Ask anyone from the Eastern Mediterranean who makes the best baklava, and chances are they will answer "we do" (that is, if they don't answer "my grandmother"). Apart from bread, there is probably no single foodstuff in the world that engenders as much loyalty to regional versions across so many countries as this iconic pastry. The specifics may vary, of course - some use walnuts, others pistachios; the flavoring can run through the gamut of the spice rack and beyond; the form can be triangular, cylindrical, diamond or square, but the principle is the same: tissue-thin layers of dough, brushed with butter and stacked with nuts, baked until crisp and golden, and then drenched with fragrant syrup which seeps through the cracks, penetrating the layers until every bite is a wildly alluring interplay of crunchy and soft, spicy and sweet, rich and, well, richer. Though wars may be waged over the finer points of its construction, in my opinion the differences are academic, since no matter what form it takes, baklava is one of the most unbelievably delicious things ever to grace a dessert plate.
Baklava is also one of the most well-documented and ancient desserts ever to grace a plate, with a timeline traceable back nearly three millennia. The story of baklava begins around the 8th century BC in northern Mesopotamia, when the Assyrians are reported to have layered crude pieces of bread dough with nuts and honey before baking them in wood-burning ovens. We can thank the Greeks, however, for inventing a method of rolling the pastry dough into paper thin sheets appropriately called filo, meaning “leaf”. By the 3rd century BC, there are records of baklava being served in wealthy Greek households for all kinds of special occasions, as well as being prescribed as an aphrodisiac, for the walnuts and honey they filled it with were believed to incite more than just gastronomic passions. The sweet also spread into the wealthy households of the ancient Persians and Romans, and then journeyed to what is now Turkey when the Roman Empire moved east to Constantinople. Many believe, however, that it was during the four hundred years that the Ottomans controlled Constantinople that baklava reached its apogee, as the kitchens of the Imperial Palace became the ultimate culinary hub of the empire, and Armenian, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Hungarian and French chefs were brought in to add their particular touches to the refinement of the sultans' favorite dessert.
These days you could easily draw a map of countries from Sofia to Tehran based on recipes for baklava. In the Balkans the recipe usually calls for walnuts, and particularly in Greece they like honey, cinnamon and cloves spicing up the mix, whereas in the Levant pistachios and a touch of lemon or orange blossom water are more to people's taste. Turkey, straddling Europe and the Middle East, is home to many different variations including a famous hazelnut version that many are partial to; likewise the pastry chefs in the southern city of Gaziantep are particularly renowned for their version incorporating a thick paste made from milk and semolina. Moving deeper into the Arab world and Iran, the recipes call for heavy doses of rosewater and cardamom, and almonds are often the nut of choice; here the shapes and sizes are also much more variable. In all these places the baklava can be preferred 'wet' or 'dry', thick or thin - the only thing people seem to agree on is what it shouldn't be: soggy, greasy or overpoweringly sweet (though this last one is, naturally, often subject to creative interpretation).
Baklava is surprisingly easy to make, and even more surprisingly easy to eat. It is, for example, one of the few foods that cause my tastebuds to short circuit my other cognitive functions - at least, that's the only explanation I can give as to why my fullness receptors and calorie concern seem mysteriously out of order whenever it's placed in front of me. In my version of this irresistible sweet, which doesn't adhere to any particular tradition but my own tastes, simplicity is the key to perfection. Without heavy spicing or additional fillers, the rich voices of the butter and nuts sing clearly, supported only by a subtle and well-trained chorus of fragrant cardamom and the barest hint of honey. You're welcome, however, to treat this recipe as a blueprint for your own favorite flavors. For example, you could easily substitute another nut for the pistachios if you prefer; likewise, the syrup can be customized to your taste, perhaps with more or less honey, with other spices or with flower essences. And who's to say you can't go completely untraditional and put some dried fruit, vanilla or liqueur inside? The only thing I would not recommend is skimping on the butter or the sugar - even if you have to diet for a week before and after eating it, the taste will be worth it.
I will, however, give you one piece of dietary advice: do as I do and insure you have plenty of people around when you pull this out of the oven. Not that the thought of others witnessing my lack of self-restraint actually deters me where baklava is concerned - on the contrary, I just count on baklava having an equally compelling effect on everyone else so that it disappears before my own gluttony can cause too many heads to turn.
Baklava with Cardamom, Honey and Pistachios
Yield: Makes about 24 pieces, depending on how you cut them.
Source: inspired by recipes in Claudia Roden's New Book of Middle Eastern Food and, to a lesser extent, Paula Wolfert's Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean
Note: Although baklava is best made in a heavy metal pan, you can use glass or ceramic as well - however reduce the oven temperatures by 25 degrees if you do.
1 lb (450g) filo pastry (about 24 fine sheets), defrosted if frozen
1 1/4 cups (2.5 sticks or 300g) unsalted butter, clarified (instructions follow)
12 oz (300g) shelled, unsalted pistachios
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups (325g) sugar
1 cup (250ml) water
4 tablespoons flavorful honey
1 tablespoon cardamom pods, lightly crushed with the back of a knife
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Prepare the syrup first. Put the sugar, water, honey and cardamom in a pan and boil gently for 5-10 minutes until the syrup thickens just enough to coat a spoon. Stir in the lemon juice and simmer for a few seconds more. Allow to cool, then chill in the refrigerator. Look at the syrup when it has cooled - it should be thick but still flow easily. If it is too viscous and sticky, add a little water, warming it if necessary, and letting it cool again. Fish (or strain) out the cardamom pods.
To clarify the butter, melt it in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring it to a gentle boil. Boil without stirring until a layer of foam has risen to the surface and the white solids have sunk to the bottom (don't let the solids brown). Skim off the foam as best you can, then decant the golden liquid into another container, leaving the solids behind (I normally strain it through a cheesecloth while doing this). Discard the solids. Keep the clarified butter warm.
Pulse the pistachios and sugar together in a food processor until finely chopped but not pasty. Set aside 1/3 cup of the nuts for garnish, if desired.
While you're working with the filo, keep the stack covered with a damp towel so it doesn't dry out. Brush a large square or circular baking pan, a little smaller than the sheets of filo, with butter. If the sheets are much bigger than the pan, trim them to fit (a little too big is better than too small - just let them come up the sides of the pan). Lay twelve sheets, one at a time, one on top of the other, in the tin, brushing each generously with clarified butter, pressing the filo into the corners of the pan.
Spread the nuts evenly over the sheets. Fold over any pastry that extends over the top of the nuts. Then cover with the remaining sheets, brushing each, including the top one, with melted butter. With a sharp-pointed knife, trim the top layers so they fit perfectly in the pan. Cut parallel lines about an inch and a half apart, then cut other parallel lines diagonally so as to have diamond-shaped pastries. Cut right through to the bottom.
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C (see note above). Bake the baklava for 10-12 minutes, or until it begins to brown slightly. Remove the baklava from the oven and pour over any remaining butter (reheat it if it's not still liquid). Reduce the oven temperature to 325F/150C and bake for about 1 hour more, or until it is puffed up and golden all the way through. Remove from the oven and immediately pour the cold syrup all over the top of the hot pastry, concentrating on the gaps. Return the pan to the turned off oven and let sit, with the door closed, until most of the syrup has been absorbed, about half an hour. Sprinkle on the reserved pistachios, if desired.
Cool completely to room temperature before serving. It actually tastes best if you leave it out to 'ripen' overnight, covered with foil.
Due to the use of clarified butter, this will keep well for at least a week at room temperature. It has never lasted that long around me, however.