History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

21 March 2008

"Let them eat baklava!"

I just discovered phyllo dough, those filmy sheets of pastry you smear with butter and layer into something sinfully rich. Along with phyllo I discovered home-made baklava! Then I grew curious and ...

The Baklava wars. Apparently baklava originated with the Assyrians around the 8th C B.C., who layered some thin bread dough with nuts, added honey, and baked in their primitive beehive ovens. Voila! A treat everyone wanted credit for!

The Greeks claim the Lebanese stole the recipe. True, the name "phyllo" was coined by Greeks (it means "leaf") because they figured out how to roll it thin as a leaf.
The Lebanese say the Greeks flat-out stole the recipe.
The Turkish say their pashas and viziers "owned" the recipe and refused to argue.
The Armenians claim they invented and improved the recipe with spices, and special nuts (see below).

By the 3rd century B.C. everybody (at least the rich, who had cooks) was baking trays of Baklava for weddings, family feasts, and celebrations. From Ancient Romans
to the 18th century French chefs, everyone wanted a cut of the ... pastry.
The Armenians, located on the ancient Silk and Spice routes, integrated cinnamon and cloves into the recipe. The Arabs introduced rose-water and cardamom. Baklava was baked in the kitchens of the Byzantine Empire until its fall to the Turks in 1453 A.D.

But oh, those Turks! After their invasion of Constantinope (and the Armenian kingdom) until the 16th century, the Imperial Ottoman Palace kitchens in Constantinope became famous for their baklava. But the cooks and helpers were recruited from various ethnic groups--Armenian, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Serbian, Hungarian, and finally the French. Each contributed a little special something to the pastry.

The Aphrodisiacs. Turkish sultans, with large harems, coveted baklava because two principal ingredients--the pistachio nut and honey--were believed to be aphrodisiacs. Spices, too, were added as aphrodisiacs: cinnamon for females, cardamom for males. Cloves for both sexes. Ancient Romans threw walnuts instead of rice at weddings because walnuts (they believed) held aphrodisiac powers. Walnuts were also used in fertility rites. Chick peas (garbanzos) are also viewed as aphrodisiacs (for men), as well as pine nuts

The French Connection. Thus perfected, the French couldn't resist polishing the pearl and added cosmetic modifications in shaping and presentation on a baking tray. The General Manager of the Turkish Imperial Kitchen wasted no time in hiring Monsieur Guillaume, former pastry chef to Marie Antoinette ("let them eat baklava?") created the "dome" technique of cutting and folding the baklava squares, which was then dubbed "baklava Francaise."

Whatever you call it, and however you make it, it's a delicious pastry. Easy recipe below.

1 lb chopped nuts (walnuts, pistachios, etc.)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 l6-oz pkg phyllo dough
1 cup melted butter
1 cup white sugar
1 cup water
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest.

Toss cinnamon and nuts together. Unroll phyllo and cut whole stack in half to fit a buttered 9 x 13 inch baking dish. Cover phyllo with damp cloth while assembling to keep it from drying out.

Place two sheets of phyllo in the bottom of the baking dish. Brush with butter; sprinkle 2-3 tablespoons nut mixture on top. Repeat layers until all ingredients are used, ending with about 6 sheets of phyllo. Using a sharp knife, cut baklava (through to the bottom of dish) into four long rows, then nine times diagonally to make 36 diamond shapes. Bake in 350 degree oven about 50 minutes, til golden and crisp. While baking, combine sugar and water in saucepan and bring to boil. Stir in honey, vanilla, and lemon zest, reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes. Remove baklava from oven and immediately spoon syrup over it. Let cool completely before serving. Store uncovered. (recipe from ARVILLALAR/www.allrecipes.com)

Bon appetit!

Sources: www.habeeb.com; kitchenproject.com;gourmetbaklava.com.



Blogger Tracy Grant said...

These History Hoydens posts keep making me hungry! Thanks for the fascinating history of baklava, Lynna! It's a dessert I've loved since I was a child, and I had some wonderful baklava at a party just last night. So fun learning the history!

11:59 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I LOVE baklava. Istanbul was a dangerous place for me. Not only were there little shops all over the place that sold dozens of forms of baklava, but there were also places to buy all kinds of marzipan (the pistachio one is amazing!) and a phyllo/cheese thing called borek that I could freaken live on.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

What a treat! I have such a sweet tooth, now! And of course, learning the history of baklava makes testing the recipe into "research."!

Thank you, Lynna!

12:47 PM  

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