I can't remember which happy occasion led me to first sample this irresistible and other-wordly combination of nuts, pastry, butter and syrup, but I do know that it sparked a love affair that shows no sign of dwindling. The weeks I spent in the Middle East last summer rarely featured a day that didn't involve baklava; on the first night in Istanbul I procured a kilo of the stuff and managed to devour most of it (I then spent the next two hours with a hideous headache in a bipolar state that swung from hyperactive to exhausted and back again - not recommended). I do enjoy most sugary things and pretty much all desserts, but if I had to select my favourite, it would be impossible to choose between crumble and baklava. There's something amazing and almost alchemical about the way simple ingredients - pastry, nuts, butter, sugar, water - can combine to produce a taste sensation that is curiously indefinable. It's nutty, crunchy, soft, flaky, sticky, sweet, and perfumed all in one. There's the crunch as you bite down through the crispy top layers of pastry, followed by the dense, sticky mass of nuts in the middle, then the softened, compressed pastry underneath. Truly wonderful. I have never, until now, attempted to recreate it myself, and I think doing so has actually done me more harm than good - now that I've discovered that it takes barely more effort than a crumble, my teeth and my waistline are in certain jeopardy.
This is a recipe from my Saraban Iranian cookbook, and uses almonds for the baklava filling and rosewater for the syrup. It also includes a squeeze of lime in the syrup, which stops the whole thing being too sweet (though, of course, the recipe does use half a kilo of sugar, so it's not exactly stuff to please your dentist). The basic principle for all types of baklava is the same: layer pastry with butter, add a filling of ground nuts, layer more pastry over the top, bake, then drench while hot in a thick, intensely sweet syrup.
For the filling, I just combined sugar, ground almonds and ground cardamom in a bowl. As simple as that. The pastry is also fairly easy - brush with butter, layer up, brush with more butter, etc. The only thing I would say if you want to try this too is to buy a cheap baking tray. You will end up scratching it to pieces as you try and cut the pieces of baklava out at the end, once they've solidified into a dense, sticky mass. Luckily I bought one from Tesco for £4, rather than the £20 anodised non-stick specimen I was eyeing up in the department store. I think I shall reserve it for baklava alone from now on.
It's up to you really how many layers of pastry you decide to use - the filo I bought didn't fit in the tin when folded in half, so I had to sort of fold it into a shape that would fit, meaning it was doubled up on one side but not on the other, so I just tried to even it out by layering the pastry in the right way. It's not rocket science, though - all you need are lots of layers that fit snugly inside the tin (about 3-4 sheets on either side of the almond filling).
Once the pastry and the filling are layered up in the tin, you have to score the baklava so that the syrup can soak in when it comes out of the oven. This is where your baking tray will endure some fierce scratching. Use a very sharp knife and make sure you cut down through all the pastry layers right to the bottom - the hideous scratch of knife on metal will make you aware that you've done so. Then it goes in the oven for half an hour or so, and you can make the syrup.
Oh, the syrup. I remember walking into a baklava shop in Jordan and spying great bigs vats of the stuff, bubbling away ferociously. They looked a bit like pots of boiling oil, giant deep-fat fryers, and I couldn't help thinking that they'd make a (literally) sticky end of any enemy if poured from the walls of a besieged castle. It's not like your basic sugar syrup of caster sugar and water that you'd use for making sorbet or Italian meringue; it's much thicker, darker, and more fragrant. The reason for that is the proportion of sugar to water - twice as much sugar as water, so the resulting mixture becomes very thick and almost honey-like. Once it's bubbled away for a while and achieved this consistency, I left it to cool for a few minutes before stirring in some rosewater and lime juice. The flower water is, I think, essential when making baklava - it gives the finished product that ethereal, mysterious flavour that takes the edge off the sweetness. I want to try a version with orange flower water, too.
Once the baklava has been in the oven and has turned crisp and golden, it's time to drench it in the syrup. This is incredibly satisfying; covering that dry surface with unctuous, steaming syrup and watching it soak into all the slits in the pastry, knowing that the end product will ooze sugar at every mouthful from its fragrant centre, is a cook's dream. A sprinkling of ground pistachios, and the baklava is complete. Now all you have to do is be patient and wait for it to cool - not as easy as it sounds. This really is such a wonderful, wonderful taste sensation. Serve with glasses of mint tea or strong Turkish coffee, and you'll make lots of friends (and probably need lots of fillings). Tooth decay never tasted so good.
Persian baklava with rose-lime syrup (makes one tray, about 30-40 pieces):
Preheat the oven to 180C. Brush a 28x18cm baking tray (or whatever size you have - just make sure the pastry fits snugly when you fold it over) with melted butter (keep a bowl of melted butter handy for the pastry - you'll need about 100-150g). For the filling, combine 300g ground almonds, 200g caster sugar and 2tsp ground cardamom in a large bowl.
Take a sheet of filo pastry, brush with butter and fold in half (or vaguely in half - you want it to fit snugly inside the tin). Put it in the tin, and brush with more butter. Repeat with another 2-3 sheets. Use a sharp knife to trim the filo so it fits neatly inside the tin.
Pour the filling onto the pastry and pack it down tightly with a spoon. Brush another layer of filo with butter, fold in half, brush with butter and place butter side down on the filling. Brush with butter and then add another 2-3 layers. Brush the top layer with pastry, and trim the edges again to fit inside the tin.
Cut the baklava diagonally into diamond-shaped pieces with a knife - you want to cut down all the way to the bottom, but try not to dislodge the top layers of pastry. Sprinkle with a few drops of water then bake for 30 minutes. Check halfway through that it isn't browning too much - if it is, cover with a layer of foil.
While it's cooking, put 150ml water and 300g caster sugar in a small pan and bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Let it bubble away for 10mins or so until it is thick and syrupy. Allow to cool for five minutes before adding 2tbsp rosewater and 1tbsp lime juice.
When the baklava is ready, remove from the oven and immediately drench in the syrup, allowing it to seep down into all the diagonal cuts. Garnish with ground pistachios and leave to cool.
Best to try and serve this at once to eager guests - it will just test your willpower, and ultimately prove it non-existent - if you keep it in your fridge. I speak from experience.
(From Saraban by Greg and Lucy Malouf)