Of all the sweet and honey-kissed desserts, baklava is hands-down my favorite. My first memory of it comes from my time as a student in Madison, WI, where I was a frequent visitor to Mediterranean Cafe, a cozy, tapestry-draped hideaway that serves falafel platters, moussaka, pasticcio, burekas and more. Lunch at “Med Cafe” was never complete without baklava, a flaky, nutty sweet treat for just 75 cents–pistachio, cashew or walnut.
In July, I finally went back to Mediterranean Cafe since leaving Madison four years ago. I ordered the falafel sandwich, which they wrap several times with a thin pita (like lavash), and a slice of pistachio baklava for dessert. On my way out, I thanked Faycal, the owner, who, every day, cooks his Algerian specialties right there behind the counter. “Where have you been?” he asked.
With that, I told him I’ve been on the other side of the country, trying to re-create his cinnamon-eggplant moussaka and pistachio baklava. He told me to call him up if I needed help–an offer I’ll never forget.
Of all the Med Cafe dishes I’ve tried to imitate, I’ve had the most success with baklava. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that cinnamon and cardamom-spiced nuts covered with honey syrup never tastes wrong. With Rosh Hashanah just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to share this sweet, honey-drenched dessert.
My recipe is unique because it’s made with neither refined sugar nor butter. For Rosh Hashanah, I wanted to use only honey and avoid dairy products so as to make it pareve. Next time, I’ll try replacing honey with silan, or date syrup, for deeper flavor.
Don’t be afraid of phyllo dough! Here are some tips:
Phyllo dough is found in the frozen food section, near pie crusts and puff pastry. Buy it, freeze it, and take out of the freezer by placing in the fridge a day before you plan to use it.
When you’re ready to use it, take the phyllo dough out of the box, unroll it, and place on the plastic sheet that comes wrapped around the dough. Place a dampened paper towel on top to prevent the baklava from drying out.
It’s OK if your phyllo sheets tear or break. You won’t be able to tell in the end. Just piece them back together like puzzle pieces and lightly brush with oil.
Your phyllo dough will likely be wider than the pan. Just fold over the long edge and brush with oil. Do this on different sides, alternating, so that the phyllo sheets stack evenly atop one another.
16 oz. raw pistachios, walnuts, blanched almonds, or hazelnuts (or a mix, like 8 oz. raw pistachios and 8 oz. raw walnuts)
2 tsp cinnamon, ground
2 tsp cardamom, ground
1/4 cup honey or brown sugar
1 pack frozen phyllo dough sheets, thawed
1 cup oil (coconut or olive oil work well) or melted butter
1 1/2 cup honey
3/4 cup water
2 Tbsp lemon juice
rind of 1 lemon, peeled
5 cardamom pods
2 Tbsp rose water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
First, add the nuts to a food processor. Pulse until the nuts are chopped finely but not ground into powder. Transfer to a bowl, and add cinnamon, cardamom and honey. Stir to combine.
Next, prepare the dough. Gently take the roll of phyllo dough out from its package, taking care not to rip or tear the sheets. Unroll the dough and place a damp tea towel or paper towel over the top sheet to keep the dough from becoming dry and flaky.
Place your bowl of melted butter or oil and the bowl of chopped nuts next to the stack of phyllo dough. Place your baking pan (9 inches x 12 inches x 2 inches) nearby.
Using a pastry brush, oil the bottom and sides of the pan. Then carefully remove the top sheet of phyllo dough and place it in the pan. Lightly brush oil over the entire top of this sheet. Place another sheet of phyllo dough on top of the first sheet, brush oil on top, and add another sheet. Continue layering phyllo dough and oil until you have a stack of 10 sheets.
On the next sheet, spread 1/2 of the nut mixture on top with your hands. Try and make sure that the nuts are covering the entire sheet.
Cover the nuts with another layer of phyllo, and brush oil on top. Continue layering phyllo and oil until you have 5 more sheets. On top of the 6th sheet, add the rest of the nuts.
Add 10 more layers of oiled phyllo dough. Brush oil across the top sheet, too.
With a chef’s knife, make 6 long rows across the long side of the pan. Then cut diagonally across the pan from one corner to the other, and make cuts parallel to that diagonal line across the rest of the pan. Set in the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes, until the top is crisp and golden.
Meanwhile, make the syrup. Combine all syrup ingredients except for rosewater in a saucepan and boil for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Take off the heat, and stir in the rosewater. Let cool for at least 10 minutes, then strain.
When the baklava is done baking, let it cool for at least 30 minutes. The baklava will hold its crisp layers better if you let it cool down a bit before adding the syrup. When both the syrup and baklava have cooled, drizzle the syrup over the baklava. Don’t be afraid to use it all! Refrigerate for an hour before serving. Baklava can be enjoyed the day of, but its flavors really sink in after a day. You can store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Pronounced: roshe hah-SHAH-nah, also roshe ha-shah-NAH, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish new year.