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Friday, May 2, 2008

Spiral as in Baklava

My Cretan spiral baklava ready for action - Click to Enlarge

The origin of baklava, a pastry composed of layers of phyllo containing nuts and soaked in honey syrup, is something of a bone of contention among certain types who have nothing better to do with their time. I have heard Turks, Lebanese, and others claim it as their own. Whoever may have invented the dish, whether Greek, Levantine, Turk or whatever, it is not made in the same way by all; the variations include the types of nuts used, the ratios of nuts to phyllo, the shapes of the dessert, and the spices and flavourings that go into the pastry itself or into its syrup. Frankly, I am not overly concerned as to whether the Byzantine Greeks, the Arabs, or the Ottomans, or even the Chinese (!) created this dessert; I know it simply as a part of traditional Greek cookery, and as far as I am concerned, baklava is Greek.

This particular recipe is from Crete, from a family that I had met while backpacking on the island back in 1994. I had ascended to the peak of the highest mountain on the island in the central region of the Rethymnon Prefecture. Continuing on foot, I traversed the Psiloritis Range and descended into the Messara Coastal Plain in the south. The hike took a full three days all told, with a night spent on the upper slopes of Mount Ida (or Psiloritis) itself, almost 2500 metres above sea level.

The stone chapel at the peak of Mount Ida (or Psiloritis)

When I came down out of the mountains, I paid for a cot in the back of a small local taverna in a village called Kamares, where I spent the night. In similar small villages throughout Greece, there is always at least one such roadhouse. Before retiring, I ate a small meal in the front of the taverna – the food was simple, fresh, and very good. I had a baked lamb dish (done in a serving sized clay vessel) with a yogurt sauce that was surpassingly excellent. Of course, I had just spent three days and two nights in an unfamiliar and forbidding wilderness so just about anything cooked in a proper kitchen would have tasted amazing, but to this day, I still remember that repast.

There were other local patrons in the taverna that evening. All of them perked up their ears when the owner and operator of the establishment conversationally asked after my business in their isolated hamlet. He asked if I was there to see the sacred Minoan cave which had been discovered nearby. In truth, as I told him, I did not even know there was such a cave in the locality, though I did express an interest in visiting the grotto. The owner pointed to another patron and told me that for a small consideration, the other fellow might be persuaded to show me the cave. So, bright and early the next morning I was off to see the cave. My guide, Kosta, turned out to be a very affable fellow and we became instant friends. After the cave tour, he invited me back to his home for lunch with his family.

One thing led to another, and I ended up staying with Kosta and his wife Eleni and their two children as their guest for two more days! (I later learned that I was somewhat of a celebrity among the villagers as I was a Diaspora Greek with no family connections in Crete, who had braved the elements and the mountains in late October. Cretans, more than most other Greeks, appreciate such exploits as they are a rather adventurous lot as a whole.) Anyway, it was from Eleni that I picked up this ridiculously easy to make recipe for baklava, and I have been making it with lip-smacking success ever since.


(Serves 4)

4 sheets of phyllo (store-bought is fine)
1 cup (250 ml.) of blanched raw almonds
⅓ cup (80 ml.) melted unsalted butter (or vegetable shortening)
½ cup (125 ml.) Greek thyme honey
½ cup (125 ml.) of sugar
1 tablespoon (15 ml.) finely shredded orange rind.
1 teaspoon (8 ml.) ground cinnamon

*Note: A 6” inch (15 cm.) springform baking pan (i.e. with removable side and bottom) or a clay baking vessel of similar dimensions will be required to make this pastry.

For the pastry:

  1. Grind blanched almonds until coarsely chopped. Add orange rind and cinnamon to the almond mixture and mix well.
  2. Spread one sheet of phyllo out on a dry work surface in landscape orientation and brush to cover its surface completely with the melted butter. Add another sheet of phyllo directly overtop and brush its surface with butter as well.
  3. Spread half the ground almond mixture over the doubled phyllo surface, make sure to spread it evenly and do not go all the way to the edges. Leave a gutter of free space of about 1 inch all around the perimeter of the phyllo rectangle.
  4. Fold the two short sides of the phyllo in towards the centre about a ½ inch on either side. Brush both side edge folds with the melted butter.
  5. Fold over the entire length of the bottom edge of the phyllo about 1 inch (or to the start of the spread out almond mix, then carefully roll the folded bottom edge tightly up towards the top edge. Make sure to brush the entire length of the roll several times with the melted butter as you go, and especially the space just before the top edge where the roll will be completed.
  6. When the first roll is done, brush its exterior with the melted butter then liberally brush the inside of the baking pan with melted butter and bend the roll into a circle and line the inner periphery of the pan with it; the ends will almost but not quite meet. Apply another coat of melted butter to the roll, and repeat steps 2 – 5 with the remaining two sheets of phyllo and the rest of the almond mixture.
  7. Carefully (so as not to break it), curl the second roll into a tighter circle than the first and fit it within the outer circle of rolled phyllo already lining the walls of the pan. Make sure to leave as little empty space in the pan as possible by fitting the second roll in a manner that continues the outer roll in a tight spiral towards the centre.
  8. Once the pan is filled, brush the remaining melted butter overtop of everything and place pan in an oven pre-heated to 350° F. (180° C.) and bake for 30-40 minutes until the pastry takes on a uniform golden brown colour.
  9. Remove pan from oven when done and place it in a plate, then immediately pour the hot syrup (see below) slowly overtop in a widening spiral starting from the centre. Make sure you pour the syrup over the entire pastry. Let stand to cool and for the syrup to be absorbed before serving. [Tip: If you use a springform pan, some of the syrup will likely spill out when the bakalava has cooled and you remove the side of the pan. This is why we place it in a plate so as to collect the extra syrup and pour it over the pastry again when it is placed on its final serving dish.]

For the syrup:

  1. Combine sugar with a ½ cup (125 ml.) of water and the honey in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
  2. Turn down heat to medium low, stir well and let the syrup simmer for another few minutes until ready. The desired consistency is somewhat thicker than olive oil but not quite as thick as the honey on its own. (Pure Greek thyme honey is a particularly thick substance and needs to be slightly diluted for use in this dessert.)

Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit!)

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.


Peter M said...

Sam, I could care less where baklava came from either. I divide baklava in two categories: good and bad baklava...this one being a good one!

Ivy said...

Sam you are making me drool. This looks absolutely delicious but as a matter of fact I do mind where it comes from, although maybe the Lebanese, Arabs or Turks make it as good as we do. The word itself shows its origin as baklas is an ancient Greek word meaning to cut into small pieces.
I have tagged you but feel free not to participate if you don't want to.

vonsachsen said...

I like the story and trekking in Greece sounds great, especially when you find small villages with nice tavernas :)Your baklava looks delicious but isn´t it difficult to roll the philo like that? (Now, when you answer that question, please pretend you are NOT a chef):)

Sam Sotiropoulos said...

Peter - I agree, thrice!

Ivy - I would be interested in seeing your etymology for the the term "baklas" which you mention.

vonsachsen - I am pleased to hear you enjoyed the story as I thoroughly enjoyed both the experience itself, and the re-telling of the tale. :) As for rolling the phyllo, no, it is not difficult, just make sure you brush it liberally with the melted butter and it will do what you want. :-)

Anonymous said...

As I understand it the word baklava is derived from Turkish but this doesn't clue you in to where the dessert originated for a couple of reasons.

First, baklava came to widespread popularity about the time of the Ottoman Empire so it's only natural that the term of common use would be derived from Turkish.

Second, it is a dessert that, true to its form, has changed dramatically over the course of time, making it virtually impossible to identify who did what, how, and when because the layers of history overlap. It's very much like the Chinese concept of dim sum, which means "a little token," and refers to a large number of variations on the same basic dish.

Meanwhile, your recipe looks delicious - and in Australia, where I'm at, baklava is most closely associated with the Greek community.

Hjörtur Smárason said...

This sounds just great, Sam. The food is one of the reasons I would like to go to Greece. To taste and experience the local food (and to me, trekking sounds much more exciting than beaches).

Azita said...

I love baklava and this looks very delicious! great blog!

Anonymous said...

Sam, it has been such a pleasure to stumble upon your postings. As a food lover and an international history enthusiast, this blog and I are a match made in... Greece? Thanks so much for all of the amazing recipes and for all of the time you put in to providing rich history with each post :) No excuse me, I am about to go make another batch of Cretan baklava.

Rachel Page said...

There are many "takes" on baklava and this looks as good as any I saw in Athens. Bravo!