Forget Honey Cake: Try Iraqi Baklava


*Editor's note: When Fig Tree & Vine was casting around for interesting and original holiday recipes, journalist Luma Sims offered to share her family's Iraqi baklava recipe. A moist, honey-drizzled, nut-layered confection, Simms was right when she said this would be the best baklava you've ever tasted. Even those who don't like baklava will like this one.

By Luma Simms

Using the best ingredients here will create food for the eyes as well as the palate. 

Makes approximately 50 pieces.

1 box/package high-quality phyllo dough (if frozen, defrost in refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or on kitchen counter)
8 cups walnuts (store in freezer for at least five hours until just before use)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup (heaping if you want a strong flavor) cardamom pods. Grind in spice grinder immediately before use
1-2 cups extra light olive oil (you can use melted butter for a richer taste or a combination of the two)
1-2 cups honey at room temperature (or more if you like your baklava extra-sweet and drenched)
2/3 to 1 cup shelled pistachios
  
Preheat oven to 350-degrees. Take a baker’s half sheet pan (13”X18”X1”) and brush the bottom with the olive oil.
 
For the nut filling:
 
In a food processor, grind the walnuts in three batches -- for each batch until the walnuts start creating clumps. The walnut oil released in the grinding process, coupled with the moisture from the freezer, creates a deeper flavor in the chopped walnuts. The walnuts should be very clumpy and sticky, but not to the point of being a paste.

Pour the ground walnuts in large bowl. Combine with freshly ground cardamom and the 2/3 cup sugar. Set aside.
 
For the phyllo dough:
 
Remove the phyllo dough from the package and unroll. Phyllo dough dries out very quickly and handling it takes time and experience. If you are new to baklava baking, take a wet paper towel and keep it on top of the rolled out dough as you work. This helps keep some of the moisture in. Fast assembly, however, is one of the tricks to baklava.
 
Assembling the baklava:
 
Take two thin sheets of phyllo dough, keep them together, and lay them out on the greased pan. (Work with the pan set horizontally before you.) Smooth with your hands. Working quickly, use a small basting brush to brush the olive oil (or butter) across the top of the second sheet. (You grease at 2 sheet intervals. No need to drench it with oil, and no need to grease every sheet. Every two works best.) Continue to work through the phyllo dough, layering two sheets at a time, until you’ve used approximately 1/3 of the sheets. The remaining sheets will be used on top of the walnut layer.

When you've reached this stage, do not grease the sheet but pour the walnut mixture on to and smooth it across the surface with a spoon until the walnut layer is flat on top and on the sides. Continue layering with the phyllo dough two sheets at a time, smoothing out with your hands gently as you go along, and continuing to grease.

When you get to the last/top most sheet, smooth out and brush the top with a more generous layer of the oil (or butter).
 
Take a sharp chef knife, turn the pan so it faces you vertically, and cut the baklava first down the middle. Proceed to cut even, vertical lines on both sides of the midline. When the vertical lines are done, turn the pan so that it is in its horizontal position and cut even lines from left to right. You should end up with squares of even size. Feel free to make the squares as small or large as you like.


Baking and Garnishing:
 
Bake the baklava for 50-60 minutes.
 
While the baklava is in the oven, ready the honey.  If your honey is thick, take a tablespoon of water and vigorously mix it until the honey flows smoothly. Add more water if necessary, one tablespoon at a time or you may end up with watery honey.
 
In your food processor, chop the pistachios until they are fine or semi-fine according to your taste. Traditionally the pistachios are ground very fine.
 
When the baklava is done baking, the top should be golden.  Set the pan upon a baking rack and immediately pour the honey over the pastry. Start by gently pouring it around the perimeter of the baklava. You should hear it sizzling as it hits the hot pan. After the perimeter is done, take the honey and drizzle up and down the cut lines. Then drizzle across the top of the baklava. Experiment with how much honey you use. If you prefer it less sweet, use less honey. Just make sure that the entire pan gets drizzled with it.
 
Last, sprinkle the finely chopped pistachios across the top of each baklava.
 
Let cool. Serve with hot Arabic tea, or hot American coffee.
 
Enjoy, and share!
 
Note: Alternate nuts like almonds, pistachios, or cashews work very well. Follow the same recipe above, only switch out the walnuts.

Luma Simms is an Iraqi immigrant who rejoices in cooking a variety of ethnic cuisines. She taught herself how to cook by combining Thomas Keller's emphasis on quality and technique with her family's Iraqi food traditions. She believes that hospitality can save Western Civilization. If she's not cooking or baking, she's reading and writing. Her writing has appeared at First Things, The Federalist, Public Discourse, and elsewhere. You can follow her at @lumasimms.

Photos by Geoffrey Simms.

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