Baklava is wonderfully delicious, having as many variations as it does contentions about its origins and influences. It owes this storied history to its considerable age: the first use of the word "baklava" in English was in Robert Wither's translation of Ottavio Bon's A description of the Grand Signor's seraglio, or Turkish emperor's court, published in 1650, but potential origin recipes are much older. The oldest historical record of possible proto-baklava comes to us from Cato the Elder's De Agri Cultura, written in 160 BC, and is charmingly named placenta. Modern-day doulas have imbued the phrase "placenta cake" with an entirely different meaning, but the ancient Roman placenta consisted of layers of dough and a cheese-and-honey mixture, baked and finished with a soak in yet more honey.
|New recipe paradigm: all honey, all the time|
Others seeking the origin of baklava point to the cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh, written by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghadadi in 1226 in what is today Iraq, and a recipe called lauzinaq. Lauzinaq is described as almond paste baked in pastry "thin as grasshopper wings" and drenched in honey. Another potential progenitor is the Turkish dessert güllaç: layers of paper-thin pastry dough soaked with sweetened milk and rose water and garnished with chopped nuts and pomegranate arils. The first record of güllaç appears in Important Principles of Food and Drink, written by Hu Sihui, a Mongol dietitian to the Yuan dynasty in 1330. So, whatever original recipe you prefer, baklava can be interpreted to belong to a culinary tradition at least 600 years old and spanning the Mediterranean through northern Africa, western Asia, and eastern Europe.
|Look this good at 600+ years, you will not|
Complicating the question of baklava's history is the unfortunate habit of its home regions to be conquered by various empires, including the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, whose seraglios popularized baklava to western Europe. With contested territories come contested recipes, and thus baklava is claimed by Arabs, Greeks, and Persians alike. This results in copious regional variations, altering the nuts and other flavorings. Pistachios, walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts may all be used and still be considered traditional (sometimes in combination). Pistachios are somewhat more prevalent in Arab and Persian versions, walnuts in Greek ones, and almonds are especially typical to Azerbaijani baklava. Similarly, reliance on just cinnamon and cloves suggests a recipe more in line with Greek or Balkan baklava and those that favor rose water, cardamom, and/or citrus are somewhat more likely to be in the tradition of the Middle East.
|The distilled steam of rose petals, check the international section or order online|
Because honey and nuts (and the laborious process of producing 30+ sheets of paper-thin phyllo pastry by hand) were once luxurious commodities, baklava in the past was a demonstration of wealth. "I'm not rich enough to have baklava every day" is an old Turkish saying. This explains why it was often reserved for special occasions like weddings and holidays. Now that phyllo sheets are available in the grocery store freezer, making baklava is more affordable and, if somewhat tedious, quite stress-free. In the American tradition of super-sizing things, Americanized recipes tend to up the sweetness considerably more than "old world" styles and, now that sugar is much cheaper than honey, often substitute sugar syrup for some or all of the honey. My version opts for 100% honey, uses less volume of overall sweetener than most, and includes a dash of lemon juice and zest to balance the sweetness. Combining cinnamon and rose water, the end result is both subtly warming and perfumed with a hint of damask roses.
|Because roses are delicious|
Honey pistachio rose baklava
Once the plastic packaging is opened and the phyllo exposed to air, it rapidly dries out and becomes brittle. Keep the unused sheets wrapped in a damp kitchen towel while you work so they stay pliable. Yields about 24 servings.
1 (16 ounce) package frozen phyllo dough
1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) butter, plus more for baking dish
1 pound unsalted pistachios
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/4 cups honey
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon zest, loosely packed
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon rose water
Frozen phyllo needs to thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Once thawed, start by grabbing it out of the fridge to come closer to room temperature while you prep everything else.
Preheat an oven to 350 F, butter a 9x13 baking dish, and melt the 2 1/2 sticks of butter in a small, heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Remove from the heat once completely melted.
Pulse the pistachios in a food processor 25 or so times, until coarsely ground into toothsome little chunks (think the biggest pieces roughly the size of popcorn kernels, or a little smaller. There will be smaller pieces and dust, too). Toss the chopped nuts with cinnamon in a medium bowl until evenly coated.
|# of pulses may vary|
As your final preparation, drench a clean kitchen towel in cool water, wring it out, and place in a large working area. Open the plastic phyllo packaging, and unroll all the sheets. Lay them out to measure up against the baking dish. Use kitchen shears to clip through the whole stack and quickly make adjustments, if necessary. Remove a single sheet, draping it into the bottom of the baking dish, and roll the rest up in the damp towel.
Smooth the first phyllo sheet flat across the bottom of your baking dish, patting down the edges to fit, if necessary. Use a pastry brush to thoroughly coat it with a sheen of melted butter.
|Get used to doing this ~30 times|
Follow up with seven more pastry sheets, wrapping the unused sheets in the damp towel between each sheet and buttering each one as you smooth it into the baking dish. Tedious. You should have eight buttered sheets laid out in the pan in total.
Sprinkle about a cup of nuts at a time onto the phyllo and spread to form an even layer, then follow up with four more sheets of phyllo, buttering between each sheet.
Repeat layers of nuts and four buttered phyllo sheets until all the nuts are used up, finishing with a top layer of eight total buttered phyllo sheets. Any excess butter can be reserved in the saucepan for making syrup.
Choose a corner of the baking dish and use a strong, very sharp knife to cut a diagonal line across the baking dish to the opposite corner, slicing clean through to the bottom. Using this starting line as a guide, make more diagonal slices, roughly two fingers apart. Then make a another diagonal slice, corner to corner, but cutting cross-wise across the first set of lines. Use this to guide more roughly two-finger wide slices to form lozenges (and an outer set of extra-crunchy triangles).
|Or cut into 12 squares and then 24 bars or triangles, for EZ mode|
Bake until crispy and richly golden, about 35-40 minutes.
As the baklava bakes, prepare the syrup by warming the honey over medium-low heat in a small, heavy saucepan (you can re-use the one from melting butter for easier clean-up, any leftover butter can be whisked into the honey).
Once the honey is flowing, watery liquid-hot, carefully whisk in the lemon zest, lemon juice, and rose water. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
Very slowly drizzle warm syrup over the hot, fresh-out-of-the-oven baklava, trying to get a fairly even coat. Cool, uncovered, for at least six hours, allowing the flaky layers to absorb the syrup and the bars to solidify. Serve directly onto plates, or use cupcake papers to pack them for transport or gift baskets.