National Baklava Day- A Celebration of a Worldly Pastry
By: Blanche Shaheen/Arab America Contributing Writer
November 17th is National Baklava Day, and while some people might find a national day dedicated to a pastry a bit silly, Baklava certainly deserves an honorary place in baking history. This buttery, flaky, and nutty pastry is actually a beautiful collaboration of effort among many Middle Eastern cultures.
Ask people from any Middle Eastern country where Baklava originated, and they will all claim credit over inventing this popular dessert. However, some researchers believe that the Assyrians were the first to put together the concept of chopped nuts between layers of thin bread dough with honey at around the 8th century B.C. (Currently, many consider Assyrians to be a part of the Arab World).
Historically baklava was considered a specialty 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 also called the dessert Baklava.
The Armenians, who had access to the main spice routes, incorporated cinnamon and cloves into the dessert. Then, the Arabs introduced rose-water and cardamom to the pastry, and renamed the dessert “Baklawa.” Celebrating National Baklava day not only commemorates this confection, it is also a tribute to this collaborative effort among countries.
Now you too can participate in National Baklava Day by trying your hand at this multifaceted dessert. While some people might find the process intimidating, once you achieve success you will feel a satisfying sense of achievement.
To streamline the technique of making baklava, you can buy already shelled nuts, grind the nuts in a food processor, and assemble ready-made phyllo dough found in most supermarkets. This recipe uses a combination of walnuts and pistachios, but you can use any kind of nuts you wish. Cashews and peanuts also work particularly well, but they are usually ground into an even finer meal. The technique outlined in the video below demonstrates how 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 ghee that has been cooled slightly
Use a 13 by 9 casserole dish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Let the package of phyllo defrost in your refrigerator for 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 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 top surface of the baklava.
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 the author of the cookbook called “Feast In the Middle East, a Journey of Family and Cuisine” which you can order here: https://secure.mybookorders.com/mbo_index.php?isbn=9781545675113 She is also a journalist, and host of the popular 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 at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv Her recipes can also be found at: https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/