Dripping with honey, baklava is a nut-filled dessert that you can buy at Greek restaurants but it did not originate in Greece. In fact, this finger-licking good dessert emerged through a process that followed ancient trade routes. At each point along the journey, new ingredients were added.
The Assyrians are credited with taking the first step toward the development of what we now relish as baklava. It was a rough pastry filled with nuts and honey. This empire controlled the ancient Near East in the eighth century BC and were known to displace the communities that they conquered. They, in turn, were displaced by the Babylonian Empire.
When the recipe reached Greece in the third century BC, it changed. Instead of a thick dough, the Greeks rolled theirs into paper thin sheets. We still call this kind of dough by its Greek name, phyllo dough, which means “leaves.” The Armenians added two spices, cinnamon and cloves to the recipe. The Arabs made it even more gourmet by adding rosewater and cardamon.
The recipe became known to the West after it reached Constantinople. This was the capitol city of the Ottoman Empire until 1923. European chefs who studied at the Ottoman court learned it and introduced it after they returned home. Only the best chefs were privileged to study culinary skills at the Ottoman palace kitchen.
Baklava was considered a rich person’s dessert but, in addition to being a dessert, the ingredients were thought to assist with romance. The spices were considered aphrodisiacs: cinnamon for women and cardamon for men. According to the Kitchen Project, cloves, honey and pistachio nuts, all have aphrodisiac qualities that stimulated both men and women.
Modern recipes for baklava derive from the ancient ones. Leaves of phyllo pastry brushed with unsalted butter are layered between chopped nuts. Either walnuts or pistachio nuts are used. Different recipes vary the spices that are included with the nuts. Then a sticky syrup is poured over the pastry. The basic syrup is made with sugar, water, and lemon juice. Often, the pastry is sliced, after baking, in triangles or diamond shaped pieces.