The subject of frequent arguments over who actually invented it, baklava has a history as multilayered as the flaky dessert itself.
The story may actually go all the way back to the 8th century BCE and the Assyrians, who layered bread dough with chopped nuts and honey and baked the result – a kind of proto-baklava – in wood-burning ovens. Perhaps carried by the winds of trade, different versions of this ancient dessert appeared on Greece’s shores a few centuries later. The 3rd-century-CE Deipnosophistae (“Banquet of the Learned”) – sometimes referred to as the oldest surviving cookbook – provides the recipe for gastrin, aka Cretan “Glutton Cake,” a sweet that also seems to presage the arrival of baklava as we know it. The instructions, attributed to Chrysippus of Tyana, one of the leading dessert experts of antiquity, calls for turning various chopped nuts, boiled honey and poppy and sesame seeds into a paste which is then spread between two sheets of thin, rectangular dough. At a certain point, ancient Greek cooks started using thinner sheets of pastry, better known as phyllo – Greek for “leaf” – getting closer to today’s baklava.
But it was without a doubt the Ottomans who raised the recipe to new heights in the palace kitchens and disseminated the sweet even further – now, baklava can be found in the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa.
As with most recipes, success lies in the ingredients: good-quality nuts, high-quality aromatic butter, a well-blended syrup, fresh spices and fine pastry. Most traditional Greek baklava recipes call for almonds and/or walnuts, cinnamon and clove, clarified butter, phyllo kroustas (the thin Greek pastry) and syrup made with honey. Sometimes orange peel or juice is added to the syrup for extra flavor. Although pistachio nuts are very popular in Greece, they are seldom used in Greek baklava, but are common in Turkish, Lebanese and many Middle Eastern recipes.
In many parts of Greece they give local names to variations of baklava, such as masourakia from Chios, zournadakia from Crete, samousades from Lakonia, pourakia from Rhodes or baklavou from Lesbos. Many of these are traditionally offered at engagement celebrations, weddings or even on Christmas and at New Year’s for good luck. There is also another folk legend associated with the making of baklava in Greece: Some say it is supposed to be made with 33 phyllo layers as a reference to the length of Christ’s life.
In Greece, baklava is sold in most bakeries and pastry shops around the country, even in supermarkets. In Athens, our favorite is undoubtedly made by the legendary Belle Vue, a 41-year-old pastry shop in Nea Smyrni owned by two Greek families who used to be based in Istanbul. The pastry chef – or “technician,” as they call him – is considered one of the best in town. The aroma of sugar and butter prevails as you enter the shop, suddenly waking up your sweet tooth. Behind the sparkling-clean counter you can see the immaculate open workshop, where all the magic happens. It’s a simple, yet professional, old-fashioned workshop. Among all the different heavenly varieties of baklava they make, the Turkish-style baklava kuru stands out, made with pistachios from the island of Aegina, many layers of pastry, a combination of high-quality sheep’s and goat’s milk butter and a comparatively drier texture (“kuru” means dry in Turkish).
Also in Nea Smyrni, on a residential road, is Maxim. The Greek family that owns the shop also used to be based in Istanbul and moved to Athens and opened this business in 1983. The shop transports you to another time; it’s quite small and modest but filled with an air of nostalgia, which is rare in most pastry shops nowadays. It seems like a grandmother wearing her slippers and a robe will emerge from the workshop in the back at any time. Maxim offers fewer pastry options, but everything is incredibly fresh, including the two types of baklava, one made with pistachios and another with walnuts – both delicious.
Palet, located in the southern suburb Kalamaki, is owned by the Kordelidis family, which used to own a small chocolate factory in Dolapdere, Istanbul. They moved to Athens in 1977 and opened the pastry shop a year later. Second-generation owner Maria Kordelidis keeps the quality of ingredients high and spreads her love and enthusiasm for what they’ve been making. A recent renovation has made the shop rather fancy and elegant, and a wide selection of desserts and enticing aromas emerge from the upstairs workshop. Among the traditional Turkish versions of baklava available – all fresh and delightful – the most popular one is called “Baklava Sultan,” stuffed with ground pistachios. It is prepared with a special technique so that the pastry gives the impression of raw dough rather than crispy layers of phyllo. To achieve that, it’s baked for less time than normal and is made with a thicker sugar syrup, which keeps it moistened and gives it a softer texture.
For a Greek version, try Metropolitikon in central Athens, near Syntagma Square. This third-generation family business opened in 1930 and is notable for its authentic Greek desserts. The amazing Yiannena-style baklava is made with chopped almonds rolled in two different types of pastry with a sugar-honey syrup. It also sells baklavou from Lesbos island; many layers of thin pastry are alternated with layers of finely chopped almonds and soaked with pure honey and orange syrup.
Open since 1915, Afoi Asimakopouloi in Exarchia, another third-generation family-owned pastry shop, is famous for its homemade dairy products, especially its yogurt and butter. The extraordinary quality of that butter is evident in the Greek-style baklava sold here, one with almonds and one with walnuts, both deeply imbued with the fragrance of cinnamon and clove.