Baklava--The Most Collaborative Dessert from the Middle East
By: Blanche Shaheen/Arab America Contributing Writer
Ask people from any Middle Eastern country where Baklava originated, and they will all claim to have invented this popular dessert. It is widely believed, however, that the Assyrians at around 8th century B.C. were the first people who put together the concept of chopped nuts between layers of thin bread dough in layers, with honey, added for sweetness (now, the Assyrians are a part of the Arab World). Historically baklava was considered a food for the rich until the mid-19th century. Later, Greek seamen and merchants traveling towards Mesopotamia soon discovered the delights of Baklava and brought the recipe to Athens. The Greeks’ major contribution to the development of this pastry is the creation of thin phyllo (or filo which means leaf in Greek) to replace the original bread-like dough. They called the dessert Baklava. The Armenians, who had access to spice routes, integrated cinnamon, and cloves into the dessert. Then, the Arabs introduced the rose-water and cardamom, and called the dessert “Baklawa.” You can say this dessert is a beautiful collaboration of effort among many Middle Eastern cultures.
To streamline the technique of making baklava, you can buy already shelled nuts, use a food processor, and ready-made phyllo dough. This recipe uses a combination of walnuts and pistachios, but you can use any kind of nut–cashews and peanuts also work particularly well too, but they are usually ground into a finer meal.
The technique outlined in the video below demonstrates that you too can make this popular Middle Eastern confection in less than 30 minutes.
3 cups chopped pistachios or cashews coarsely chopped
¼ cup confectioners or icing sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
⅛ tsp cardamom
2 pounds of phyllo dough (one package)
2 cups of melted butter that has been cooled slightly (or rendered butter if you have the time or some in stock)
Use a 13 by 9 casserole dish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Let the package of phyllo defrost in your refrigerator at least 4 hours or overnight. Mix together the nuts, sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg then set aside.
Grease the casserole dish with butter. Open the package of phyllo dough, and spread out to the full rectangular size. Cut it in half right down the middle. One side will be the bottom layer, and the other side will be the top layer. Cover each side with a damp towel to keep it from drying. For the bottom layer, take two layers of phyllo from half the dough and lay it down in the casserole pan. Brush with the entire top with melted butter. Repeat until you have finished the entire half of the dough. Then spread the nut mixture evenly over the dough. Layer the rest of the phyllo sheets on top, making sure to brush butter between every other layer. With a sharp knife, cut into squares or diamond shapes. Bake the baklava for 15 minutes, then decrease the oven temperature to 325, and bake for another 30- 40 minutes or until browned. Pour the cooled lemon scented attar evenly over the surface.
Lemon scented Atter (syrup)
2 cups of sugar
2 cups of water
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp. lemon juice
Combine water, cinnamon stick, cloves and lemon peel in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat slightly, add lemon juice. Stir with a spoon until the mixture coats the spoon. Remove peels and cinnamon stick. Let it cool at least 10 minutes before topping baklava.
Blanche Shaheen is a journalist, food writer, and host of the cooking show called Feast in the Middle East. She specializes in Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond. You can check out her cooking video tutorials and cultural commentary on growing up Arab American at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv Her recipes can also be found at: https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/