The origin of the baklava is highly controversial, claimed by many ethnic groups near Asia Minor. It's widely believed that in the 8th century BC, Assyrians baked pastries with layers of rough dough and chopped nuts, sweetened with a thick honey syrup. Merchants who frequented Mesopotamia carried the baklava back to Greece, where the Greeks devised a method to roll the baklava dough into paper-thin layers ("phyllo" means "leaf" in Greek), and baklava became a delicacy for the very wealthy. Through the silk and spice routes, the baklava spread to the Armenians, Arabs, and Persians, each of whom contributed their own spices and takes on the baklava.
Baklava has innumerable regional variations. It's cut into many different shapes, though always served in small portions because of its richness. One version in northeastern Greece is made with sesame seeds, and in another version the phyllo are not brushed, but hot olive oil is poured over the whole pastry before baking. A Hungarian version uses apricots, and Armenian baklava often contain cinnamon and cloves. The Iranian (aka Persian) baklava uses a combination of almonds and pistachios spiced with cardamom and a rosewater syrup, is lighter and crisper than other versions, and is cut into diamonds.
I've tasted many kinds of baklava, and used to make a version with walnuts, hazelnuts, orange zest, and maple syrup, which was delicious if a bit too heavy. However, I'm a sucker for cardamom and rosewater, so I tried to emulate the traditional Iranian baklava and have to say this version is my new favorite.
Makes 42 small diamonds
1 1/2 cup (500g) light agave nectar
1 tablespoon lemon juice and zest from 1 lemon
6 black peppercorns
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup rosewater
1.5 cups (200g) raw, shelled pistachios
1.5 cups (250g) raw almonds
2 tablespoons granulated or raw sugar
2 tablespoons ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 lb frozen phyllo dough, thawed
1 cup coconut oil
In a medium saucepan, stir together the agave, lemon juice, zest, peppercorns, and salt. Bring to a full boil over medium heat, simmer about 10 minutes, then remove from heat and stir in the rosewater. This must have time to cool completely, so chill as necessary. You can also make it several days in advance.
Finely chop or grind 2 tablespoons of the pistachios, and set aside for garnish. Add the rest of the pistachios, the almonds, sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse until very finely chopped.
Brush a 13"x9" baking pan (not nonstick) with coconut oil. Heat oven to 300F. Unwrap the phyllo dough on a large cutting board, and with a sharp knife, cut crosswise, then cut each stack to fit the pan.
Place a phyllo sheet in the baking pan and with a pastry brush completely with coconut oil.
Repeat with 7 sheets, brushing each
with oil. Evenly sprinkle about
2/3 cup of the nut filling over the phyllo.
Layer another 4 phyllo sheets, dabbing each with oil, then sprinkle another 2/3 cup of nut filling. Repeat with 4 sheets and 2/3 cup filling twice more. On the last, fourth layer of nuts, use up the rest of the filling. Top with another 8 layers of phyllo, brushing each with oil. Reserve the best-looking, most intact sheets for the top layers.
Score through the top layers of the baklava with a sharp knife lengthwise into 6 strips and diagonally into 8 strips to form diamond shaped pieces. Pour the remaining oil over the pastry, then lightly sprinkle water over the top (which helps prevent curling during baking). Bake until golden, about 90 minutes, rotating halfway through.
Remove from oven and immediately pour the syrup evenly over the pastry. Sprinkle the center of each piece with some of the reserved chopped pistachios. Let sit at least 3 hours or overnight, then cut the rest of the way through the scored pieces. Serve at room temperature, preferably with coffee. If the baklava are excessively sticky, serve in muffin cups.