A serving of sweet, sticky baklava is a great way to finish off a meal at a Turkish, Greek, or Lebanese restaurant. You may even find varieties of baklava on the menu at German or Indian restaurants or places serving other European, Asian, Middle Eastern, and North African cuisine.
So, what is it exactly? Where does it come from, and how do you make this tasty dish? Read on to find out.
What Is Baklava?
Baklava is a sweet baked dessert or snack consisting of layers of buttery filo pastry soaked in sugar syrup or honey and sprinkled with nuts, often pistachios or walnuts. The top layers tend to be drier and flaky, while the bottom layers are soft and ooze syrup. It’s usually served cold and in small portions as it’s very rich.
There are many different varieties of the pastry. Some include dried vermicelli noodles, rose water, sesame paste (tahini) or seeds, spices like cinnamon and saffron, other kinds of nuts like almonds, milk, lemon zest, or glace cherries. It’s usually cooked in a large tray and then cut into squares or diamonds, but sometimes it’s circular or cylindrical. Whichever form it takes, it’s always delicious and the perfect way to end a meal.
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Origin of the Pastry
The origins of this delicious flaky pastry are not entirely clear, but it’s believed to have come from what is now Turkey, in the Ottoman royal kitchens of the Topkapi Palace in modern-day Istanbul (then Constantinople). Similar foods can be traced back to ancient Greece. As Turkey and Greece are neighbors, the cuisines of the two countries have heavily influenced each other.
It is popular in many Mediterranean European and Middle Eastern countries, as well as in places where diasporic or immigrant populations from those regions have settled. So, you’re just as likely to be able to dig into a portion of baklava in the restaurants of Melbourne and Delhi as you are on the streets of Istanbul and Athens.
Because it has spread around the world, it’s been adapted to local tastes and available ingredients. It also goes by slightly different names and spellings: baklawa in Arabic, baghlava in Persian, pakhlava in Armenian, and even siropiasta in Greek, which refers to the whole genre of syrupy desserts.
Types of Baklava
Just as there are many types of ice cream and sponge cake, there are many types of baklava. We’re not saying you should make it your life’s mission to try every type, but if you wanted to, you’d have a lot of fun. From Arab to European Mediterranean, here are some of the many delicious varieties around the world.
Traditional baklava from Greece consists of filo pastry, walnuts, and honey. Simple to make, it is considered by many to be one of the traditional forms, from which other varieties derive.
The key difference between Greek and Turkish versions is that the latter is usually made with pistachio nuts rather than walnuts. These are baked into the layers of pastry as well as sprinkled on top. This recipe is heavy on the pistachios but lighter on the honey and spices. The Turkish option is also considered one of the most traditional types.
Rather than a honey-based syrup, Lebanese baklava (or baklawa, as it is spelled in Arabic) more commonly uses a sugar syrup flavored with orange blossom or rose water. Other Arab varieties include Iraqi and Syrian, which are quite similar.
While you might not immediately associate the pastry with Russia, it’s a very popular dessert in the country. Russia is huge, and parts it border the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, regions where baklava is believed to have originated. The Russian version tends to be drier and less sticky than other kinds and served with powdered sugar on top. It sometimes includes raisins, too.
Persian or Iranian baghlava is made with rose syrup and might even be sprinkled with dried rose petals.
Baklava-type sweets usually go by other names in India, such as ghughra (in Gujarati) or karanji (in Marathi). Indian pastries use ingredients popular and common in South Asia, such as ghee (clarified butter) and saffron. This recipe uses semolina and is a cross between typical Middle Eastern and Indian takes on the dessert.
Armenian Baklava (Pakhlava)
Armenian baklava, or pakhlava, is flavored with cinnamon and cloves, making it a warm and comforting dish. It also uses syrup rather than honey, as well as clarified butter.
Israeli and Palestinian Baklava
Israeli and Palestinian baklava are similar and make use of halva, a sweet fudge-like substance made from baked sesame paste. Halva is popular in the Middle East and delicious in its own right — but even better when added to the pastry. This recipe draws inspiration from the version popular in Jerusalem.
The cuisine of Ethiopia, a north-eastern African country, is distinct but has also been influenced by that of neighboring Arab countries. Ethiopian baklava uses honey, melted butter, lemon zest, and vanilla essence.
The countries of the Balkan region of south-eastern Europe, including Bosnia, Serbia, and Romania, also love baklava. This shouldn’t be a surprise as they neighbor Greece and Turkey. Romanian baclava, Serbian baklava, and Bosnian baklava (called ružice) are made with a simple syrup and mixed nuts.
Tunisian baklava, like other types of the pastry eaten in the Maghreb (northwestern Africa) is heavy on pistachios but also uses other nuts, including almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts.
Baklava is simple to make, although you’ll need to have some special ingredients on hand, including ground nuts and rose water, depending on the recipe you follow. Filo pastry requires some delicate handling so it doesn’t break apart.
Otherwise, making this delicious pastry doesn’t require any complex processes or advanced cooking techniques, so try your hand at making any variety that appeals to you. And if all else fails, you can always pop down to your local Turkish restaurant for a box to enjoy at home.
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