When you think Middle Eastern desserts, the first that probably comes to mind is baklava. Versions of this sweet flaky dessert, stuffed with nuts, are made not only across the Middle East but also in Greece, the Balkans, and Central Asia, among other places. Many believe the version of the dessert we know today appeared during the rule of the Ottoman Empire, originating in the imperial kitchens of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. The dessert is so loved, it even had its own parade, known as Baklava Alayi, when trays of baklava were presented to the palace's household troops every 15th day of Ramadan. We may not be able to confirm the exact origins of this dessert, but any dessert with its own parade must be special!
While baklava can be stuffed with all kinds of nuts, including walnuts, hazelnuts, and pine nuts, my absolute favourite version is the one stuffed with pistachios. This version, famously made in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, was awarded "protected status" by the European Union. While it may be difficult to get our hands on Gaziantep's delicious pistachios, try to use the best quality pistachios you can find, and once they are shelled, take the time to soak them in hot water for about 20 minutes and peel the skins on each kernel by rubbing them between your fingers. This will give the pistachios a cleaner and more vibrant taste, as well as show off their bright green colour. You can skip this step but doing it will give you the best result.
Making baklava at home may seem intimidating, but it actually isn't hard, just a bit time-consuming with all the layering, but I promise the end result is worth the work! When making your syrup, you want to make sure you mix the water and sugar until the sugar dissolves before it comes to a boil, so it doesn't crystallise later. For this recipe, I like to use a round tray, with a base that is about 15 inches, but you can use something bigger or smaller, just make sure to cut your dough to match the size of your tray and you may end up using less butter and syrup. You could use a square or rectangle tray, just make sure to cut the dough to the right size and you can cut your pieces into squares or diamonds. When layering your dough, make sure you use more of the scraps in the bottom layers before adding the pistachios and using more of the complete sheets in the top layers for a better foundation and nicer finished look.
Serve this after it has cooled to room temperature with some tea or Turkish coffee, or as you've no doubt seen on social media, with ice cream in the middle. Believe me, it is definitely worth trying!
500 g sugar
360 ml water
2 tsp lemon juice
250 g butter
30-35 sheets of filo dough
500 g pistachios, roughly chopped (peeled for best results)
Ice cream (optional for serving)
- To make the syrup, mix the sugar and water in a small pot. Stir until the sugar dissolves and bring to a boil over a medium heat. When it comes to a boil, reduce the heat and leave to simmer for 8-10 minutes. Add lemon juice, stir, and let boil 1 minute. Remove from heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.
- To make the baklava, start by making the clarified butter. In a small pan, melt butter on low heat. Once it melts completely, skim any foam or milk solids on the surface. Set aside. You can use the milk solids for other dishes that you would normally use butter in, like eggs or mashed potatoes.
- Place your filo dough on your tray and cut to fit. Keep the scraps, as we will use them in the layers too. Then, brush your tray with some of the clarified butter.
- Add 2-3 sheets of dough, lightly brushing them with butter. Make a few layers with the scraps and brush with butter. Continue layering, alternating between full sheets and scraps until you've layered half of the filo sheets.
- Add the pistachios in an even layer, leaving about half an inch from the edges without pistachios. Sprinkle some butter over the pistachios, and then continue layering until you've used all of the dough. The top 2-3 layers should be full pieces, not scraps.
- Once you're done layering, tuck the edges in with a knife and cut any stray pieces.
- Cut the baklava into 12 triangular pieces. The easiest way is to cut into four and then cut each quarter into three pieces. Make sure you've cut all the way to the bottom.
- After cutting the pieces, pinch each piece to make a plump triangular shape. If you notice the knife did not cut all the way through, just go over the dough to cut all the way through.
- Brush with the remaining butter, making sure to focus on the edges and the middle, as those parts crisp up the quickest.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes on 180 C (165 fan assisted) until it is golden brown.
- Once golden brown, remove from the oven and pour the syrup over your baklava evenly.
- Leave to cool, about an hour, or until room temperature. The baklava will soak up the syrup. The longer you allow it to rest, the more the syrup will be absorbed.
- Enjoy with a cup of tea or Turkish coffee, and if you're feeling indulgent, serve with some vanilla ice cream inside.