As we get close to 80% of the way round the world on this journey, I have to admit, dear reader, that some of the bakes have been getting a bit on the obscure side (and there are more of those to come). Baklava, however, isn’t one of those: the nut-filled, syrup-infused flaky pastries feature on the dessert menu of just about every Turkish, Greek, Persian or Middle Eastern restaurant on the planet, not to mention innumerable cafés.
Although scholars point at recipes for vaguely baklava-like desserts going all the way back to ancient Greece, the dish as we know it today probably showed up in the kitchens of the Ottoman Empire. So essential is the dish to Turks today that during Ramadan in 2020 – in the eye of the storm of the Covid-19 pandemic – baklava bakers were granted specific permission to stay open on the grounds that this was an essential commodity (if you don’t believe me, check out the New York Times article).
There are many variations as to the choice of nuts, the make-up of the syrup and the way the final product is shaped, but roughly, it comes to this: the Greek version is likely to be filled with walnuts and soaked in a honey based syrup, whereas the Turkish version is more likely to use pistachios with a lemon-infused sugar syrup. That’s a very broad brush distinction – you’ll find plenty of exceptions, mixtures and different ideas.
I’m going to assume that in common with 99.99% of home cooks on the planet, or at least outside the Middle East, you have no intention of making your own filo pastry. On that basis, making your own baklava is relatively straightforward, albeit time-consuming – it depends on how quick you are at laying out sheets of filo and brushing melted butter over them, which you’re going to be doing a lot of. I ended up with a kind of amalgam of recipes from The Spruce Eats, The Mediterranean Dish and Cleobuttera. The key thing to remember is to pour cold syrup over the hot baklava and then leave it to soak for a substantial amount of time.
- 450g sugar
- 750ml water (see note below about quantities)
- Juice of ½ lemon (around 30ml)
- Optional: 10g liquid glucose, which is supposed to help prevent your syrup from crystallising
- Optional: other flavourings such as orange blossom water, orange extract or cloves – I didn’t use any
- Put all items into a small saucepan and mix
- Bring to the boil and simmer until you have a thick syrup, around 104℃
- Take the saucepan off the heat
The quantities in this recipe seems to be set so that you leave the syrup on for the whole time you’re making the baklava, reaching the right stickiness around the time you finish. This kind of worked, but next time, I think I’ll use a third of the amount of water and just get it done in adavance, with a fraction of the time boiling down.
The main thing
Ideally, you want a baking dish the same size as your filo sheets, at least 2.5 cm deep.. Mine was 37 cm x 27 cm, which was around 3 cm too narrow, so I had to trim down the filo. A word of warning, though: you will be cutting the baklava in the dish before it goes into the oven and, most likely, again when it is baked. This will probably gash any non-stick coating on your dish (it did mine). You can probably help matters by lining the tray with a single piece of baking paper so that you can lift the whole lot out after baking, which at least means you’ll only wreck it once rather than twice. Alternatively, a Pyrex dish might be a better choice.
The diamond shape I used is pretty traditional, but you can, of course, try many different ideas: baklava is often sold in squares or rectangles.
The quantities assume that your filo comes in 250g packs, each of which has around 15 sheets. This lets you make three layers of 10 sheets each. Adjust the number of sheets accordingly: you want to use around ⅔ of a pack for each layer. Some recipes, by the way, just use two layers of filo with one layer of nuts – that’s fine too.
Next warning: filo dries out easily. Keep it covered with a tea towel at all times other than the minimum few seconds you need to peel a sheet off the block.
- 400g shelled, unsalted pistachios
- 40g sugar
- 250g ghee (use clarified butter if you prefer or if you can’t get ghee)
- 500g filo pastry (fresh or frozen)
- Preheat oven to 200℃ fan.
- Blitz the pistachios in a food processor until they are mostly powdered but still have a coarse texture with lots of small pieces.
- Transfer to a small bowl, add the sugar and mix. Reserve 50g for garnish after the baklava is baked.
- Melt the ghee.
- Spread your baking dish with ghee, and scatter a thin layer of pistachios.
- Now work quickly. Peel a layer of filo off your block and place it on your dish. Cover the block with a tea towel. Spread the layer with ghee. Repeat around 10 times (see note above).
- Spread half the pistachio sugar mix evenly over the dish. You may need to shake the dish to get it even.
- Repeat steps 6 and 7.
- Repeat step 6 for a third time to get your top layer of filo.
- Brush the top of your pastry with the remaining ghee. If there isn’t enough for a generous amount, melt some more: you don’t want dry filo at the top.
- Cut the baklava into a diamond pattern – around 5 strips along the shorter side and around 8 along the longer side. This gets you 40 generously sized baklava – you can go smaller if you want.
- If your syrup is still boiling, wait until it’s reached the right stickiness and you’ve taken it off the heat.
- Bake until golden brown, around 40 minutes.
- Remove the dish from the oven and place it on a rack. Pour the syrup evenly over the whole dish, then sprinkle evenly with the reserved pistachio mix.
- Cover with foil (otherwise, you’ve just created the world’s biggest attraction for the local insect life) and leave to cool.
- When it’s cool enough, put it in the fridge and leave for at least 8 hours (or overnight). Freshly made baklava just doesn’t have the right consistency (we checked this).
- Re-cut into its diamond shapes and serve.