botanical baklawa

Rose Pistachio Baklava

A few months ago, I was making quite a lot of buttery cardamom baklawa to make sure the recipe was absolutely perfect before posting it. Baklawa (also known as baklava) is the kind of thing where you make a huge batch and then share it with friends and family, so I was bummed that I couldn't share any with my friend, Laura. She gave birth to a beautiful baby girl in October, and since she's been breastfeeding, Laura has stopped eating dairy. So one day, when I was going on and on about baklawa (maybe it's not surprising that this is something I tend to do), I asked Laura if she had any ideas for making it dairy-free, and she suggested replacing the butter with extra virgin olive oil. I was immediately intrigued because lemon olive oil cake is one of my favorite desserts—why not use the same flavors in baklawa?

Unbaked Baklava
Olive Oil

So we got together to test out this theory, and as we suspected, olive oil works perfectly in baklawa. It somehow tastes even butterier than butter and makes all of the layers extra crispy, so they completely shatter with each bite. It might sound kind of strange if you've never tried using extra virgin olive oil in dessert, but trust me when I say that it absolutely does not make the baklawa taste like you drizzled it with a vinaigrette, or worse, kalamata olive brine. It just somehow works.

The olive oil adds another interesting nutty flavor to the walnuts and pistachios, especially when the pistachios are a little roasted. I decided to add rose, which is a very traditional baklawa flavoring, to contrast with these earthy flavors. Rose petals and rosewater add an intoxicating fragrance that brings out the botanical qualities of the olive oil, cardamom, cinnamon, and honey. When the fragrant honey and rosewater hits the earthy, crispy filo, walnuts, and pistachios, the whole thing smells like a rainy garden.

After our successful olive oil experiment, I called my grandmother, the woman who first taught me how to make baklawa, to tell her the exciting news about our innovation. She listened patiently to my story, and then casually broke the news to me, her millennial granddaughter, that this has certainly been done before. "We used to make baklawa with olive oil whenever the bishop or cardinal would come to our house. We would make everything with olive oil because they keep a vegan diet." So there you have it: there is nothing new under the sun.

Pouring Honey on Baklava
botanical baklawa
Rose Pistachio Baklava

Botanical Baklawa

yield: approximately 3 to 6 dozen pieces (depending on how you slice them)
active time: 35 minutes
total time: 2 1/2 hours
more baklawa

1 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus an extra tablespoon for greasing
16 ounces walnuts, about 4 cups medium-chopped
5 ounces powdered sugar, about 1 cup
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
16-ounce container of filo dough sheets (do not open until the recipe tells you to)
16 ounces honey
1 to 3 teaspoons rosewater (to taste) *
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons finely chopped pistachios
3 tablespoons crumbled edible dried rose petals (optional) **

  • Preheat the oven to 350° F.

  • Use the extra tablespoon of olive oil to grease a rimmed sheet pan (at least 12" x 16").

  • Combine chopped walnuts, powdered sugar, cardamom, and kosher salt, and set aside.

  • Once everything is mixed together, open the filo dough container and place half of the filo dough on the sheet pan. Be careful to work somewhat quickly so that the filo dough does not dry out.

  • 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 the short direction, then diagonally in the other direction (see more instructive photos here). 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.

  • Drizzle the olive oil evenly all over the baklawa.

  • Cook the baklawa in the oven for about 25 to 30 minutes, until it has lightly browned. (Start checking after 15 minutes of baking).

  • While the baklawa bakes, gradually add the rosewater to the honey, until the honey is properly fragranced. The potency of rosewater varies a lot from brand to brand, and also depends on freshness, so taste as you go. You should be able to distinctly taste the rose, but it should not taste soapy or perfumey.

  • Cool the baklawa at room temperature in the pan for about 5 to 10 minutes, until it's still warm, but not radiating heat from the top. Once cooled to this point, immediately pour the rosewater honey evenly over the top.

  • Immediately top with ground pistachios and rose petals.

  • Let it sit until it comes to room temperature, at least one hour.

  • Cut through the same lines you made before baking and serve. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or the freezer for up to 3 months.

* You can find rosewater at Middle Eastern or Indian markets. You can also find it online (just make sure you find an edible one, rather than a cosmetic one). Different varieties vary in strength, so you should taste as you go.
** Dried edible rose petals can be found in most tea or spice shops, or online. Most of the rose flavor in this recipe comes from the rose water, but if you leave these out, just add a touch more rosewater to compensate.

Note: If you have any leftover baklawa, you can freeze it and turn it into baklawa frozen yogurt. In the frozen yogurt recipe, add about a teaspoon of rosewater to the yogurt and substitute cinnamon for half of the cardamom.

botanical baklawa

homemade yogurt | mesta

rosewater pistachio yogurt

There's something precious about the way mesta (homemade yogurt) is made. You slowly simmer milk, swaddle it in a blanket right before going to sleep, and then you wake up to the most perfect breakfast. But for all its preciousness, the process is not the least bit fussy. So if you've never fermented anything at home, yogurt is a nice first project. It doesn't take very long, it doesn't require any special equipment, it's very hard to mess up, and the results are so much more delicious than anything you can buy in a store. All you need is milk and a little bit of leftover yogurt, which we call the khumsah.

If you have a lot of friends or relatives who make their own yogurt, you should be able to track down some real khumsah, left over from the last batch of homemade yogurt. The khumsah gets passed on from friend to friend and generation to generation, so that it eventually becomes impossible to pinpoint where or when it started. But if you don't have a homemade yogurt fanatic friend, you can always start your first batch off with a scoop of store-bought yogurt. After you make the first batch, just be sure to set a little bit of yogurt aside to make more—you'll be on a roll and soon your friends will start showing up at your house, asking you if they can borrow a scoop.

Za'atar Yogurt
Oregano Garlic Yogurt

If you've never tried plain homemade yogurt, you don't know what you've been missing. But there are also a lot of tasty ways to dress up this humble bowl. Try out some of these serving suggestions (crowd-sourced from my friends and family), whether you've got homemade or store-bought:

Rosewater, pistachio, and honey (pictured above)
Figs, dates, honey, and cinnamon
Slivered almonds and a dollop of jam or honey
Apple, pomegranate, and slivered almonds

Za'atar and extra virgin olive oil (above left)
Oregano, garlic powder, and extra virgin olive oil (above right, pictured with Cuban oregano)
Mint or dill, cucumber, garlic powder (a variety of jajik)
+ Add some pita chips or prakhe (stuffed grape leaves) to any savory option

Making Homemade Yogurt
Homemade Yogurt
Making Homemade Yogurt

homemade yogurt | mesta

yield: 4 quarts, unstrained
active time: 35 minutes
total time: 8 1/2 to 24 hours
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PDF to print

  • 1 gallon whole milk

  • 1/4 cup yogurt with live active cultures (also known as khumsah) *

  1. Heat the milk very carefully over medium-low heat so that it doesn't scorch or boil over. Stir it every few minutes and keep a very close eye on it.

  2. As soon as it starts to simmer, take it off the heat and pour it into the container you're going to store it in (either glass or ceramic). Or you can leave it in the same container you heated it in, as long as it's a non-reactive metal and you have avoided scorching the bottom.

  3. Let it cool down a bit, checking periodically to make sure the milk doesn't cool down too much. It should still feel warm, but should be cool enough that you can stick your finger in the milk without burning yourself. Once it's at this point, add the khumsah to a small bowl and combine it with 1/4 c of the warm milk.

  4. Add this mixture back into the container, mix it together, and cover it with a loose-fitting lid or plastic wrap.

  5. Wrap the whole thing in a blanket. This will keep it insulated so that it keeps some of the residual heat from the milk.

  6. Store the blanketed container in the oven and put a note on the control board so no one turns it on while your yogurt is inside.

  7. Let it ferment anywhere between 8 to 24 hours, depending on how sour you want it to be. It will become more sour as it ages. 12 hours is usually perfect.

  8. Once you're happy with the consistency, put it in the refrigerator to let it chill.

  9. Once it's chilled, put a couple of layers of undyed paper towels or clean tea towels (washed without dryer sheets, fabric softener, or fragrance) on top to soak up some of the whey. Discard after they absorb as much liquid as they'll hold.

  10. Enjoy the mesta as is, or hang it with cheesecloth to turn it into Greek yogurt (hung for about 4 hours) or labneh (hung for about 12 hours).

* The khumsah can be from a homemade batch of yogurt, or a scoop of store-bought yogurt.

Homemade Yogurt