Though fans of this dessert from Greece or Lebanon may bristle, Turkish baklava is an Ottoman invention. It consists of a tight stack of paper-thin filo dough, layered with chopped nuts and bound with honey or syrup. The earliest English reference to it comes from 1650, but the word may have Mongolian origins (bayla means “to pile up,” as in layers of filo). The creation of the dish is unknown, with some scholars suggesting it is a natural extension of the ancient central Asian Turkic tradition of baking layered breads, while others point to the distressingly-named ancient Roman placenta cake (which was much tastier and less alarming than it sounds, featuring layers of dough alternating with cheese, honey and ground bay leaves). The origin story is perhaps of less importance than what the dish became. Baklava as we know it today featured in a Renaissance ceremony held at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. On the 15th of every month during Ramadan, the sultan would present baklava to his Janissaries, the elite troops of the Ottoman army, in a ritual called Baklava Alayi.
I was always intimidated when it comes to making something with lots of layers of dough. First, I’m inherently lazy as a cook, and so making dough from scratch, especially dough that is meant to be paper- thin, sounded like a lot of work, and not much fun. I’m all for shortcuts, especially if they encourage you to try a dish that you otherwise wouldn’t dare. So if I use store-bought filo, perhaps I can make some headway after all? In searching for a recipe, I wanted to be sure to stick to the Turkish origins of a dish that is now a ubiquitous dessert around the Arab world and in Greece. The Greek version is distinctive because the sweetener and binder of the dough and nuts is honey, whereas Turkish baklava uses şerbet (pronounced share-BET), a syrup made from sugar, lemon juice and water. The resulting pastry is lighter and less likely to pull at your teeth, making it also easier to eat more of it—always a good thing. You can find baklava with any assortment of nuts, with walnuts, pistachios and hazelnuts among the most popular. I decided to try the pistachio variety, since I like the way the pistachio green looks against the honey- colored dough. Baklava is made in large trays and then cut into the fanciful shapes that you can find at restaurants: diamonds, triangles, squares, even spirals.
The recipe I tried encouraged me to skip making my own filo, or yufka, which I immediately appreciated. I was surprised at how simple the recipe really is, provided you have the filo dough in hand. I found fresh filo at my local supermarket, but frozen would’ve been fine. The ingredients are just filo (36 leaves, though you could make a shorter or taller baklava if you like), unsalted butter, sugar and a nut of choice (in my case, pistachios). I began by making my şerbet, which was just a mixture of water, sugar and lemon, brought to a boil and simmered to reduce into a syrup. The only tricky part, where things can really go wrong, is when it comes to clarifying the unsalted butter. Butter consists of milk solids, butterfat and water. In order not to drown your pastry in milk and water, you want to “clarify” the butter, getting rid of as much of these liquidy components as possible, to be left with butterfat, which is where the flavor lies. You may have encountered clarified butter when sautéing, which is a good use since the butterfat doesn’t burn as easily as butter with the milk solids still present. This means you can use it at higher temperatures (up to 100 degrees F higher) than you can with unclarified butter, which you buy straight from the store. Clarifying butter is not so much hard as requiring constant supervision, so nothing burns. You heat, slow and low, a normal stick of supermarket butter. As it melts, a foam rises to the surface, which is the water boiling off. A white residue will ooze away from the yellow of the butter—this is the milk solid separating from the yellow butterfat. You need to ladle away the foam and milk solids, which will rise to the surface, while the butterfat remains below. You can save the milk solids for use elsewhere, wherever a slightly-buttery-milky liquid might come in handy. But what we want is the butterfat beneath. I almost burnt my butterfat, so you really need to stir, and keep the heat very low. Butterfat (aka clarified butter) keeps a long time, far longer than unclarified butter, so you might as well make a lot of this at once. Professional kitchens will clarify huge tubs of butter at once, to have on hand.
Clarified butter at the ready, I crushed pistachios with a mortar and pestle (though in a pinch, seal them in a Ziplock bag and whack them into submission with a rolling pin) and mixed them with a bit of sugar (I used very little, on general principles). My next fear was that my filo would stick to my pan, so to combat this I laid down baking sheets along the bottom and brushed it with butter. Then comes layering time, alternating ground nuts with a layer of filo, brushing the clarified butter all over the top of each sheet. Continue until you’ve used up all your sheets (36 in this case). A trick I learned from reading about a dozen recipes is to pre-cut the baklava, rather than cutting it once it’s cooked (which is what I would’ve thought to do), because it will tend to squish under your knife blade once it comes out of the oven. I cooked it at 200 C for 45 minutes, then took it out to sit. While it is still hot, pour the şerbet all over it, and dust one more round of ground nuts. Voila, Turkish baklava with minimal hassle. Now, if only I could find some balaclava-clad Janissaries with which to share my homemade treat?