Everything you need to know about Baklava
If you’ve visited many bakeries in your time here on Earth, chances are you’ve stumbled upon baklava. This mysterious dessert has been rising in popularity in contemporary bakeries and has been opening people up to the wonder of Ottoman cuisine. What exactly is this flaky layered treat sitting on counters and in dessert cases? And should you try it?
Well, if you haven’t yet, next time you see baklava, it’s certainly worth giving it a try. Many are hesitant to try it due to the lack of fun colors and the unfamiliar consistency that the dessert has. It’s hard to classify it in line with another dessert that is familiar with the Western palate. It’s simply unlike anything else in the best way possible. This pastry has layers of sweet and savoury that are glued together with a honey or a syrup. When baked, the filo dough becomes crispy on the top but soft in the middle and on the bottom creating a delightful texture in every bite. Within, the gooey layers consist of chopped nuts and honey/syrup which are sweetened to perfection.
Baklava is baked on a large rectangular sheet. Many thin layers of filo dough, the versatile dough that gives way to both soft and flaky textures, are stacked on top of each other with only butter and vegetable oil between them. There’s one ticker layer that is made up of chopped nuts (different nuts can be used, popular choices include walnuts, hazelnuts, and pistachios). After a suitable number of layers are stacked, the tray is baked at high temperatures (about 350 F) for about 30 minutes. Then, the dough is cut into different shapes and doused in a syrup that soaks into the layers of dough, giving way to a soft, chewy bite all the way through. The most popular syrups used are honey, orange flower water, and honey.
Different variations of baklava exist throughout the countries that once formed the Ottoman Empire. For example, Turkish baklava includes a layer of chopped nuts after each layer of filo dough and is sometimes topped with kaymak (a Turkish cream) or ice cream during hot weather. The Black Sea Region uses only hazelnuts to fill their baklava, not pistachios or walnuts. The Greeks take influence from the bible and use 33 layers of filo dough, each representing a year of Jesus Christ’s life. Azerbaijanis serve their baklava mainly only during Nowruz, and make it with either almonds or walnuts. Armenians add cinnamon and cloves to their baklava. Many different countries have different names for their baklava, including Ruzice in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Pakhlava/Paklava in Crimean Tatar and Armenia respectively.
Baklava originates from the cuisine of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was comprised of countries in the Balkans and the middle east. By today’s borders, the Ottoman Empire would include largely Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Egypt, and parts of Greece, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and parts of the Balkans. However, the largest contributor is by far Turkey. Thus, Turkey is often attributed as the “owner” of baklava and considered a part of the national cuisine. The truth is, though, that baklava is a part of many cultures’ cuisines that were once encompassed by the Ottoman Empire until its dissolution after World War I. Baklava is also often attributed to be of Greek origin, but both Greek and Turkish cuisines were influenced by the Byzantine Empire.
Another reason why Turkey and baklava are often unanimously linked is because the name “baklava” is believed to originate from the Turkish langague. However, this is disputed as historians have found that in the Mongolian tongue, the syllables “bakla” match with the Mongolion root word “baγla” which means, “to tie, wrap up, or pile up”. The ending syllable, va, is under even hotter debate as the Mongolian “-va” is a loan suffix from either Turkey or Persia.
Much about the origins of baklava is not known, and like everything else surrounding baklava’s history, most of it is up for debate. Historians have narrowed it down to three different foods that may have been baklava’s precursor. There’s Roman placenta cake, layered breads from Central Asian Turkic traditions, and lauzinaq from Persia. The Roman recipe for placenta cake included a layered dough dessert that was coated in honey which is perhaps the closest resemblance to baklava as we know it. There are many other desserts throughout various former-Ottoman countries that resemble baklava. So the origins are quite difficult to pinpoint.
It is believed that the first people to combine thin bread dough and honey with chopped nuts were the Assyrians in the 8th century. From there, it was baked in a wood-fired oven and served to wealthy families. Historically, baklava remained a dessert reserved for the upper class, which gave way to the Turkish saying “I am not rich enough to eat baklava and boerek every day”. It’s thought that these poor class of bakers were employed in kitchens of the rich throughout the former empire which led to the spreading of the treat to many different cultures. By the end of the 19th century, baklava fell from being considered a treat reserved for the rich and became more accessible to people of all classes with the institution of pastry shops springing up around the former capital city of Constantinople.
Baklava is more than just a delicious treat. While the flavors do tie in together to create a harmonious delicacy, the history isn’t so fluid. Many nations, cultural groups, and even decades are begging to be crowned the originator of baklava. But for us modern beings, there may be no way to ever determine the true origins of the beloved dessert. However, not knowing the specifics doesn’t prevent us from enjoying baklava whenever we can get it. So, next time you see it in your local bakery, be sure to grab a slice or two – or even a whole sheet!