Nov 01, 2017

Let’s Talk About Baklava

By MaryAnn Miano

If you’re desirous of an interesting and delicious dessert for Thanksgiving and would like to get away from everything pumpkin, why not honor National Baklava Day, celebrated on November 17, by making this favorite from our Greek and Turkish friends?

Baklava is a sweet pastry made with phyllo dough, chopped nuts (oftentimes with pistachios, but walnuts, pine nuts, or almonds can be used), butter, and sugar and/or honey. Once it is baked, sweet syrup is added over the pieces, allowing the syrup to absorb into the layers.

Baklava originated in the Assyrian region somewhere around the 8th century, where the Assyrians baked thin layers of unleavened dough with nuts, poured honey over it, and enjoyed its decadence. It was made on special occasions for the rich monarchs and kings who held high positions and who could afford the luxury of this sweet treat. Baklava was baked in Istanbul, Turkey, for the Ottoman Sultans from 1465 to 1853 and was enjoyed by the many countries in the Ottoman Empire. Even today, it can be heard in Turkey that one is “not rich enough to eat Baklava every day.” However, baklava is used as an excellent complement to coffee and it is often served at weddings and for various feasts and celebrations.

Baklava’s recipe spread throughout the near and Middle East, Armenia, and Turkey. It also spread west to Greece. Phyllo, the Greek word for leaf or “thin as a leaf,” gives baklava its delicious crispy taste. The spreading of this dessert to other regions reflects their own special touches and additions to the recipe. The type of nuts or syrup used in the recipe suggests the origin of the recipe.  Syrup with rose water and cardamom emerged from Arab countries, while syrup made with cinnamon and cloves would come from the Balkan Peninsula. New techniques and fillings evolved in this way.

Interestingly, in America, the baklava that is commonly served in Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants is dripping with sweet sugar and honey. The overly sweet version made in the U.S. is not as common in other parts of the world. Immigrants at the turn of the 20th century who brought baklava recipes with them would make it for a special celebration. They made the phyllo dough by hand with nuts from the harvest of their new homeland, and compared to from where they came from, the nuts and honey were in abundance here. Filling their special treats with more sugar and honey was a sign of wealth in their new country. Therefore, the more sticky and syrupy their baklava, the more their friends and family would see the wealth they were enjoying in the U.S.

Try the following recipe for a fantastic dessert everyone will love, and bring a little bit of the old country into your home.

 

BAKLAVA

 

Ingredients

1 (16 ounce) package phyllo dough

1 pound chopped nuts (pistachio is suggested)

1 cup butter

1-2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 cup water

1 cup white sugar

½ lemon juice OR lemon or orange zest, if you prefer

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup honey

 

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the bottoms and sides of a 9×13” pan.
  2. Chop nuts fairly fine and toss with cinnamon. Set aside. Unroll phyllo dough. Cut whole stack in half to fit pan. Cover phyllo with wax paper between the dough and a dampened cloth to keep from drying out as you work. Place two sheets of dough in pan and use melted butter to brush on thoroughly. Repeat until you have 8 sheets layered. Sprinkle 2-3 tablespoons of nut mixture on top. Top with two sheets of dough, butter, and nuts, layering as you go. The top layer should be about 6-8 sheets deep.
  3. Using a sharp knife, cut into diamond or square shapes halfway to the bottom of the pan, so the honey does not escape the bottom and burn. You may cut into 4 long rows, then make diagonal cuts. It’s a good idea to freeze the baklava for 15 minutes before cutting and baking, to make the cuts easier. Bake for about 50 minutes until baklava is golden and crisp.
  4. Make sauce while baklava is baking. Boil sugar and water with lemon juice until sugar is melted. Add vanilla and honey. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Let sauce mixture cool down completely.
  5. Remove baklava from oven and immediately spoon sauce over it. Let cool.
  6. Allow the sauce to soak into the baklava overnight.

 

Tips:

Phyllo sheets need to be brushed lightly with melted butter. Add 2-3 tablespoons of nut mixture, then a phyllo sheet with a light brush of melted butter, then another phyllo sheet. Add 2-3 tablespoons of nut mixture, repeating until nut mixture runs out and then alternating with phyllo sheets.