Tracing true origins of baklava, a flaky pastry
February 09 2018 12:14 AM
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RICH: The origin of this scrumptious delicacy is quite controversial and undocumented. Photo by author

The origin of this scrumptious delicacy is quite controversial and undocumented with several ethnic groups claims it. Greek, Turkish and Middle Easterners claim baklava as their own and prepare it in their own ways. Assyrians had been preparing this sweet pastry as early as 8th century BC by layering unleavened flat bread with chopped nuts in between, drenching it in honey and then baking it in primitive wood burning ovens. The modern day baklava went through a number of transitions as the history of the area kept on changing. Middle East, East Mediterranean, Balkans, Turks, Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians of today who introduce baklava as their national dessert were all part of the Ottoman empire once.
Just like there is difference of opinion over baklava origins, the source of the word baklava is also disputed. The word baklava entered the English language in 1650, a borrowing from Ottoman Turkish. Turkish historians claim of its Turkish origin whereas some say “baklava” may come from the Mongolian word “bayla” meaning to tie or wrap up. According to another source “The Armenians even insist that the word itself–baklava—reveals its Armenian origins as the word appears to be related to the Armenian word for bakh (Lent) and halvah (sweet).” The name baklava is used in many languages with minor phonetic and spelling variations. In the Arab world Baqlawa/ baklawa is used, whereas, the Greeks call it baklava.
There is no denying the fact that the dessert that we delectably consume today was perfected during the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century after invading Constantinople (present day Istanbul). And for over five hundred years the kitchens of the Imperial Ottoman Palace in Constantinople became the ultimate culinary hub of the empire. The oldest reports about baklava are present in Topkapi Palace kitchen notebooks from that period. According to this report baklava was baked in the Palace in 1473. Baklava elaborated from a simple pastry into a dessert which needed skill in order to please the dignitaries and the rich people.
Till the 19th century baklava was thought-of as a luxury; which only the very wealthy could afford. To this day, it is a very common expression in Turkey that “I am not rich enough to eat baklava every day”. People would bake baklava only on special occasions, and religious events or wedding. However, the times have changed so much now that giving a baklava gift basket or baklava business gifting is just a click away and you can buy baklava online anytime.
Although the exact baklava origins remain uncertain it is an undeniable certainty that baklava was enhanced every time there was wind of change in The Middle East or Near East. The region has seen many of the world’s oldest cultures and civilisations come and go, with each of them modifying the baklava to their preference.
Whenever food crosses boundaries it is modified and the recipe is changed according to the people’s food preference and eating habits. The same thing happened with baklava when it started to get popular and crossed boundaries different cultures influenced its preparation and modified the recipe.
The Greek seamen and merchants travelling to Mesopotamia soon discovered the delights of baklava. It mesmerised their taste buds. They brought the recipe to Athens. The Greeks’ major contribution to the development of this pastry is the creation of a dough technique that made it possible to roll it as thin as a leaf, compared to the rough, bread-like texture of the Assyrian dough. In fact, the name “Phyllo” was coined by Greeks, which means “leaf” in the Greek language. The Armenian Influence – When the baklava was discovered by the Armenian merchants on the eastern border of the Ottoman Empire located on spice and silk routes they integrated cinnamon and cloves into the texture of baklava.
Further east the Arabs introduced the rose-water and orange blossom water. The taste changed in subtle nuances as the recipe started crossing borders. Of all the countries in the Middle East, Lebanon is notably credited with contributing the most to baklava.
In Persia, the renowned pastry is cooked since antiquity, invented the diamond-shaped baklava which contained a nut stuffing perfumed with jasmine.
As the Ottomans invaded Constantinople to the west, they also expanded their eastern territories to cover most of ancient Assyrian lands and the entire Armenian kingdom. Cooks and pastry chefs who worked in the Ottoman palaces contributed enormously to the interaction and to the refinement of the art of cooking and pastry-making of an empire that covered a vast region. Towards the end of 19th century, small pastry-shops started to appear in Constantinople and in major provincial capitals to cater for the middle class.

Baklava

Ingredients
Phyllo pastry 1 pkt
Unsalted butter 1 1/4 cup
Walnuts, chopped 400 gm
Cinnamon powder 1 tsp
Castor sugar 1 cup
Lemon juice 2 tbsp
Water 3/4 cup
Honey 1/2 cup

To garnish
Chocolate chips to garnish
Walnuts, chopped to garnish

Method
Thaw phyllo pastry overnight in refrigerator and then leave it at room temperature for about an hour 
Trim phyllo pastry to fit your baking dish, keep covered with damp towel prevent it from drying
Butter the bottom and sides of the baking dish 
In a medium sauce pan, combine 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup honey, 2 tbsp lemon juice and 3/4 cup water
Bring to boil over medium heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved
Remove from heat and let syrup cool down while you prepare baklava
Chop walnuts in a mixer until coarsely chopped
In a medium bowl combine chopped walnuts and cinnamon powder
Place 10 phyllo sheets into baking pan one at a time, brush each sheet with clarified butter once it is in pan
Spread 1/5 of nut mixture over phyllo dough
Add 5 buttered sheets of phyllo then another later of walnuts
Repeat it 4 times and finish off with 10 layers of butter phyla sheets
Brush the top with butter, cut pastry into 1 1/2 wide strips then cut diagonally to form diamond ships
Bake in a preheated oven at 325 Degree Fahrenheit for 1 hour and 15 minute, until tops are golden brown
Remove from oven and immediately spoon cooled syrup evenly over the hot baklava
Let baklava cool completely uncovered at room temperature for 4-5 hours so that the sugar syrup penetrates the baklava and sweetens it.

* Chef Tarun Kapoor, Culinary Mastermind, USA. He may be contacted at [email protected]




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