considered a food for the rich until mid-19th century.
Food traditions spread through the various regions of the Middle East with the traders and seamen, and while it is best associated with Greece, baklava ended up being the top choice of for the Turkish Sultans as well as for the wealthy because its two principal ingredients, the pistachio and honey, were believed to be aphrodisiacs. Maybe if I had known this little tidbit when I arrived in Turkey 5 years ago, I wouldn’t have been as surprised by the plethora of types and varieties of baklava found in every store window and on every restaurant menu.
However, despite my decidedly non-Middle Eastern ethnic heritage, believe it or not, baklava has a special place in my heart and stomach. My mother, collector of recipes and maker and baker of all things delicious, has been making baklava part of my family’s holiday traditions as long as I can remember. The sweets table at every single holiday not only included the traditional Hungarian nut rolls, but also Viennese honey cake (to come later) and this recipe for baklava, passed on to her probably more than 40 years ago from an Armenian resident at the hospital in which she used to work. Even today, as the mounds of cut out and sugar cookies have long since disappeared from our holiday cookie jars, you can bet the baklava will be out and about each and every Christmas.
It was because of this that when I went to Turkey and sampled every single shape and flavor of baklava I could find (and when I commit to something, I really commit), none were good enough.
A Turkish baklava sampling with Lettuce and Tomato
None were Mom’s. And you know I say time and again how MOM FOOD IS THE BEST FOOD. I thought for a second about trying to find a more authentically Turkish or Greek recipe: rose water over the lemon, pistachios over the walnuts, but when I told Mama Buddha, she imparted the following: When she found a recipe that was perfect the way it was, there was no reason to try and search for something to make it better.
Truth, that, and it’s because of that that I’m giving you my family’s recipe for baklava, perhaps not the traditional that you may have expected or see in your local Greek restaurant’s pastry case, but no doubt passed down through the generations from the family of that Armenian resident so long ago. And that, is good enough for me.
A few notes:
This is SO easy. It literally takes 20 mintues to throw together (though longer to bake). Don’t be intimidated. You can do it.
This is NOT gluten or dairy free. I thought for a second about trying to make gluten-free phyllo dough. And then I figured I’d respect my sanity and not do that, especially given the disaster that was my strudel dough.
There are a lot of ways to spice this and this is just my family’s. One interesting recipe I read used olive oil rather than butter as the fat between the layers. I thought that, if I wanted to go dairy-free, that would be the way to go, particularly with some of that righteous flavored olive oil that I keep around. Maybe a plan of action for another day, but for this one, I was just going to stick with what I knew.
For these pictures, I halved the recipe and used the tray that came with my toaster oven since I am a household of one. Therefore, mine only has two layers. So, take note that this recipe can be halved, and you may not get the full three layers.
Makes a ¼ sheet pan tray
2 lbs phyllo dough
1 cup unsalted butter, melted
3 cups ground walnuts
¼ cup powdered sugar
¼ tsp cinnamon, heaping
1 ½ cup honey
1 cup water
1 cup light corn syrup
2 TB lemon juice
1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Toss the ground walnuts with the powdered sugar and cinnamon. Set aside.
3. Unroll phyllo dough and cover with a dampened cloth to keep from drying out as you work. In a shallow edge, ¼ sheet pan**, place one sheet of dough in pan, butter thoroughly. Repeat until you have 5 sheets layered (it’s okay if the sheets hang over the edge of the sheet). Sprinkle 1/3 of nut mixture on top. Layer another 5 sheets of dough, buttering each layer before the next, then add another 1/3 of the nuts. Repeat until all the filling is used (you should have three layers of filling). Finish it off with 5 final layers of buttered dough. If you have overhanging dough, fold the edges into the pan and butter thoroughly.
**If you don’t have a ¼ sheet pan, you can use a 9 x 13, but just cut the phyllo sheets in half to fit better.
4. Using a sharp knife cut into diamond or square shapes all the way to the bottom of the pan. You may cut into 4 long rows the make diagonal cuts. Bake for about 1-1/4 hour until baklava is golden and crisp.
5. About 20 minutes before the baklava is done baking, make the syrup. Boil the honey, water, corn syrup and lemon juice for about 20 minutes.
6. As soon as the baklava comes out of the oven, pour all of the syrup over it and let cool thoroughly. Mama says it’s best to sit and absorb a few days. Once cooled, loosely cover with plastic wrap.