Some of my fondest memories are in the kitchen with my mom making sweet treats—like baklava, which lends itself well to feeding a group of people. We often made it together when she hosted dinner parties or for holidays. It wasn’t a dessert we ever bought, even though it’s readily available; instead, we enjoyed making it together and creating those memories that are still with me today.
With layers of buttery phyllo dough and nuts drenched in simple syrup or honey, homemade baklava—or bak-la-wa in Arabic—is the ultimate dessert. Crunchy and nutty, baklava is popular throughout the Levant, where it’s often sold at local pastry shops and available in many varieties. Many countries, including Greece, Cyprus, and Türkiye, have tried to lay claim to the dessert. However, it’s difficult to trace the exact origins of the pastry. Some say it was brought to Türkiye by the Assyrians in the eighth century. According to both the food historian Mary Işın and writer Michael Krondi, baklava wasn’t a regular feature of the Turkish diet until the 1500s, when it was made for Ramadan during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II.
Though walnut and pistachio-filled baklava remain the two most popular kinds, today, you can find the pastry in flavors that aren’t as traditional, such as chocolate or lotus, among many others. Personally, my favorite is the walnut variety shaped like a diamond, as it’s what I grew up eating. But baklava is a truly customizable dessert that lends itself well to variation, and the shapes, sizes, and fillings used depend on the country it’s made in.
In Türkiye, you can find at least a dozen varieties, including fistik sarma (baklava made with pistachio butter) and cevizli (walnut baklava). In Greece, most baklava is sweetened with honey and warmly spiced with cinnamon and cloves. Lebanese baklava is commonly shaped like “asawer” (bracelets) or “asabe” (fingers); the former is thin and round like a disc, while the latter resembles a small cylinder. The baklava recipe below, meanwhile, uses pistachios—nuts typically reserved for special occasions since they’re more expensive—as the base for the filling, making it a fitting sweet for a celebration like Easter, Christmas, or Eid.
One of the many reasons for the dessert’s popularity is that it can—and should!—be made ahead of time, as it tastes better when made a day in advance. That resting time allows the baklava to absorb the syrup and the flavors to become more pronounced. Portioned into neat squares or diamonds, baklava is an excellent hand-held dessert (albeit a sticky one) and is often given as a gift, either on its own or included in cookie boxes. Many Middle Eastern stores and bakeries sell an assortment of baklava in adorned boxes for an easy and delicious gift.
Though layering the many sheets of phyllo pastry may seem intimidating and labor-intensive, this sweet is actually quite simple to put together and worth trying to make yourself. The result is an irresistible flaky, buttery treat that you can enjoy for days to come, and one I look forward to serving at every one of my Eid celebrations.
For the Simple Syrup: In a small pot, combine 2 cups granulated sugar with 1 cup (240ml) water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium, add the lemon juice, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved and the syrup starts to thicken, about 6 minutes. Stir in the orange blossom syrup and set aside to cool to room temperature.
For the Pistachio Baklava: In a food processor, pulse pistachios until finely chopped; the pistachios should still have texture to them but not be too coarse. Remove 1/4 cup of the pistachios and set aside for garnishing the baklava.
Adjust oven rack to bottom position and preheat oven to 375ºF (190ºC). Using scissors or a pizza cutter, trim the phyllo dough to 9- by 13-inches (see notes). Place the phyllo pastry beneath a damp towel to prevent the dough from drying out while you construct the baklava.
To Assemble: Using a pastry brush, grease the bottom and sides of a 9- by 13-inch baking dish with butter. Lay 2 sheets of phyllo dough into the dish, then brush with melted butter. Repeat this step for every 2 sheets of pastry until you have 8 sheets of phyllo dough. Gently press down to ensure the layers stick to one another. Sprinkle crushed pistachios in an even layer on top of the phyllo, along with 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, leaving a 1/4-inch border around the edges. Continue to layer with the remaining phyllo, brushing every 2 sheets of pastry with butter.
Once you have buttered the last layer of pastry, use a sharp knife to portion the baklava into 24 squares. Pour the remaining butter over the top of the cut pastry (if the butter has solidified, re-melt it before pouring).
Transfer baklava to bottom rack of the oven and bake until the top just begins to brown, about 35 minutes (see notes). Remove baklava from the oven and run a sharp knife around the portioned squares to reinforce the previously made cuts. Pour the cooled simple syrup over the baklava. (How much syrup you choose to pour over the baklava will depend on personal preference; for a sweeter baklava, use all of the syrup.)
Top each piece of baklava with a sprinkle of the reserved pistachios. Allow the baklava to cool for at least 1 hour before covering or serving, though for the best flavor and texture it should rest for at least 4 hours and up to overnight before serving.
Food processor, 9- by 13-inch baking dish, pastry brush
To trim the phyllo dough, place it on a cutting board and, using a sharp knife, cut the block of phyllo dough into a 9- by 13-inch rectangle.
To add more color to your baklava, broil it for just a few seconds until golden brown.
To avoid soggy baklava, make sure the simple syrup has cooled completely before pouring it onto the baklava and that the baklava has cooled completely before covering with foil.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The simple syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 months.
Baklava tastes best after it has rested for 4 to 6 hours (or, ideally, overnight), when the pastry has had a chance to absorb the syrup and the flavors are more pronounced.
Cooled baklava can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days. After that, it can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.