Crispy, crackling layers of paper-thin dough, soaked in butter, stuffed with a rich nutty filling, and then drizzled with a honey-sweet syrup, baklawa is the crown jewel of Middle Eastern pastries.
This composed pastry dish actually harkens back to the Ottomon empire, so you will find variations on baklava throughout the Mediterannean, from eastern Europe to the far reaches of the Middle East. The word baklava, then, is of Ottomon origin, but Arabs have adopted and adapted it to their tongue, so I grew up calling this pastry ba'lawa.
Ba'lava is a layered pastry made from phyllo dough. Phyllo dough is an unleavened paper-thin dough, made with flour, water, a little oil and vinegar. You can purchase this in the freezer section of your local grocery story, but I am sure that with a little elbow grease, you can make it yourself. The ba'lawa is built with layers of buttered phyllo dough, and then a couple of thick layers of crushed nuts. The pastry remains unsweetened until after baking, when a sweet syrup is poured over top, and allowed to soak for several hours or overnight, to set.
This pastry is a truly festive treat! Reserved for the happiest of occasions, celebratory trays of ba'lawa are purchased for all holidays and weddings, to celebrate a new baby or a promotion. Stuffed with nuts, this pastry is the priciest of all desserts, and costs more per kilo than other pastries, and even more than a box of good chocolates. Some families make ba'lawa at home, but the vast majority of people purchase ba'lawa from specialty sweet pastry shops, called hilwiyat. I surprised my mother and father with this tray of ba'lawa when they arrived from here from their long journey from Bethlehem. They were so surprised because this is not a dish often attempted at home, and one that my mother has never made. After a generous sampling, they declared it to be perfect, and approved my recipe.
The most expensive nut to use is pistachio, so that is the priciest variety to make and buy. Personally, I really enjoy the flavor of walnut ba'lawa, so this version is stuffed with walnuts, and garnished with pistachio. The simple syrup poured over top was traditionally a honey-sweetened syrup, but today, ba'alawa is made with a sugar-based simple syrup. In this recipe, I experimented with substituting some of the sugar with honey. This version (for ba'lawa) is mildly sweet, so if you prefer the more customarily sweet ba'lawa, you might add more honey or sugar.
This pastry keeps very well, so it is perfect for the holiday season when you want to bake ahead or give away sweets as gifts. Stored in an airtight container, it can keep at room temperature for two weeks, but of course you can always freeze it for a longer shelf life.
For the syrup:
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. water
1 c. honey
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1/2 tsp rose water and/or orange blossom water
For the pastry:
1 1/3 lb walnuts (soaked and dehydrated, preferred)
16 oz. phyllo dough, or 40 sheets, 9x14 inches, at room temperature
1/4 c. crushed pistachios for garnishing
2 c. butter, melted ( grassfed butter preferred)
1. Prepare the simple syrup. In a saucepan, combine sugar, water, and honey. Bring to a boil and them simmer for 10 minutes. Add lemon juice and flavorings, simmer for 2-3 minutes. Reserve.
2. Prepare the nut filling. Pulse walnuts in a food processor until finely chopped (but not ground to a flour). Reserve.
3. Prepare your work space. Line a 9x14 inch casserole dish with parchment paper. Place your bowl of melted butter next to you, with a pastry brush near by. Lay out your phyllo dough on a clean surface, and cover with a damp towel so that it doesn't dry out, and keep covered as much as possible during the assembly process. Keep your crushed walnut filling handy.
4. Assemble the pastry. Place one sheet of phyllo dough into your dish, brush with a thin layer of butter. Repeat until you have 15 layers of dough. Then spread 1/2 of your walnut mixture. Layer another 10 layers of phyllo dough, brushing each layer with butter. Spread the other 1/2 of your walnut mixture. Layer another 15 layers of phyllo and butter. Butter the top layer thoroughly.
5. Cut the pastry. Using a sharp knife, cut lengthwise down your pastry, in 1 1/2 inch intervals. You can then repeat the same process in the other direction so that you create little squares, or you can cut at a diagonal to form diamond pieces.
6. Bake the pastry at 350 F for 50 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown. Toward the end of your baking time, warm up your syrup. If it is too thick, thin out with water and stir. It should be as thin as maple syrup.
7. Spoon syrup over hot baklava, covering thoroughly. Garnish with pistachios. Once cooled, cover and let sit overnight before serving. Serve at room temperature.
I leave you with a Palestinian holiday blessing:
Kul sana wa inte salem,
May you be well, this year and every year