Lebanese Baklawa. Do you hear what I hear?

The role baklawa plays in the repertoire of the Lebanese home cook is formidable. Most every Lebanese woman of my parents’ generation makes her baklawa for special occasions, especially Christmas. We swoon over baklawa to such a degree that it’s like our little pet, our little coosa. We call it our baklawi (bit-LAY-wee), just like you might call me Maureenie, or my sister Pegsie, or your mother Mommy.

The pastry must have become so endearing not only because of its crisp, buttery layers that incite near-delirium when eaten warm from the oven, but also because of the labor required to make baklawi. There are several steps involved—clarifying butter, making and cooling orange blossom simple syrup, chopping and sugaring nuts—and these no doubt would pale in comparison to the work that once was the burden of Middle Eastern women the world over: the making of the phyllo. Seems they had to stretch the dough as thinly as possible by pulling it across the kitchen table in one huge sheet. I imagine these l­­­ittle ladies danced a jig in their house dresses on that same tabletop when they discovered commercially-made phyllo. It’s a wonder that certain tasks like stretching phyllo didn’t just fall by the wayside, but they did it as though there was no option, and their success in their labor no doubt pushed them full steam ahead.

Aunt Hilda made huge platters of baklawa all wrapped up like the present that they were, each piece encased in its own pleated foil cup and the whole thing wrapped up with pink Saran and topped with a bow. This baklawi-gift was personally delivered to the homes of Hilda’s brothers every Christmas. It didn’t matter to her, or to us, that we had our own huge tray of baklawa that my mother made (“your mom browns hers much more than I do, and there’s nothing wrong with that…”). The more baklawa, the better.

Hilda labored over the baklawi in her kitchen, over the phone, out for lunch or dinner or anywhere good conversation was had. She felt hers was truly the best. Her pastry looked like the traditional diamond-shaped pieces but it was actually made with long logs of phyllo and nuts that had been rolled up and placed snugly next to one another on the tray, and then cut into diamonds. She learned this method from Aunt Louise, and now many of the cousins, having learned from Aunt Hilda, make theirs this way too. The pieces hold together nicely.

Aunt Rita has baked enough baklawi to earn her a place in the baklawa hall of fame. No doubt she too feels hers is truly the best. For years, her kitchen would turn into a bakery at Christmastime as she made tray after tray, some 50 of them every December. The effort required 20 pounds of clarified butter and 50 pounds of phyllo from wholesalers. Whenever she saw butter or sugar on sale, she bought it. She sold the trays for $25 each. Today, she says, she wouldn’t do it for less than $50. But carpel tunnel has gotten to her hands and it just doesn’t work anymore. How did this happen, she says with a sigh.

You can imagine that anyone who makes that much baklawa comes up with some tricks of the trade. The practice of buttering each layer of phyllo can be Zen-like and all peaceful and everything if you are making one. But get up to 50 trays, and mind is going to prevail over matter. Rita’s mind went to what might happen if she didn’t butter each layer, if in fact she just laid the 20 leaves of phyllo right into the pan, scattered the nuts over that, laid 20 more leaves on top—then cut it into diamonds and poured all of the butter over the whole kit’n kaboodle, letting it seep down through all of the layers and nuts. What happened was this: the baklawa was just as delicious as if she had buttered every layer.

My mom took up this practice, which means I took up this practice too. I’ve taken to bragging about how you don’t have to butter every layer and even taught my classmates at Tante Marie’s Cooking School how to do it. They were shocked; I took a bow.

Then I went to make the baklawa for you the other day. I whipped it out fast. Mom helped and we were pleased with ourselves for making a beautiful baklawi for the blog. Then we tasted it. Wet. Soggy. And so floral with orange blossom water that one bite was about all any of us could take. But I KNOW this method works!, I said. It does, she said. We just made six trays this way for Aunt Hilda’s funeral luncheon not six months ago which were, we thought, worthy of the occasion. So we made the baklawi again and used less of everything—clarified butter, nuts, syrup, and especially mazaher. I called Aunt Rita to chat it up about her baklawa. She talked about how much she misses Aunt Hilda, and that you don’t have to panic if it looks like you have too much liquid. Just stay calm, and pour it off.

All of this fuss over the baklawi is worth it; you will understand this if and when you make or have some of the good stuff. Commercially-made baklawa tastes as though it’s made not with butter, but with oil, and it simply can’t compare. The homemade pleasure starts when the pan has been in the oven for about 15 minutes, and the intoxicating scent of butter and pastry begins to swirl about the kitchen and throughout the house. There is Gloria in Excelsis Deo when the cool orange blossom syrup is poured over the hot pastry, giving you the most satisfying sizzling sound effect. Once the baklawa is cool enough to handle, cut off one of the ends that aren’t pretty and eat it. It might be too hot still and you’ll burn your mouth, like I did yesterday. But that won’t phase you. You’ll keep eating the crispy, toasty morsel with your eyes closed.

The baklawi isn’t so different from all our little coosas: you’ll produce something special with a little TLC, a lot of parent-pride, and the faith that your baklawi will go out into the world bringing goodness and light.

Lebanese Baklawa
As with most recipes, you will have greater success if you read through the entire recipe before proceeding. Baklawa can be made in a variety of pan sizes. The goal is to have 20 sheets each on the top and bottom layers. The phyllo should be trimmed to fit the size of your pan. Most grocery stores sell either the small 1 lb. box with two packages, 20 sheets each, of 9”x14” sheets, or the large 1 lb. box with one package of 14”x18” sheets. Either way the quantity is one pound. If making a large sheet pan using the large package, you’ll need two boxes of the large phyllo, placing one package of 20 leaves on top, and one package of 20 leaves on the bottom of the pastry. For this size you will need to increase the amounts of butter, syrup and nuts. Baklawa can be made with pistachios or pecans rather than walnuts.

1 lb. box phyllo dough, room temperature

6 oz. (¾ cup) clarified butter, melted (measure after butter is clarified; clarify at least 8 oz. unsalted butter.)

1 ½ cups sugar
¾ cup water
1 T lemon juice
2 t mazaher (orange blossom water)

3 cups walnuts, toasted
1/3 cup sugar

Thaw the phyllo:
Refrigerate the frozen phyllo overnight, then bring to room temperature. Do not cut open the packages of phyllo until just before you are ready to assemble the baklawa.

Clarify the butter:
Melt the butter over low heat and pour it, along with the solids, into a bowl. Chill the bowl in the refrigerator (or jump-start it in the freezer if there is a rush). Once the butter is solid again, run the bowl under warm water to loosen the disk of butter, then rinse the disk off with warm water. All of the milky solids will be washed away. Melt the clarified butter when you’re ready to make the baklawa.

Make the orange blossom simple syrup:
In a small saucepan, combine sugar, water and lemon juice and bring to a boil over medium high heat. The lemon juice helps prevent crystallization. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the mazaher, pour into another, heatproof, container and cool completely. It is essential to pour cool/room temperature syrup over the hot pastry when it comes out of the oven.

Make the sugared nuts:
The nuts can be coarsely chopped in the food processor using pulses, but be careful not to go too far. Some nut-dust is unavoidable, but it is better to have a few nuts that need to be broken by hand than to process too much, which will produce nuts that are too finely chopped.

Combine the toasted chopped walnuts and sugar stirring until all of the nuts are coated and appear damp.

Assemble the baklawa:
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Open the phyllo and unroll it on top of the plastic it is packaged in. Keep the phyllo covered with a towel.

The size of the pan you use does not matter, but the pan should be metal (ideally not dark). For a 9”x13”x2” pan, trim the phyllo to fit. If you have the smaller box of phyllo, the two packages inside will need one inch trimmed off of the long side. If you have the larger box of phyllo, the one package of phyllo will need to be cut in half and trimmed to fit the pan. It’s better to leave the phyllo a little larger than the pan because it will shrink when it bakes.

Brush the bottom of the pan with clarified butter. Lay one stack of 20 phyllo leaves in the pan. Spread the nuts over the phyllo in one even layer. Lay the second stack of 20 leaves over the nuts, taking care that the top layer is a sheet that is not torn. Take a layer from the center of the leaves for the top layer if necessary.

Brush the top layer with clarified butter. Using the tip of a very sharp chef’s knife, cut the baklawa into diamonds by cutting six rows (5 cuts) lengthwise and ten rows (9 cuts) crosswise on the diagonal. Lightly score the top with your knife so you can see where the cuts will be.

Use your dominant hand to cut and the other hand to hold the top layers of phyllo down while cutting, and be sure to cut all the way through to the bottom of the pan. This is essential so that the butter will seep through all layers. The knife is held almost perpendicular to the pastry, cutting straight down into the phyllo and nuts. The top layer will lift and in general make you want to curse as you cut, but just lay the phyllo back down where it belongs and move on. The sharper your knife, the easier the cutting will be.

Pour the melted clarified butter over the baklawa evenly. Allow the butter to settle in, about 5 minutes. Bake on the oven shelf second from the top until deep golden brown, 50-60 minutes. Rotate the baklawa halfway through baking.

Remove from the oven and immediately pour the 1 cup of the cooled syrup evenly over the baklawa. When cool enough to handle, cut away a few morsels to eat warm. Let the rest sit, uncovered, for several hours or overnight to allow the syrup to absorb. Cut and serve from the pan as needed, keeping the baklawa lightly, not tightly, covered with plastic wrap or waxed paper. The baklawa will keep, in the pan, for two weeks.

Find a PDF of this recipe here.

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43 Responses to Lebanese Baklawa. Do you hear what I hear?

  1. Mike Baylus says:

    Beautiful dish! I love the family connection. My late Sicilian Grandmother is often looking over my shoulder when I’m in the kitchen. Or so it feels.

  2. Joy to you and your family at Christmas, Maureen!

    Baklawa is important in our Italian family, too. We LOVE the flavor-texture combo! Also, during my pregnancy with daughter Deanna, I craved baklawa. Turns out that Deanna is a lovely, sweet girl, now 43 years. Was it the baklawa that sweetens her personality and her life??

    • Maureen Abood says:

      The baklawa may have played a role but I suspect most of her sweetness comes from her mama. Merry Christmas, my Antonia!

  3. Alberta says:

    Looks beautiful I know it taste just as good as my mothers did. But always remember ur right she always said hers was the BEST. ,!!! U have such a great memory on everything right down to to red saran paper ??? Xoxo

  4. Karine Keldany says:

    Yum yum yum … looks amazing. Just the way I like it.

  5. Roger Toomey says:

    I’m surprised you make what we call the “restaurant” version with all of the filling in the middle. We always thought this was done to save labor but a poor substitute for the real thing. In our version it takes three people: one for sugared nuts; one for phyllo; and one for butter. We put down 5 phyllo painting butter on each one then put on a scoop of the nuts, followed by phyllo, paint the phyllo with butter, another scoop of nuts (make sure they’re even over the pan), another phyllo painted with butter, another scoop of nuts (pace out the nuts to keep them even)………etc. until there are 5 phyllo left they go on the top one at a time with each painted with butter. Any extra butter is poured on top. This gives a better combining of the flavors than with all of the filling in the middle and the syrup goes through the whole thing with the nuts making spaces.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      This is fascinating Roger! Baklawa is not made, among my people, the way you describe…but I’d love to try it! Sounds like the nut layers are very thin, and there are more of them. Delicious.

  6. Roger Toomey says:

    Hi, I hope I wasn’t insulting of your tradition.

    The nuts aren’t really in “layers” they end up throughout the baklawa. I think it could be done with any recipe but here’s mine:

    1 lb Fillo
    1 lb nuts,chopped (pecans, walnuts, or pistachios)
    1 lb unsalted butter (rendered)
    1 tsp allspice
    1 tsp cinnamon (I add extra)
    1 tsp nutmeg
    1 tsp cloves (I leave this out because I don’t like cloves)
    1 C powdered sugar
    whole cloves to decorate each diamond (I leave these off)

    Mix sugar, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and nuts. Melt butter is separate pan.

    Put together as in above post. Cut. Heat oven to 250. Place pan on top shelf. Bake 1 hr 30 min or until brown on top. If it doesn’t brown, broil for a very short time (just a few seconds to brown, not burn).

    My syrup recipe is a little different, probably because rose and orange water weren’t available.

    1 1/2 C water
    2C sugar
    2 cinnamon sticks (I use extra)
    1tsp vanilla
    1 tsp lemon juice
    lemon or orange rind if available
    2 C Honey (24 oz)

    Put all but honey in pan and heat on moderate stirring often until bubbles rise. Add honey and continue to cook until bubbles rise again. Remove and cool (but not cold, it needs to soak into the fillo).

    The thing is this can be done by one person but is easier with 3 as stated in previous post. Since this was only made during Lent it was something to look forward to each year. And I suppose there was more labor available in the winter since there weren’t outdoor activities. And I’m sure it was a “get together” for the ladies.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Roger, it is great to have your comments and ideas shared here! Thank you for the recipe–the syrup is much different, and reminds me of Greek baklava flavors. I love that the baklawa is best made with three people…more fun too!

  7. Karen A. says:

    Gosh, I feel right at home reading your words and descriptions. I too make it like your Aunt Hilda, logs are my forte. I definately want to try your pour the butter trick if I ever venture to the sheet side.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Hi Karen! Thanks for your comment–the logs are really good. Let me know though if you try the method of pouring the butter and not buttering each sheet! Great to see you here.

  8. Selene says:

    Hi Maureen! I finally garnered up enough nerve to try your method and recipe for baklawa and it is in the oven right now. Wish me luck. In the recipe ingredients for the nuts, it does not give an amount for the orange blossom water for the nuts. I added 2 t. and am hoping that was not too much. Also, I remember cinnamon as an ingredient for the nut mixture. Do you ever do that? I consulted other recipes and they are all different. Thank you for providing what I hope will be a special treat for my family. Merry Christmas!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Hi Selene–I don’t add mazaher to the nuts, only the syrup. I like the nuts to be crunchy and the orange blossom water makes them wet. We have never used cinnamon in the baklawa, but as you say, there are many, many types and approaches!

  9. Mantura says:

    I loved reading about your Aunt Hilda’s logs. Do you have a photograph of them?

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Hello there, and thanks for loving the baklawa logs. They are so good! I don’t think I have a photo (a pity) but I promise that I will post about this method, with photos, in the not-too-distant future!

  10. Henna says:

    I’m a long time lurker of your wonderful website, and I’ve finally realized that I can subscribe and receive updates directly to my inbox! I love all of your recipes, photos, and wonderful stories! I’ve had wonderful success with your recipes as well :) I’m excited to try this baklava recipe because you make it seem so easy! My son is turning 2 so we are having a birthday party for him this Saturday and this baklava is on the menu for dessert! In fact I’m in the kitchen right now preparing the clarified butter :)

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Henna, thanks you! I’m so happy to know that you’ve been making my recipes and enjoying them–I will be thinking of you as you celebrate your son’s 2nd birthday with our wonderful baklawa!

  11. David Samara says:

    Maureen ; While I love Orange Blossom water in just about everything (it works well in the date filling for Ma’moul), Baklawa MUST absolutely be made with Rose water and Rose water only! I suppose it depends on what we were given as children and what the family tradition was- (trying to be generous here but muttering darkly to myself!) Just kidding. I love your blog and it always encourages me to go ahead and make that special something that reminds me of my family.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      That is funny David! I have never had baklawa with rose water…amazing how different the family tradition can be!!! Thanks for your kind words. I will have to try your rose water baklawa…

      • david samara says:

        Though we always had either pistachio or walnut filling and always seemed to have a rose water based syrup made by the aunties and grandma, my grandmother’s hand written notes indicate the use of Mazaher or orange flower water. One of my fave Lebanese cookbooks by Sonia Uvezian, “Recipes and Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen” says that either (or both) may be used- I may have to try some walnuts with orange flower flavoring.

  12. Donna says:

    Maureen, I love reading about your baklawa. It reminds me of my Grandma’s which was the best on the east side of Detroit in the 50′s and 60′s. My Grandma made them in birds nests. What were the cookies called that were nut filled dough covered with syrup in the shape of “armadillos”?

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Donna, thanks so much. Are the dough cookies you’re thinking of fried? Maybe zalabia, but those aren’t filled with nuts typically.

  13. Vicky Woeste says:

    I so loved your Aunt Hilda! She was amazing.

  14. CAROL LOGAN says:

    MAUREEN, YOU HAVE BROUGHT UP SO MANY WONDERFUL, DELISH MEMORIES.
    I, TOO AM INTERESTED IN THE ROLLED BUTLAWA, PUT IN TRAYS. IS THERE ANOTHER LAYER OF DOUGH ON TOP TO MAKE IT LOOKED UNIFIED??
    VERY INTERESTING.
    AS ALWAYS, THANK YOU!
    CAROL

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Thank you Carol! The rolled version has the pastry intact from rolling–please email me to discuss more detail if you like!

  15. Amy says:

    I was just looking at recipes and searching Lebanese recipes to see what was out there on Pintrest which led me to your site. You are the first person I have found on the Internet that makes Baklawa like my family!! I am teaching my 16 year old niece how to make it tomorrow!

  16. Teresa Sawaya says:

    My grandmother was from Zahle. She always used Rose Water in her syrup. I remember her making the phyllo dough by hand and stretching the sheets of dough over the couch until one day, commercially made dough could be bought in LA. She did call it baklawi (bit-LAY-wee), as you have mentioned. I will try the recipe on your site. Thanks for the tips.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      What an incredible thing, the way they made their own phyllo! Enjoy and let me know how you like the recipe!

      • Teresa Sawaya says:

        Maureen, I have now made two batches. For your readers: Follow the amounts exactly as you posted. Do not soft boil the syrup any longer than you suggested. My second batch came out perfectly…Yes, the cutting is the real pain, however, once the tray was baked, it looked just fine. Also, I think the placement on the rack is very important to even baking, along with the turning of the tray half way through. I did bake the tray for 65 minutes to get a bit browner, but ovens can differ. I mixed pistachio nuts with walnuts and this was a fun mix.

        Thank you, thank you for sharing the shortcut. The baklawi turned out perfectly the second time. I have now shared your recipe with many other friends. Thank you again!
        Happy New Year to you and your readers!

  17. Teresa Sawaya says:

    Just made another tray for Valentine’s Day. I found that if I buttered between the last three-four layers, the cutting wasn’t so tedious because the layers stuck together better and didn’t lift so much! I also added dried cranberries, dates, and a little bit of crystalized ginger to the nut mixture and it was wonderfully mysterious to the pallet! Thanks again, I have now shown all of my children the shortcut you provided in this recipe and I hope the tradition will keep growing in our family.

  18. Jenny says:

    Maureen,
    What a beautiful article! My grandmother was Lebanese, and like your family’s our recipes have passed down through the hands of each generation. We also make bitlaywee at Christmastime. Each year, as my umie and I lay and paint the filo with butter (we’ll have to try your method), I feel my sithee with us still cooking.

    Thank you for sharing your family’s wonderful traditions!

    Jenny

  19. Marie-Claude Plourde says:

    I made a vegan version, and I modified it to use maple syrup. So it is a mix of Québec and Lebanon. The result is awesome. Thanks for sharing your recipe!

    Here is what I used:
    1 box of 454 g (1 lb) phyllo dough (whole wheat 100% vegetal)
    3/4 cup Earth Balance margarine (I used the regular butter flavour)

    3 cups walnuts, oven roasted, cooled
    1/3 cup cane sugar
    2 tsp orange blossom water

    1 cup maple syrup mixed with 2 tsp orange blossom water (no heating required, just mix together)

    —-

    Here is my post (in French though):
    http://www.facebook.com/notes/marie-claude-plourde/baklawa-de-l%C3%A9rabli%C3%A8re/778351478850728

  20. Mrs. Ghazel says:

    Maureen,

    This was just PERFECT! It tasted like my mother in law’s, only…better! ;-) Her syrup is identical, and she also pours the butter on last as you do, after cutting of course. The only thing different was that she doesn’t toast the walnuts and I had to explain that added dimension as she questioned it, lol. I toast a lot of nuts for a lot of recipes, so I do appreciate that very much. YUM! My family was in heaven this morning!
    I have never made clarified butter before, and your instructions and tips were PERFECT and the whole process went off without a hitch.

    THANK YOU SO MUCH for sharing!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Ah yes, my mother and others in her circle are miffed about toasting the nuts…but we know it’s SO good that way! I’m thrilled you love this method as much as I do. Thanks for writing!

  21. Valerie says:

    You are the only other person I have found that says it the way I know…everyone else of course knows it as Baklava…lol

    Love your site…just like the way I learned how to make lebanese food from my Grand ma and aunts when I was a little kid…its getting lost in my family…i want to pass it on to my daughter who has no clue as of yet about her lebanese heritage…most of my family is gone…so thank you for this site

    • Maureen Abood says:

      So glad you are carrying the torch and passing on the BAKLAWA and oher traditions, Valerie! Thanks for taking time to write!

 

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