Baklava, Turkey’s Favorite Sweet

Baklava, Turkey’s Favorite Sweet

Baklava begs to be shared: paired with a tulip-shaped glass of strong black Turkish tea (çay), it’s a sweet to be enjoyed with family and friends any time of the day. As a high school exchange student in Turkey, my family and I ate baklava almost every day; alongside my patient Turkish sisters I learned to make it as well, this Turkish delight with its dozens of layers of thin phyllo dough, melted butter and nuts, drenched in sugar syrup.

Each time I return to Turkey (eight times, so far) I’m offered baklava wherever I go; there’s always a place in my carry-on luggage for a kilo or two to take home, so I can share a Turkish culinary and social ritual with my American family and friends back in the States.

In Turkish sweet shops, baklava is often beautifully arranged - irresistible! <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

In Turkish sweet shops, baklava is often beautifully arranged – irresistible!
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Baklava’s BeginningsMany Mediterranean countries claim baklava as their own, and each has its unique national version. It’s believed baklava in Turkey first appeared in Gaziantep (Antep) and spread across Anatolia toward Constantinople (now Istanbul). In the 1300s a variation of this sweet, güllaç, was often eaten during Ramadan, the Muslim month of daytime fasting and prayer. Baklava’s Ottoman origins are traced deep into the royal kitchens of Topkapi Palace, where this imperial dessert was served to the sultan.


Making Turkish BaklavaMaking Turkish baklava is time-consuming, but worth the effort. There are many ways to make baklava; here’s the method my Turkish exchange family taught me:

Start with a large round pan, gently adding many layers of paper-thin phyllo dough (yufka) brushed with melted butter in between each sheet. Depending on what part of Turkey your recipe comes from, spread a layer of nut filling – walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts or pistachios – and then add more layers of phyllo sheets brushed with the butter. There’s no set number, but baklava with 30 to 36 layers is typical. Often almonds are added in the Aegean Sea region, hazelnuts in the Black Sea area, pistachios in southeastern Turkey, and walnuts in other parts of the country. Some recipes combine several types of nuts.

Layers upon layers of paper-thin phyllo dough enrobe this pistachio baklava <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

Layers upon layers of paper-thin phyllo dough enrobe this pistachio baklava
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Again depending on the Turkish region, cut the baklava into small squares, diamonds, triangles, or rectangles before baking. (In my Turkish town we made a diamond pattern.) Variations abound, with some baklava shaped into rolls, while others have less phyllo dough and more nut filling. Bake the baklava until it’s golden and crispy; after it’s pulled from the oven immediately drench it with cooled sugar syrup, top with chopped nuts, and let the syrup soak in for 1-2 hours. When the baklava completely cools to room temperature, serve it with Turkish tea or thick Turkish coffee.

Forks are optional; baklava can be eaten with your hands – but it does get sticky! <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

Forks are optional; baklava can be eaten with your hands – but it does get sticky!
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Eating BaklavaDon’t bother trying to cut baklava with a fork; it’s too messy. Spear the entire piece with a fork or use your hands and pop a piece in your mouth, or, perhaps more daintily, simply nibble away. Some local traditions insist you flip the baklava upside-down before eating it; in my little Turkish town we ate it right-side up. A sign of fresh baklava is that the layers crunch in your mouth and aren’t soggy.

By the way, many Turks no longer spend time making baklava at home; it’s easily purchased at a sweet shop (pastanesi) or – in larger cities – at stores exclusively selling baklava.

A <i>pastanesi</I> shopkeeper offers a sample of world-famous pistachio baklava in Gaziantep, Turkey <br>Photo credit: Paul Schwartz

A pastanesi shopkeeper offers a sample of world-famous pistachio baklava in Gaziantep, Turkey
Photo credit: Paul Schwartz

World’s Best BaklavaGaziantep (Antep for short), a town in southeastern Turkey renowned for its pistachios, takes top honor as baking up the world’s best baklava, stuffed with green pistachios. Turkish officials are so serious about this that its patent office registered Gaziantep’s unique baklava variation as a “Protected Geographical Indication” by the European Commission. Locals say Gaziantep’s altitude and weather conditions are perfect for making Antep’s fragrant, bright-green pistachio baklava (fistikli baklava). Since it’s impossible to duplicate Gaziantep’s cooking conditions and ingredients elsewhere, this prized baklava is baked in Gaziantep and then flown in directly to sweet shops in cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Antalya.

Pistachio baklava from Gaziantep, Turkey is considered some of the tastiest in the world Photo credit: Inga Belova

Pistachio baklava from Gaziantep, Turkey is considered some of the tastiest in the world
Photo credit: Inga Belova

Bringing Home the BaklavaBaklava is an excellent gift, staying fresh 2-3 days. If your journey begins in Turkey, buy a kilo or two to share on your private train or group tour: you’ll make instant friends! If your journey ends in Turkey, baklava is the perfect edible souvenir to share with family and friends when you return home.

Travel to Turkey with MIR, Eating Baklava
  • Handcrafted Private Journeys: MIR travelers often book several days in Istanbul at the beginning or end of their journeys, offering them the opportunity to deeply explore not only the historical and archaeological significance of Turkey, but the country’s culinary history as well.
  • In major cities you can find cooking classes in Turkish cuisine, including how to make baklava. MIR experts can easily create a handcrafted, private journey focusing on your own favorite Turkish destinations, interests, and timeline – like baklava tasting!
Turkish baklava is often sprinkled with nuts; here it's pistachio Photo credit: Helen Holter

Turkish baklava is often sprinkled with nuts; here it’s pistachios 
Photo credit: Helen Holter

  •  And remember: Gaziantep offers what’s considered the best pistachio baklava in the world – a “must-taste” on any traveler’s agenda.
Turkey's Blue Mosque, with cascading domes and slim minarets punctuating Istanbul's skyline <br /> Photo credit: Helen Holter

Turkey’s Blue Mosque, with cascading domes and slim minarets punctuating Istanbul’s skyline
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Explore More of TurkeyThere is so much to Turkey, from Istanbul and beyond. Turkey is a large country – the size of Texas; it’s easier to explore by focusing on its geographical regions, each one unique in its sights, history, and cuisine. What remains the same everywhere: legendary Turkish hospitality. Here is a brief overview of the country, along with favorite highlights in several key areas of Turkey:

  • Travel to Turkey: 6 Favorite Highlights in Istanbul: There’s so much to see and do in this city built on hills offering water views, from visiting the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, riding a ferry along the Bosphorus Strait, and of course enjoying delicious Turkish cuisine.

(Top photo: One of many regional variations of delicious Turkish baklava. Photo credit: Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture & Tourism)

 

PUBLISHED: February 26, 2015

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