turtle baklava

turtle baklava

It’s nearly Valentine’s Day! To get in the spirit, I’ve got a bunch of new recipes on the horizon: two of my favorite Valentine’s desserts, two lovely breakfasts, and one recipe that’s actually kind of both, plus a round-up of some delightfully pretty pink sweets. Keep an eye out these next couple weeks. Today, I’m sharing my turtle baklava, inspired by the boxes of chocolate turtles I’ve been known to tear through every 14th of February, as well as my favorite dessert of all time, baklava (or baklawa/baqlawa as my family pronounces it).

I’m so excited for all this upcoming Valentine’s Day content, because I think it’s one of the best holidays for dining in. When Simon and I first moved in together (almost ten years ago! Which feels crazy to actually type), we would always treat ourselves to a prix fixe menu every year. We’d end up in a loud room with thirty other couples, all neatly lined up in tightly packed rows of identical two-seaters, eating identical food.

Eventually, we got sick of feeling like cattle, and started cooking at home for Valentine’s Day, reserving anniversaries and birthdays for dining out. This year, we’ll probably make my favorite, linguine with clams, and watch a corny rom com while talking through the whole thing like we always do. This baklava is perfect for such a dinner in with your partner, but you’re definitely going to have some leftover, so you might want to make it the night before to bring in to the office.

turtle baklava
turtle baklava
turtle baklava
turtle baklava

But before I get to the recipe, I’ll just share a few notes and reasons why I love it:

This recipe is a mash-up of two of my favorites, but it combines qualities of both in a way that makes sense. I’ve swapped baklava’s walnuts and pistachios for pecans, an essential part of chocolate turtles. I’ve incorporated chocolate into the filling, but also drizzled some on top so you get that tempered chocolate snap when you take a bite.

And while turtles are full of gooey caramel, a soaking syrup is essential to good baklava, so I’ve swapped simple syrup for caramel sauce here. This substitution was a little tricky to get just right, because syrup (whether it’s traditional simple syrup, honey, or this much less traditional caramel sauce) is not just something that gives baklava its sweetness, but the main binding agent, and the thing that keeps those layers of filo from flaking apart. So the caramel sauce had to be the perfect consistency.

Once I figured out the right proportions and timings, it was super easy to get consistent results, which I’ve included in the recipe below. Most importantly, you’ve got to pour the syrup on while it’s still hot—otherwise, it will just sit on top and never seep into the layers. While you would normally pour a chilled or room temperature simple syrup over hot baklava, this caramel sauce has quite a bite of fat and protein, and it’s far too viscous at room temperature. So make sure you follow the instructions carefully, and use the caramel while it’s still hot.

In some ways, this recipe is super forgiving. For picture-perfect baklava, you’ve normally got to make sure the top layer of filo dough is flawless. But it’s ok if that doesn’t happen with this recipe, because at the end of the day it’s just going to get doused in chocolate. Sometimes, you get a batch of filo dough that’s just a nightmare to work with, you make it on a super dry day, or you don’t thaw it properly (as you can see from the photo above, it happens to everyone), but it’ll all look great once the chocolate goes on.

turtle baklava
turtle baklava

turtle baklava

yield: about 6 dozen pieces, depending on how you slice them
active time: about 40 minutes
total time: about 3 1/2 hours
download a
PDF to print

baking the baklava

  • Butter for greasing the pan

  • 1 heaping cup milk chocolate chips for the filling (170g)

  • 16 ounces pecans (454g)

  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (1g)

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (2.5g)

  • 16 oz filo dough sheets (454g), thawed at room temperature for 4 hours

  • 6.25 ounces hot melted clarified butter (177 grams, or 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons by volume)*

  • hot caramel syrup (below)

  • 2/3 cup milk chocolate chips for the topping (100g)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F/177°C convection**, and grease a rimmed sheet pan.

  2. Place the chocolate chips in a food processor and blend until they’re very finely chopped (or chop by hand). Add the pecans, cinnamon, and salt, and pulse a few times, until they’re very finely chopped/coarsely ground (but careful not to over-process them into pecan butter!)

  3. 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 pecan mixture evenly over it, and place the rest of the filo dough on top of the pecan mixture.

  4. Cut the baklava into diamonds by slicing straight across in the short direction, then diagonally (see photos in my original baklava 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.

  5. Slowly and evenly drizzle the hot clarified butter over the sliced baklava.

  6. Bake for about 25 minutes, until it has lightly browned. Make the caramel (below) while you wait. Make sure the caramel is hot right as the baklava comes out of the oven, and rewarm if necessary.***

  7. As soon as the baklava comes out of the oven, slowly pour the hot caramel sauce over the surface. If the pan is wider than the filo, some of the caramel will pool at the sides. Simply scoop it up with a small spoon and drizzle back over the top.

  8. Let it sit until it comes to room temperature, at least 2 hours, and then temper the 2/3 cup (100g) chocolate (gradually melt 1/3 cup of chocolate chips in the microwave, 15-30 seconds at a time, stirring between each zap. Once melted, add the other 1/3 cup, and stir until they melt without microwaving, or microwaving 5 seconds at a time if they don’t melt after a couple minutes). Drizzle the chocolate over the room temperature baklava (with a piping bag or spoon). Wait until the chocolate hardens. 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.

caramel syrup

  • 2 1/2 cups sugar (500g)

  • 3/4 teaspoon salt

  • 3/4 cup water (170g)

  • 1 1/2 cups whipping cream (350g)

  1. Get all your ingredients ready, because things will move very quickly.

  2. Place the sugar and salt in a large saucepan with lots of room to prevent bubbling over. Pour the water down the sides of the saucepan, to make sure that none of the sugar is stuck to the sides (this will prevent crystallization****). Turn the heat to high, and bring to a boil without stirring.

  3. Once it comes to a boil, give it a gentle stir with a wooden spoon to help it circulate (but do not let it slosh around, or your caramel might crystalize), and then do not stir it again. The sugar will dissolve after a couple minutes. Once the bubbles become tighter and smaller (after about 5 to 10 minutes), keep a close eye on it—it will start to turn amber, and will quickly progress to clear brown. You can decide how dark you’d like it to be—I like to wait for it to get a tiny bit smokey.

  4. As soon as the syrup caramelizes to your liking, remove from heat and slowly pour in the heavy cream while stirring. Watch out, because it will bubble violently, and make sure your pot has plenty of room so it doesn’t bubble over. Once all the cream is added, keep carefully stirring the mixture, which will continue boiling dramatically. After a minute or so of stirring, everything will come together a little, and it will calm down.

  5. Set it back over medium heat, and cook stirring constantly for about 2 minutes, just until the caramel comes together and then thickens very slightly (adjust the heat to prevent boiling over). Do not let it continuously boil or it will become too thick.

  6. Pour over the baked baklava immediately (or remove from heat, keep covered for up to 30 minutes, and rewarm over low once you’re ready).

* 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 hot, and it will more easily soak through the layers of filo. Usually, chilled or room temperature syrup is poured over baklava, but this caramel works better when warm (because the fat and protein from the cream will make it set up too much at room temperature).
**** Crystallization happens when grains of sugar fall into a concentrated sugar solution. If a grain of sugar sticks to the side of the pan in the beginning, and then finds its way back into the syrup halfway through boiling, it will set off a crazy chain reaction where the whole thing will seize up and get grainy. If you follow these instructions, you should be fine, but you can also brush the sides of the pot down with water while it boils if you want to be totally cautious (I don’t like doing this, because it makes it take longer to boil off, and I’ve never had a problem with crystallization with the above method).

turtle baklava
turtle baklava

milk tea baklawa

milk tea baklawa

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.

milk tea baklawa
milk tea baklawa
milk tea baklawa
milk tea baklawa

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.

milk tea baklawa
milk tea baklawa

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
milk tea baklawa

milk tea baklawa

yield: about 50 pieces
active time: 20 minutes
total time: 2 1/2 hours
download a PDF to print
more baklawa

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)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F/177°C convection**, and grease a rimmed sheet pan.

  2. Combine the walnuts, cinnamon, cardamom, and salt.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Slowly and evenly drizzle the hot clarified butter over the sliced baklawa.

  6. 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.***

  7. 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.

  8. 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 1 week or the freezer for up to 3 months. 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)

  1. 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.

  2. 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

milk tea baklawa

see more: