Middle Eastern

How to Make Sticky, Messy, Syrupy Baklava Without a Recipe

March 14, 2016

The most fascinating thing about baklava—to me at least—is just how different a bite of baklava can taste across different Middle Eastern borders. I've had an Ethiopian slice scented with coffee and walnuts, an Armenian iteration chock-full of cinnamon and cloves, and a syrupy sweet square from the Levant.

My own taste buds gravitate towards those of the Persian variety, which are lighter and less sweet than their counterparts consumed in the Levant or Maghreb, and whose rosewater and cardamom notes never fail to remind me of my family’s home in Iran.

I find that baklava is best made in a cozy kitchen, with a drink in hand and a friend by your side. It can't be rushed, simplified, or made less messy. While baking is oftentimes considered a science, baking baklava is more like art. It's a process unmarred by fancy utensils or tools—you need little more than your hands and a paintbrush. While some recipes call for a thermometer or a toothpick, really all you need are your fingertips to judge how the baklava are coming along.

Here’s how to make baklava, any way you want:

Photo by Bobbi Lin

1) Gather ingredients.

Start with one store-bought roll of phyllo dough, 2 sticks of unsalted or salted butter (cook’s choice!), and nuts.

While the dough is thawing (frozen dough should thaw for at least 2 hours at room temperature, and this step cannot be skipped, lest it crack and splinter), smash your nuts coarsely. I reach for one of the copious bags of salted pistachios that live in my refrigerator, by way of Iran, but you can opt for walnuts, almonds, or a nut of any kind—salted or unsalted, toasted or untoasted. Take the party to your food processor, or work out some aggression and smash them lightly with a hammer.

Add 1 part sugar for 4 parts nuts. Then mix in spices: If it’s a Persian flavor you crave, add cardamom here, or for a Levantine variety, opt for cinnamon. Those in need of a morning boost can even add fine coffee grounds to taste.

2) Start layering.

Preheat the oven to 350° F and prep your baking pan. You’ll want it to have a small rim around the edges, and it’s best if you cut the sheets of phyllo to fit snugly and evenly in the pan.

Melt your butter, and ready your pastry or paint brush; lay your first phyllo sheet down on a baking pan or sheet, and brush with melted butter. Repeat, gingerly buttering each sheet, until you have a nice stack of dough—2, 3, 4, or even 5 centimeters high.

Gently spread your nut mixture evenly across the buttered phyllo layers, smoothing and patting with your hands to distribute evenly. Top with another layer of phyllo, followed by a coat of melted butter, and continue to paint and stack the dough until you run out.

3) Cut pretty pieces.

Here comes the challenge: Take a knife and gently slice across the dough diagonally. The top layer of phyllo dough may fidget and stick to your hands, but it's nothing patience and a sharp blade can't handle. Slice the dough once more vertically so you have diamond shapes. I like mine about 1 by 2 inches, but play with the dimensions of your baklava as you see fit.

Top with crushed pistachios or nut slivers if you please, and send your baklava off the oven to bake for about an hour, until the puff pastry puffs and browns lightly around the edges. It should look crispy and maybe slightly flaky, and the buttery, nutty smell will warm your kitchen.

4) Make syrup.

While your baklava is baking, make the sugar syrup that's used to soak them when they're still hot from the oven. To me, pouring dense syrup or honey over baklava is sacrilege—it makes it syrupy and saccharine instead of fragrant and light. Instead, I opt for a lighter simple syrup: Mix together 1 part sugar to 1 part water (I usually use a cup of each) in a saucepan, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until you have a light syrup.

I sweeten mine with 1/4 cup of rosewater, a teaspoon of tart pomegranate molasses, and the juice of half a Meyer lemon. You could add orange blossom water, cinnamon, cardamom pods, anise, a splash of tea, or whatever else makes your stomach rumble. Let the syrup sit for a while, until it's room temperature.

As soon as you pull the baklava out of the oven, pour your syrup over it, making sure it gets in the crevices and tops every square. Let sit for at least 8 hours or overnight. In the morning, you can expect an abundance of baklava, the perfect companion to your morning coffee or tea.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

18 Comments

Parna March 22, 2016
Hi, after I put the last layers, can I refrigerate it over night an then cut them , it is so much easier to cut that way. That's how I do it for spinach pie. I wonder if I can do that for baklava.
 
Squiggle March 21, 2016
Totally agree with Joao. The measurements are all ove the place: centimetres in one place, inches in another... and the meaningless "stick" of butter, for most readers around the world.
 
Karen March 20, 2016
How do you store it, how long does it keep & can you freeze it?
 
lorrie March 20, 2016
how can i print this recipe out?
 
michelle March 19, 2016
I will be making this soon! My grandmother came to the US from Czechoslovakia and she always added a poppy seed paste with walnuts! Such memories this recipe brings back!
 
cakeroll March 19, 2016
One of the good features here. I've made baklava before when I was 16 or so and wasn't happy, but this really beaks it down nicely and I'll make it again soon. I'll definitely add lemon zest though.
 
Ruta March 16, 2016
This sounds so doable! Thank you for posting this recipe.<br />However, I am confused about what pastry you must use. In step #2 you mention phyllo pastry but in step #3 you write puff pastry. These are very different. I have only ever eaten baklava made with phyllo pastry. Which is the correct version?
 
Author Comment
Zoe P. March 16, 2016
Hi Ruta! Phyllo or Filo dough, stocked in the freezer section of the grocery store, is what I use.
 
celina March 16, 2016
How long do you bake the baklava in the oven at 350 degrees? Also, how soon do you cut the pieces after it comes out of the oven?
 
Author Comment
Zoe P. March 16, 2016
Hi Celina! You cut the baklava before it goes in the oven. It bakes for an hour or until the puff pastry turns golden brown.
 
Connor B. March 15, 2016
That baklava was seriously the best I've eaten so I'm so happy you have an article to go along with it!
 
Author Comment
Zoe P. March 15, 2016
Thanks, Connor! :)
 
Giustina March 14, 2016
Nice job on breaking down a baklava recipe so it's a lot less daunting to learn! I agree with you about baklava made with honey being way too rich for my taste. Your 1:1 ratio rosewater syrup is exactly something my mother's family (from Lebanon) would use. I have to say, I haven't yet had Lebanese baklava that was too heavy so I'm not sure where you tried a heavy Levantine version but I'm glad you shared this nicer version!
 
Author Comment
Zoe P. March 14, 2016
I'm glad you think so! I actually love the Lebanese baklava I've tried-- it's nice to have some variety out there in the baklava ecosystem ;)
 
Kim March 14, 2016
Is the sugar:nut ratio by weight or volume?
 
Author Comment
Zoe P. March 14, 2016
Hi Kim! I like to measure by volume.
 
Clare S. March 14, 2016
Yuuummmmm
 
Joao March 14, 2016
It would be soooo nice if the amounts were also given in a measurement system everyone understands like the metric!<br />In my country butter comes in sticks of 250gr, 500gr or 1000gr (that's 1 kg...).