My grandmother lived in Beirut for several years as a kid, but she spent the later part of her childhood on her family’s farm in rural Syria. When she married my grandfather, she moved to Baghdad to be with him and his family, and found herself acclimating to city life again. She remembers immediately noticing some of the differences in the way people ate and lived. In their new life together, they dined with their friends at the masgouf restaurants along the Tigris river, they used refrigerators instead of preserving cheese in clay pots or grapes in crates of sawdust, and they often used sweetened condensed milk in their chai instead of farm fresh milk.
The concept of sweetened condensed milk tea will probably sound familiar to you, even if you’re not familiar with this as a mid-century Baghdad thing. Most well-known in the west is Thai iced tea, but this combination can be found the world over. For instance, here in Hong Kong, if you order a “milk tea” in any restaurant, you’ll get a cup of strong black tea mixed with sweetened condensed milk or evaporated milk.
These experiences and memories, as well as Adrianna Adarme’s milk and honey baklava and Chetna Makan’s masala chai baklava, inspired me to try incorporating both tea and sweetened condensed milk into my baklawa recipe—and I’m so glad, because milk tea baklawa is my new favorite.
While this recipe is super easy to bake (and a total delight), coming up with it was a little on the tricky side—the sweetened condensed milk made recipe developing a fun challenge. First, I had to find the best way to infuse condensed milk with tea. Just heating it up and dropping a tea bag in won’t work (there’s not enough water to allow the tea to fully steep), but you also don’t want to introduce too much liquid, otherwise your baklawa might end up soggy.
I found that first steeping the bags in a half cup of boiling water was just enough to give them a head start, before introducing the sweetened condensed milk and allowing everything to simmer for a few minutes. As you can see, the tea turns everything a beautiful caramel color, and (as you can imagine) it lends such a lovely flavor.
Plus, the half cup of water dilutes the syrup to just the right consistency (any thicker, and it would have trouble finding its way into the center of each piece; any thinner, and the baklawa would end up swimming in it). Since it’s such a small amount of water, it’s important not to let it boil off in the beginning. Follow the instructions in the recipe, and it’ll turn out great.
The second quirk in developing this recipe was the temperature of the syrup. Traditionally, cold syrup is poured over hot baklawa. But since sweetened condensed milk is more viscous than a simple syrup, it’s important that you pour it while both the baklawa and syrup are warm. But even though it’s counterintuitive, this is actually way easier—you don’t have to plan ahead, and you can make the syrup while the baklawa is in the oven.
Like all baklawa recipes, this one is ideal for a make-ahead dessert, but this particular recipe keeps better in the refrigerator/freezer than it does at room temperature. It has enough sugar that you can probably leave it out at room temperature for a while, but it should be stored in the refrigerator if you’re storing it longer than a couple hours. (Think of it like a cake with cream cheese frosting—some people are comfortable leaving it out overnight, while some people insist on refrigeration. Just remember that this contains a lot of dairy). It keeps for about 6 days in the refrigerator, or much longer in the freezer.
milk tea baklawa
yield: about 50 pieces
active time: 20 minutes
total time: 2 1/2 hours
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baking the baklawa
Butter for greasing the pan
16 ounces chopped walnuts, about 4 cups (454 grams)
1 tablespoon cinnamon (7 grams)
1 teaspoon cardamom (2 grams)
1/4 teaspoon salt
16 ounces filo dough sheets (454 grams)
6.25 ounces hot melted clarified butter (177 grams, or 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons by volume)*
Hot milk tea syrup (below)
Preheat the oven to 350°F/177°C convection**, and grease a rimmed sheet pan.
Combine the walnuts, cinnamon, cardamom, and salt.
Make sure you have all your ingredients (including the clarified butter) ready before you open the filo dough. Place half of the filo dough on the sheet pan, spread the walnut mixture evenly over the filo dough, and place the rest of the filo dough on top of the walnut mixture.
Cut the baklawa into diamonds by slicing straight across in the short direction, then diagonally (see photos in my original baklawa post). It's best to work with a very sharp 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.
Slowly and evenly drizzle the hot clarified butter over the sliced baklawa.
Bake for about 25 minutes, until it has lightly browned. Make the syrup (below) while you wait. Make sure the syrup is hot right before the baklawa comes out of the oven, and rewarm it if necessary.***
As soon as the baklawa comes out of the oven, slowly pour the hot syrup over the surface. It’s ok if a little bit runs off to the side. It will pool a little at first, but as long as the syrup and baklawa are hot, it will sink in after a couple minutes.
Let it sit until it comes to room temperature, at least 2 hours, cut through the lines you made before baking, and then serve. Store in the refrigerator for up to 6 days, or the freezer for longer. It’s even better the next day.
milk tea syrup
1/2 cup water
5 tea bags of black tea
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk (2 397-gram cans)
Bring the water to a simmer in a small saucepan over high heat. As soon as it starts to simmer, immediately add the tea bags, remove from heat, and let them steep for 2 minutes.
Once steeped, add the sweetened condensed milk, stir everything together, and bring up to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. As soon as it starts to boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn’t scorch. Remove from heat, let the bags continue to steep, and discard them when you’re ready to use the syrup. It’s ok if one or two of them leaks a little, but be gentle so they don’t burst open.
* Clarified butter is really easy to make, and I’ve got a video and recipe here. This amount of clarified butter comes from about 8 ounces / 227 grams sweet cream butter (which is conveniently the amount in my clarified butter recipe).
** If you don’t have convection, no worries—you might need to slightly increase the temperature and/or bake it for slightly longer. If your convection fan is particularly strong, you might want to bake without convection, otherwise the pieces of filo might go flying. I’ve only had this problem baking in commercial kitchens, and most home ovens won’t actually blow things around.
*** The syrup will be much more pourable when warm, and it will more easily soak through the layers of filo. Usually, chilled or room temperature syrup is poured over baklawa, but this milk tea syrup works better when warm. Feel free to look at the above photos to get a sense of the consistency the syrup should be as it pours.
Note: If you have any leftover baklawa, you can freeze it and turn it into baklawa frozen yogurt.