Baklava is a very difficult dessert-like pastry to track down the origins of. Since baklava also happens to be one of my most favorite desserts to make, I knew that was something I simply had to do. There were a lot of problems along the way of being able to find a way to document this decadent dessert, but there are definite recipes that are very similar that have been written down that I am certain were part of the evolution of baklava. I ran across many SCAdians who were also trying their hardest to understand and pinpoint a period recipe for baklava. I am hoping if we all work together we will be able fully show exactly how baklava came into being.
There are a few reasons why baklava recipes are difficult to track down. One is simply that recipes were usually passed on through oral tradition more often than being written down. The other reason is that baklava started as being created in palaces for emperors and was most likely a guarded secret for that reason.
Nomadic turks had an interest in layered breads, emulating the thick bread's that city folk made in their ovens. As early as the 11th century there was the word 'yufka' that was recorded in Turkish dialect that meant pleated bread. In modern Turkish, that word still exists and now means a single sheet of phyllo. The Azerbaijanis feel they created the first representation of baklava with a pastry called baki pakhlavasi, a dish that uses noodle paste instead of filo (Davidson, 299).
Persians also delight in feeling that they were the first to create this particular delicacy. Patissiers since antiquity, they claim they invented baklava, a sweet pastry stuffed with nuts and perfumed with pussy-willow and jasmine blossoms. In the 6th century at the Byzantine court of Justinian I, this dessert was introduced and quickly adopted by the Greeks who claim that their discovery and addition of phyllo to the recipe was what made it the dessert everyone knows today (Harlan, 690).
As you can see, nearly all of the middle east claims ownership to having created this specific dessert which makes it incredibly difficult to pinpoint when and the exact recipe that came about from it. That being said, there are many recipes out there very similar to that of baklava, so understanding the evolution and morphing of the dessert isn't that difficult.
Here are two examples of very baklava -ike desserts from the Andalusian cookbook, created in the 13th century:
Take very white flour and knead it with milk, salt, and yeast. And when you have kneaded it considerably, leave it until it rises. Then take one egg or several, according to the quantity of the dough. Break them in a bowl and beat them. Moisten the dough with them little by little and knead it until it slackens. Take a new frying pan and shower it with clarified butter or fresh oil. Take a handful of the dough and spread it in the pan. Put over it a layer of almonds and pistachios, or whichever you have. When the almonds cover the dough, put another dough on the almonds, and so on, layer on layer. In this way you fill the frying pan up to two fingers (from it's rim). Put it in the oven with the bread and when it is done, prick it with a knife and take it out as it is. Heat honey and clarified butter and pour over, and when it has soaked them up, throw it on a platter and sprinkle over it Chinese cinnamon and cinnamon and serve it, if God wishes.”
The recipe has many similar points to baklava, only using bread instead of filo, and placing the spices over top upon serving. It does not mention if the nuts are ground or chopped at all, though. I almost think they would need to be.
Take peeled almonds, pound them, and let them dry. Add as much again of sugar, spikenard, cloves, and Chinese cinnamon. Take a raghif (flat bread) free of burns, and sprinkle it with almonds and sugar aplenty. Sprinkle with rosewater and fold until it is a half circle. Glue edges with dough weted in rosewater and put in pan of fresh oil. Boil it, then take out immediately so it drains of oil. Let it float in a syrup of roses, julep, or skimmed honey.”
This recipe is a little different as, instead of layering the nuts with dough, you are instead creating pouches of spiced nuts in a flat bread and frying them up in oil. The nuts are specifically ground and have spices and sugar added to them, though. This is something the previous recipe did not have. They also can be floated in honey which would make them as honey soaked as baklava can be. The flavors would be similar and only missing the layering of bread.
My recipe, written in a period style, is as follows:
Pound two measures of walnuts and add to this a measure of Chinese cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom. In a dish, place a layer of dough well soaked in butter. Do as such again until layers count to ten. Sprinkle walnuts a plenty on top and add again another layer of dough soaked in butter until the layers count to ten. Place walnuts aplenty once again and continue in this manner until all walnuts are gone and layers atop the nuts count of ten. Place dish in a warmed oven. When it is done, prick with knife and quickly soak in honey perfumed with rose water.
Anonymous. Andalusian Cookbook. 13th Century.
Davidson, Alan. Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 1999.
Harlan, William. The Horizon cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking Through the Ages. American Heritage: New York. 1968.