Middle Easterners are famous for their sweet tooth and I am no exception. I may no longer like chocolate but I still love other sweets, in particular baklava, a generic term describing a range of pastries made with filo or ‘hair’ pastry and filled with nuts and sometimes kaymak (thick cream). However, despite my curiosity for all things culinary from when I was a child, I had never seen commercial baklava being made until I visited the kitchens of Gulluoglu in Istanbul with my dear friend, Nevin Halici, and those of Imam Cagdas in Gaziantep with another dear friend, Filiz Hosukoglu, where an army of sweet-makers were making everything by hand, from rolling the filo to filling and shaping the different types of baklava to drenching it in sugar syrup. And from the very beginning to the very end, the process is mesmerising. Here are some pictures I snapped in Imam Cagdas’ baklava kitchens where they bake the baklava in a wood-fired oven.
The big room where the men roll the yufka for the baklava (yufka is rolled out to a different thickness depending on what it is being used for, with the thinnest reserved for baklava). In Syria the same sweet-maker will make both the filo (which in Arabic is called reqaqat) and the ‘hair’ pastry while in Turkey, they are made by separate specialist sweet-makers. Anyhow, I love the hazy atmosphere of the room with the clouds of cornstarch (which they use to stop the dough from sticking) swirling around before settling in a thin film on the sweet-makers arms, clothes and eye brows.
The atmosphere in the baking and finishing room is completely different and kind of medieval with muted golden lighting and men gathered around trays of piping hot baklava ladling industrial quantities of sugar syrup over the baklava and making it dance in the process. Young boys readjust any pastry that has jumped out of place then take the trays to the cooling room ahead of taking them down to the shop.
The cooling roomwhere they store the finished trays of baklava is the only place where there is no mystery! By the way, Turkish baklava is quite different from Syrian and Lebanese, shaped bigger and with a softer crunch, especially if it’s more than a day old. It is still scrumptious though. I wish I could have some for my breakfast right now. Perhaps I will go up to the kitchen and make the recipe below for tomorrow’s breakfast!
For the sugar syrup
175 g (6 oz) golden caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon rose water
1/2 tablespoon orange blossom water
For the stuffing
200 g (7 oz) walnuts, (or almonds, or pine nuts, or pistachio nuts, or cashew nuts)
100 g (3.5 oz) golden caster sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon orange blossom water
1 tablespoon rose water
100 g (3 1/2 oz) butter, melted
12 sheets of filo pastry measuring 18 x 32 cm (7 x 12 1/2 inches)
Put the sugar, 75 ml (scant 1/3 cup) water and the lemon juice in a saucepan and place over a medium heat. Bring to the boil, occasionally stirring the mixture, and leave to boil for 3 minutes before stirring in the rose and orange blossom water. Take off the heat and leave to cool.
Preheat the oven to 200 C/400 F/Gas Mark 6.
Put the walnuts (or almonds, pine nuts, pistachio nuts or cashew nuts) in the blender and process until medium fine. Transfer to a mixing bowl, add the sugar, cinnamon, orange flower and rose water and mix well.
Brush a baking dish measuring about 18 x 32 x 3 cm (7 x 12 1/2 x 1 1/4 inch) with a little butter. Spread one sheet of filo pastry on the bottom of the baking dish – keep the other sheets covered with a cloth or cling film as they dry up very quickly – brush it with melted butter, lay another sheet over it, brush with more melted butter and lay another 4 sheets, brushing each with butter until you have 6 layers of filo pastry.
Spread the nut filling evenly over the pastry and cover with 6 more layers of filo, making sure you brush each with melted butter. Pour any left over butter onto the pastry and cut into medium diamonds or into thin rectangles.
Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until crisp and golden. Take out of the oven, let sit for a minute then pour the cooled syrup all over the pastry. Serve at room temperature. This baklawa will keep for a few days if stored in an airtight container.
@Anissa Helou from Lebanese Cuisine