Baklava is a traditional dessert in countries that were part of the former Ottoman empire. Early recipes for baklava date to the fourteenth century. Layers of filo dough are brushed with clarified butter, enrobing sweetened, lightly spiced ground nuts, and baked until golden. When the baklava is fresh out of the oven and still hot, a sweet syrup—a honey syrup in Greece, and an orange-blossom or rose-water scented sugar syrup in Lebanon and parts of the Middle East—is poured over the top of the dessert, which is then left to soak for several hours. The syrup marries with the filo layers and nuts in a glorious sticky union.
Baklava is easy to make and delicious with coffee or tea, either in the afternoon or after a meal. In London, baklava is ubiquitous in Middle Eastern groceries and restaurants. I developed a minor obsession with the baklava sold at Green Valley Lebanese grocery, in Marble Arch; I have never tasted its match. (I asked whether the baklava is made in-house. It is not. Green Valley gets its baklava and other desserts from a factory somewhere in south London. I planned, but never achieved, a pilgrimage there.) The nuts Green Valley used were pistachio and cashews. Walnuts are frequently used as a filling, particularly in Greek baklava and baklava made in the Balkans, almonds are added in parts of Turkey, and hazelnuts are used in Israeli baklava, but I loved the delicacy of the pistachios and cashews. These baklava ‘fingers’ are more time-consuming and labor intensive than the traditional squares, but so pretty. I don’t pretend that my baklava equals that sold at Green Valley (I think I would have to apprentice myself to a Beirut baker for years before I could achieve that sort of perfection), but it was well-received at a party I catered recently.
It is important to use clarified butter; ordinary melted butter will burn. If you have never clarified butter, David Lebovitz offers a method here. I also recommend using honey to flavor the syrup; try to find Greek wild thyme honey, which is a little more expensive than local honey, but absolutely worth it – the herbal, aromatic note is lovely. Finally, don’t overbake – the baklava should be perfectly golden when taken out of the oven, and no darker.
A large rimmed baking sheet
A pastry brush
A board, preferably wooden, large enough to spread a sheet of filo
A sharp knife
For the pastry
250 grams (approximately half a pound) cashews, finely ground
250 grams (approximately half a pound) pistachios coarsely ground, plus an additional handful of raw pistachio nuts, finely chopped with a knife, to sprinkle over the top
200 grams (one cup) caster sugar (If caster sugar is difficult to find where you live, you can put granulated sugar in a food processor and pulse a few times until it’s ground to a powder)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
450 grams (about a pound, or four sticks) clarified butter
1 1b (454 gram) package of filo dough, or approximately 28 sheets. Buy fine, rather than heavy filo
For the syrup
1 cup (approximately 200 grams) Greek wild thyme honey
½ cup (approximately 100 grams) sugar
½ cup (125 ml) water
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit (160 degrees Celsius). Do not use a convection setting.
Combine the ground cashews, pistachios (reserving the hand-chopped pistachios), caster sugar, cinnamon, and cardamom in a bowl. Carefully unwrap the filo dough and lay a single sheet on your work surface. A wooden board is ideal for this. Lavishly brush the filo with clarified butter, including the edges. Lay another sheet of filo on top and repeat. Lay a third sheet of filo on top and repeat. While you are working, rewrap the filo you are not using in plastic and, if your kitchen is hot or dry, cover it in a damp (not wet!) dishcloth, as filo dries out very quickly.
Spoon a layer of the nut mixture in a line about three inches from one of the short ends of the filo stack. Roll tightly into a log. The easiest way to do this is to fold the short edge snugly over your nuts so that it overlaps, and then roll this.
Turn the roll so the edge of the filo is on the bottom, and use the sharp knife to cut into evenly-sized fingers, each about two to three inches long. Each roll should give you about six fingers. Arrange these closely together on a lightly greased baking sheet.
Repeat this process until you have used up your filo dough (you will probably have some leftover nuts; save these for the next time). Brush the rolls generously with additional clarified butter, and bake for 45-50 minutes, or until golden.
While the baklava is baking, make your syrup. Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the honey, and heat until just boiling. Reduce heat to a simmer and keep hot until the baklava is ready.
Pour the syrup over the hot baklava. Use all of the syrup to really drench the baklava. Sprinkle the tops with the reserved chopped pistachios, and allow to sit for six hours, or up to overnight, so the syrup soaks through. Baklava will keep for up to two weeks in a closed container.
Makes approximately five dozen fingers.