Whether you are looking to treat yourself, top off a family meal in style or celebrate a special occasion, nothing will hit the spot quite like baklava. What is Baklava? From its thin, flaky pastry and decadent filling of nuts and spices to that perfect drizzle of honey on top, baklava is as close as your taste buds will get to heaven on earth. Here we take a look at the long and proud history of one the world’s most beloved desserts, and one of tastiest traditional Lebanese food options we serve at Manoosh.
While everyone from the Greeks to the Turks to the Armenians claim to have been the first to make baklava, it appears that credit must go to the Assyrians of Mesopotamia (a region comprising modern-day Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey). Scholars believe that this magical moment in human history took place around the 8th Century BC, with the first baklavas made in rather rustic conditions and baked in wood-fired ovens.
In Ancient times, Greek sailors and merchants were regular visitors to Mesopotamia and it didn’t take them long to become huge fans of this delicious new treat. Not only did they take home as many baklavas as they could carry, they even managed to get the recipe and by the 3rd Century BC baklava was being made and served in wealthy Greek households. The Greeks are even credited with making a major improvement to this popular treat by mastering the art of rolling the dough extremely thin. This perfect pastry was dubbed phyllo (Filo) – which is the Greek word for leaf – in reference to just how incredibly thin it was.
Word spread quickly about this amazing sweet and soon everyone from the ancient Persians and Romans to Asians and North Africans were making and enjoying baklava, often with their own subtle variations. Arabs added rosewater and cardamom, while the Armenians preferred cloves and cinnamon, and Serbian pastry chefs became famous for creating baklava with 100 layers or more. Unfortunately, baklava was still an extremely expensive and time consuming treat to create, therefore it remained a food associated with the wealthy or at least only enjoyed on special occasions.
When the Ottoman Empire came to power in the 14th century the history of baklava would be changed forever. Almost all of the many cultures who had developed and perfected their own versions of baklava were swallowed up within Ottoman borders, which effectively meant that the making of baklava was consolidated. While many see this as a time when baklava’s creativity was crushed, others view this period as when baklava was perfected, as all of the region’s finest chefs were now working together. When the Ottoman Empire finally fell early in the 20th Century, baklava spread across Europe and beyond.
If baklava’s amazing taste isn’t enough for you, it also comes with a variety of health benefits making it yet another example of healthy Lebanese food. Walnuts, pine nuts and almonds are high in unsaturated fat (which can help to control cholesterol) and are a great source of vitamin E, copper, magnesium and folic acid. Baklava’s phyllo pastry is low in calories and free from both trans-fat and saturated fats, while that drizzle of honey can help to control blood sugar levels and even help fight cancer.
In a nutshell, baklava is made from layers of filo pastry filled with chopped nuts – usually walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios and almonds – and held together by syrup or honey.
Baklava is usually made in a large pan. The layers of filo pastry are laid out and lathered with oil and butter to give it that melt-in-your-mouth texture. Some recipes call for many layers of nuts, but often they are only two thick layers. Before they pastry and nuts are baked, the baklava is cut into pieces, usually following the same parallelogram pattern that makes the dish so instantly recognisable.
Once the pastry is baked, the syrup or honey is poured over the top. The dish is then left to sit, allowing the liquid to soak in. This gives baklava its dense, syrupy texture. The baklava is then garnished with ground nuts (usually pistachios – the greenness of the nuts are another recognisable characteristic).
Baklava is usually served at room temperature, so that you can get stuck in without burning your tongue!
Few could argue with baklava’s claim to be the most delicious and influential dessert of all, so when is the best time for baklava you ask? Any time at all! If you have a special occasion coming up or would just like to make today a whole lot better, drop by Manoosh or order from us online. We make the best Lebanese desserts in Sydney and our baklava is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. (Note: We now do vegan Baklavas!)