Temptation, Thy Name is Baklava

Baklava with Cardamom, Honey and Pistachios

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.


Feeding an Addiction with Lemon Almond Torta

Lemon Almond Torta 

From my perspective, the biggest problem with food blogging – I mean apart from the grocery bills and grease smears on the camera and damage to my vision from staring into a computer screen until I see cross-eyed – is the shelf space required. And I’m not talking about the kitchen.

Many of you already know about my shopping problem. It’s not shoes or makeup or handbags, or even little jars of fancy salts, sauces or vinegars – it’s cookbooks. Truckloads of them. In fact, I seem to have a cookbook habit that is stealthily taking over my life, not to mention every inch of available space in my apartment. According to reputable medical websites I’ve been reading, it seems I am displaying many of the classic symptoms of addiction when it comes to these books, including uncontrolled cravings, obsessive thought, overspending and paranoia. It’s getting to the point where I walk in the door at night prepared to find my friends assembled for an intervention (at which I’m perfectly prepared to admit my problem, so what’s the use of staging one?).

Like everyone who finds themselves much further down the slippery slope of addiction than they ever thought they’d be, I used to assume the problem would work itself out, and for many years it pretty much did. Sure, I’ve always coveted more books than is healthy and any foray to the bookstore inevitably found me buried in the food and drink section, but practical constraints limited my purchasing power: I moved around too much, I didn’t have the money for glossy new books, and anyway I didn’t always trust myself to be able to pick out a good one from a few short minutes of browsing. But then blogging happened. Not only did I suddenly need a well-stocked library to provide fresh and exciting blog-fodder every week, but reading other blogs put on my radar an endless list of highly-praised books that I absolutely had to have. In the blink of an eye, I could justify enormous payments to amazon.com as ‘professional expenditure’, while “the blog needs it, not me” quickly became my catch-all mantra. It’s probably not coincidental that my accelerated accumulation also coincided with settling down for a few years in Scotland and for the first time finding myself with a regular income, but I know better than to blame shift. My dear blog, because of you in the past year I have begun purchasing new cookbooks at the frightening rate of nearly one per week, I have started to avert my eyes in shame every time I’m called to pick up a delivery from the secretary’s office at work, and I have learned to hide my bag behind the coat rack when I come home so Manuel doesn’t see the books sticking out. I have become unreasonable, obsessive and downright dishonest about my problem, going so far as to convince my poor husband that he’s delusional when he thinks he spies the new titles on the bookshelf. I break into a cold sweat at the thought of having to choose which books to grab on my way out in case of a fire.

Yet as bad as all this may seem, it’s not the real problem. No, the real problem is that for all the time, energy and money spent feeding this addiction of mine, I hardly ever use my books for what they’re intended. In fact, a quick count of the bookshelves has just revealed that even after a year of blogging, a full three-quarters of my cookbooks have never been cracked open in the kitchen. And even when I intend to use one I somehow manage to get waylaid. Last weekend, for example, I locked myself in the kitchen with several new books, determined to tick off at least one new recipe. When I emerged two hours later, however, what emerged with me was not a stunning new creation courtesy of Pierre, Patricia or Julia, but instead a dessert I’ve been making faithfully for more than a decade. Never mind that it’s one of the most delicious cakes I’ve ever eaten, sporting a thick layer of dense, buttery sponge, fragrant with ground almonds and almond extract and cradling a smear of bracingly tart lemon curd; never mind about the scattering of crunchy almond slivers providing just the perfect amount of textural contrast to the creamy topping and tight crumb. And forget about the fact that it’s a welcome taste of sun-drenched citrusy freshness in the middle of a long, dark winter. The important (and certainly unforgivable) thing is that making it didn’t require me to so much as brush the cobwebs from one cookbook.

The most embarrassing part of all, however, is what I did the instant that cake was out of the oven. I cut myself a big slice and went to the computer to look up the price of new bookshelves.

Lemon Almond Torta

Source: adapted from a recipe in Chocolatier magazine back in 1993
Serves: 8 
Notes: I have a note that the original recipe (which I can no longer find, unfortunately) suggests that you serve this in a puddle of fresh raspberry coulis for a more formal presentation. I’ve never tried it that way but I imagine it would be both delicious and visually striking.

For the lemon curd:
3/4 (150g) cup sugar
3 large eggs
juice (~1/2 cup/125ml) and grated zest from 2 large lemons
4 tablespoons (60g) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

For the torta:
2/3 cup (60g) sliced almonds
1/2 cup (75g) blanched almonds, lightly toasted
1 cup (140g) all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (120g) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup (200g) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
3 large eggs, at room temperature
icing/confectioner’s sugar, for dusting cake

To make the lemon curd: In a non-corrosive heavy saucepan, combine sugar, eggs, lemon juice and zest. Whisk until thoroughly blended. Add the butter. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the mixture thickens. Don’t let it boil! Transfer the curd to a bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap and chill for at least 4 hours or overnight.

To make the torta: Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Generously butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch (27cm) round springform pan. Line the bottom of the pan with a circle of baking parchment. Gently press about half of the sliced almonds against the side of the pan, adhering them about 2/3 of the way up from the bottom.

In a food processor combine the whole toasted almonds, flour, baking powder and salt. Process for 10-20 seconds, until finely chopped. In a small bowl, beat the eggs lightly with a fork until frothy.

In a large bowl using a hand-held mixer at low speed, beat the butter for 30 seconds, until creamy. Gradually add sugar and continue beating for 2-3 minutes, until light in texture and almost white in color. Beat in vanilla and almond extracts.

Using a rubber spatula, fold the almond/flour mixture into the butter mixture until blended (the batter will be stiff). Stir in the beaten eggs just until smooth. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread it into an even layer with the back of a spoon. Spoon 8 tablespoons of the lemon curd in an evenly-spaced ring around the top of the cake batter, about a 1/2-inch in from the side of the pan. Spoon 3 tablespoons evenly spaced into the center of the ring (it will all melt together into an even layer in the oven, but if you don’t want to bother counting just dollop the curd evenly all over the top). Sprinkle the remaining sliced almonds over the top of the batter. Lightly dust with confectioners’ sugar.

Bake the torta for 25-35 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Cool the torta completely in the pan set on a wire rack. Run a thin-bladed knife around the edge of the torta to loosen it from the side of the pan before removing. Peel off the baking paper and dust the torta with more confectioners’ sugar before serving. Eat at room temperature.