Assyrian people are from all over the Middle East and many other parts of the world, so our food is as diverse as the regions we live in. It's hard to find one recipe for a dish that we'll all agree is the definitively authentic one. Baklawa is really representative of this diversity: Most Middle Eastern and Mediterranean regions have their own version of baklawa with different ingredients, preparations, presentations, and pronunciations ("baklawa," "baklava," "baqlawa," etc.), and so baklawa varies from one Assyrian family to another.
There are literally thousands of possible combinations: baklawa can be layered with just about any kind of nut, most often pistachios, walnuts, or almonds. The sugar solution can be made from any combination of several different sugars, but usually includes some amount of honey. Rosewater or orange blossom water can be added to the syrup. All sorts of warm, sweet spices can be added, such as cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom. The dough is made with pastries ranging from delicate, crispy filo dough to soft, bready crust. It can be molded or cut into many beautiful shapes.
Among so many perfect combinations, it's hard to go wrong, but my grandmother, Romy, makes a very special version that stands out as one of the best. Most importantly, it's delicious. She uses 100% honey for the syrup along with some powdered sugar in the walnut mixture. She uses a combination of walnuts and pistachios, imbuing it with richness, color, and balance. And she uses cardamom, which gives it a really special flavor that reminds us all of the way her kitchen smells.
While enjoying this baklawa is absolutely delightful, I also love this recipe's no-nonsense attitude, which demystifies the whole process. The recipe completely eliminates the most tedious step: individually brushing each of the dozens of filo sheets with butter before they dry out. No damp tea towel or pastry brush is necessary here, since it takes literally 5 minutes to deal with the filo. This is accomplished by slicing all the way through the layers of dough and walnuts, pouring clarified butter over the top, and then baking it. Butter seeps all the way through each layer, making its way to the center of each piece as it bakes and resulting in perfectly cooked baklawa without the tedious layering. And by slicing through before baking, you don't end up shattering the delicately crispy tops before serving. The whole thing comes together so perfectly. There is not a thing I would change.
1 cup (2 sticks / 8 ounces) butter*, plus an extra tablespoon for greasing
16 ounces walnuts, about 4 cups medium-chopped
5 ounces powdered sugar, about 1 cup
2 tablespoons ground cardamom
16-ounce container of filo dough sheets (do not open until the recipe tells you to)
16 ounces honey
1/2 cup finely chopped pistachios
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Use the extra tablespoon of butter to grease a 12" x 16" rimmed sheet pan.
Melt the 2 sticks of butter.
While the butter is melting, combine chopped walnuts, powdered sugar, and cardamom, and set aside.
Once the butter has melted, get a fine mesh strainer ready (if you don't have a mesh strainer, spoon the foam off the top of the butter) and then open the filo dough container.
Place half of the filo dough on the sheet pan.
Spread the chopped walnut mixture evenly over the filo dough.
Place the rest of the filo dough on top of the walnut mixture.
Cut the baklawa into diamonds by slicing straight across in one direction, then diagonally in the other direction (see photos above). It's best to work with a very sharp or serrated knife so that you don't tear, stretch, or dishevel the filo. It's alright if a few of the pieces go a little awry, but you want everything to stay pretty lined up.
Pour the butter through the sieve to capture the foam, slowly drizzling it evenly all over the baklawa.
Cook the baklawa in the oven for about 20 to 30 minutes, until it has lightly browned. (Start checking after 15 minutes of baking).
As soon as it comes out of the oven, immediately pour the honey evenly over the top.
Immediately top with ground pistachios.
Let it sit until it comes to room temperature, at least one hour.
Cut through the same lines you made before baking and serve.
* You can use either salted or unsalted butter. My mom and grandmother use unsalted, but I use salted. If you like your baked goods well-seasoned, salted works great.