The Baghdad I know is a patchwork of memories and faded photographs belonging to my mother and father. It might just be the sepia tone, or perhaps it's the nostalgia that laces their stories, but to me it's a magical, ethereal place with towering palm trees lining long and dusty roads, cool kids with round sunglasses and flares perching on the bonnets of convertible cars (I'm looking at you, dad), and the Tigris and the Euphrates stretching as far as the eye can see.
One of the many stories that add to the magic of Iraq is that of my great grandfather, Jawad. I like to think that although we never met, we would have had a fair bit in common, and could've had some pretty great conversations. In 1903, jido founded Shakarchi Sweets, formally known as Al-Haj Jawad Al-Shakarchi & Sons. It was one of the country's most famous and popular producers of baklawa and other typical Iraqi sweets like mann al sama (a nutty nougat smothered in flour - I used to ask anyone that went to Iraq to bring this back for me!) and zalabiya (sticky, chewy, sugary fritters).
Shakarchi Sweets had outlets all over Baghdad and remained popular for decades. Sadly, it shut down in the early 1990s as a result of sanctions, which caused the price of sugar to skyrocket and made it impossible to keep the business afloat. If one thing is for sure, it’s that Iraq hasn’t been as sweet since.
Nobody in our family has yet taken on the task of bringing Shakarchi Sweets back to life. Maybe one day I can change that. I know I’ll most likely never have a stall in Mansour, or a food truck pitched up on the bank of the Tigris, but maybe my sweets will give this side of the world a glimpse of that magical image of Iraq that my parents passed down to me.
For now, I’ll leave you with my baklawa recipe, inspired by Jawad Al-Shakarchi, and an incredible photo of Shakarchi Sweets that I recently stumbled across, taken in 1954:
As a foreward to the recipe, I will just say that baklawa comes in many different forms, but for the uninitiated, this is the most typical and the one to begin with. I really do encourage you to try making it. Baklawa has a reputation for being incredibly complicated, but in fact, it’s surprisingly simple. Working with filo pastry is always going to be fiddly, but the beauty is that it really doesn't have to be perfect, and once you've got the hang of layering the filo and the butter, you’re pretty much there.
You can also play around with fillings and flavours. The most traditional is a mixture of walnuts and pistachios, but pecans are my favourite so I decided to sneak them in too. If there is, however, just one piece of advice I’ll give you, it’s to leave your baklawa to soak in the syrup for at least 24 hours, or ideally even 48. The longer you leave it, the stickier, sweeter, and more delicious it will be. Just how jido would have liked it.
For the baklawa:
20 sheets filo pastry
200g butter, melted
270g shelled pistachios
250g pecans (or walnuts, cashews, or a mix of your preferred nuts)
50g caster sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
For the syrup:
170g caster sugar
1 tbsp rosewater or orange blossom water (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 170C, and lightly brush a large baking pan or casserole dish with melted butter.
2. Place the pistachios in a food processor and pulse until roughly chopped. Remove about 50g and set to one side to top your baklawa later on. Add the pecans, sugar, and spices to the mixer, and pulse a few times more until the nuts are chopped and all the ingredients are well integrated.
3. Carefully unroll your filo sheets onto a clean work surface. Whenever you're not using them, always cover the sheets with a damp (but not wet!) tea towel to keep them from drying out. If your filo sheets are too big for your pan, you can easily trim them down with some scissors.
4. Carefully place your first filo sheet into the buttered pan. Butter the top of the filo lightly with a pastry brush, making sure to go all the way to the edges. Repeat this process with another 7 sheets of filo, so you have 8 sheets of filo with butter brushed in between each. It doesn't matter if the pastry wrinkles or tears every now and again, you can always cover it up with the next layer!
5. Now add your first layer of filling. Scatter half of the spiced nut mixture over your top layer of filo, making sure it is evenly spread and goes all the way to the edges.
6. Place a filo sheet over the nuts and carefully brush with butter. Add another 4 sheets, brushing with butter between each.
7. Now add your second layer of filling. Spread the remaining nut mixture evenly over the 5th filo sheet, again going all the way to the edges.
8. Place another filo sheet over this second layer of filling, and brush carefully with butter. Repeat with another 7 sheets of filo, to total 8. Try to be extra careful with your top layer, trying not to wrinkle or tear it, but it doesn't really matter if you do.
9. Using a very sharp knife, carefully cut a series of evenly spaced diagonal lines from one side to the other to create the traditional diamond shapes. You can choose the number of lines you cut depending on how many baklawa you want to make. Bake the baklawa in the oven for about 40-45 minutes, or until the filo is golden brown all over.
11. Whilst the baklawa is baking, make the syrup. Place the sugar, honey, water and rosewater (if you’re using it) into a saucepan and warm over a medium heat. Bring to the boil and leave it to bubble for 10 minutes and until all the sugar is dissolved, being careful not to burn it. Remove from the heat and set aside.
12. Once the baklawa is ready, remove from the oven and carefully run a knife down the lines you cut earlier to make sure the pieces are separated. Pour the prepared syrup over the hot baklawa, making sure to cover the tops of each diamond and pouring between the lines too.
13. Garnish each piece with the remaining chopped pistachios, and leave to soak for at least 6 hours, or ideally overnight, or even two days. The baklawa will keep well for about a week if stored in an airtight container.