Hey sweetie, where are you from? Baklava: – It’s complicated.
No other question has received so many different answers in the realm of food history.
Baklava is a sweet child born in our Eastern Mediterranean & Middle East neighbourhood where many ethnic groups claim its paternity.
If we were to do a quick DNA testing, we would discover the stories of its origin beautifully untangled in the article “The Baklava: A Window Into Medieval Asia”:
“The earliest reference to this dessert is when the Turkish folk poet Kaygusuz Abdal (1341–1441) spoke of “two hundred trays of baklava/some with almonds, some with lentils” in his writing. Abdal’s writing reflects the practice of making thinly layered breads on portable griddles- a practice largely undertaken by Turkish Nomads. Of course, this seems nothing like the Baklava we’ve come to know- the sweet, flaky, honey-soaked pastry covered generously in chopped nuts. Abdal might have been eating one of the earliest forms of the dessert, one that eventually would be influenced by various Balkan, Central Asian and Middle Eastern cultures to form the delicious pastry we know today as Baklava.
However, some historians have attributed the origins of the dessert to the Assyrians in the 8th century BC, citing the tradition of baking a few layers of dough, separated by chopped nuts, prepared in ovens fueled by burning wood. In order to sweeten the pastry, a thick honey syrup was also added in the end.
If this origin story is to be accepted, then, the seamen and merchants soon discovered the delicious pastry and brought it back to Athens with them, introducing the pastry to the Greek peninsula. The Greeks introduced the phyllo technique to the baklava. Phyllo, is a Greek word that translates to leaf. The Greeks would roll the dough into thin layers, abandoning the Assyrian tradition of thick, coarse bread.
By the time the baklava reached the Armenians through the Silk Route in the 10th century, it had already become a delicacy for wealthy Greek families. The Armenians introduced spices such as cinnamon and cloves to the baklava. There is one theory that says that, “the name “baklava” derives from the Armenian bakli halva, or “Lenten sweet”. In the Middle Ages, Armenian Christians prepared the pastry with 40 sheets of dough, one for each day of Lent.
Through the Silk Route, the baklava was exposed to the Arabs, who introduced rosewater to the pastry. Eventually, the pastry made its way to the Persians, from where it reached the Byzantine rulers and was first recorded in Abdal’s writings.
In fact, the baklava was considered to be an aphrodisiac by the Ottomans due to it’s ingredients (honey and pistachio were considered to be aphrodisiacs). As a result of this, different spices were added as per the sex of the consumer in order to enhance their respective sexual performances- cardamom for men, cinnamon for women, and clove for both genders. Under the Ottomans, the art of making baklava was perfected.
Still confused? You should not be. Even in our own country, baklava varies endlessly in shape, size and fillings. In the Southern Peloponnese they make “samousades” with walnuts and sesame, fried in olive oil, while in the North, in Ipeiros, they stuff the walnuts in phyllo rolls.
This easy Greek baklava recipe consists only of four main ingredients: phyllo dough, nuts, butter, and syrup.
Baklava (for a 20 X 30 cm pan)
For the filling:
– 150 g almonds (or 300 g walnuts only)
– 150 g walnuts
– 70 g sugar (optional)
– 1 tsp powder cinnamon
– 1 tsp powder clove
For the syrup:
– 250 g sugar
– 170 ml water
– 1 tbsp honey
– 1 small lemon (juice + peel)
– 1 tsp rose water (optional)
– 1 package phyllo dough (13-14 layers) – 2 hours out of the freezer
– 150 g clarified butter
Boil the ingredients of the syrup for max. 5 min. – take the lemon peel out. Put the ingredients of the filling in a food processor- chop not very fine.
Heat the butter till cleared. Preheat the oven upper lower 150 Celsius degrees.
Take your pan, put it upside down and mark with it the size of the phyllo.
Butter the pan, put a layer of phyllo on top, do the same for the rest of the 14 layers. Spread the filling on top of the last layer. Add the rest of the layers on top of it again buttered as before. Add butter at the surface, as well as a little bit of water with your hands and press to keep the phyllo together. Cut in shapes with a knife. Put the baklava in the oven. It is ready when the lower phyllo is baked too. When it is still hot, take a tablespoon and add the syrup slowly everywhere for the baklava to absorb it. Better enjoy your homemade baklava combined with some fresh ice cream!
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