What is baklava?
Baklava (Greek spelling mπακλαβάς, pronounced: “BAK-lah-vah”) is a sweet treat consisting of layers of filo pastry with chopped nuts in between, topped with a sweet honey syrup. It is sold in Greece in bakeries, pastry shops and supermarkets. Some shops have been run by the same family for generations. It’s usual for the family to make the filo dough and butter themselves.
Because honey was expensive, baklava was traditionally a dessert for special occasions: Christmas, Easter, birthdays etc. Today, it is a more common dish, though it’s better for the figure to keep it for special occasions.
People are charmed by baklava not only in Greece but across the Middle East. An ancient version of the dish, consisting of layers of bread, filled with nuts and topped with syrup, was eaten by the Assyrians three thousand years ago. The Greeks did not invent the dessert but it was brought to Athens by sailors. Here, the Greeks improved it by replacing the bread with wafer-thin sheets of filo pastry (phyllo means “leaf” in Greek).
The nuts used for the filling differ from region to region, from pistachio nuts in the north to almonds in central Greece; walnuts are very popular. Nut mixtures also occur, as well as all kinds of butter, goat or sheep butter, for example. Local versions have local names: baklava is zournadakia in Crete, pourakia in Rhodes and Leslav baklava in Lesbos.
Did you know
If you believe Greek folklore (and the internet), baklava is only authentic when the cake consists of thirty-three layers of filo pastry: a layer for every year that Christ lived.
How to make baklava
The quality of this pastry depends on the ingredients used: fresh nuts, tasty butter, a fragrant syrup and the best filo pastry (phyllo kroustas).
Layers of filo are brushed generously with melted butter and stacked. In the middle is a thick layer of chopped nuts mixed with spices such as cinnamon and cloves. The unbaked baklava is pre-cut into portions with a sharp knife. After baking, a syrup made from sugar, water and honey, often with a sliver of citrus peel and a cinnamon stick in it for a touch of extra flavour, is poured over the hot baklava. The cake is then allowed to cool for at least four hours while the taste and sweetness of the syrup are absorbed. The baklava is sprinkled with extra chopped nuts before serving.
How to eat
Baklava is usually eaten with the fingers, just like a cookie. Unless you are at a fancy dinner, of course, when you’d better use a knife and fork.
Just as sweet and crispy, but made without honey, is Turkish baklava. Or try kataifi, made with thinly spun dough. Are you fond of sugar syrup? The balls of dough of an Indian gulab jamun are immersed in it.