recipes

Baklawa and Baghdad Dreaming

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:

  Posted by @IraqiPic on Twitter (original post  here )

Posted by @IraqiPic on Twitter (original post here)

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.

Recipe

Ingredients:

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
170g honey
170ml water
1 tbsp rosewater or orange blossom water (optional)

Instructions:

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.

 

Middle Eastern Mahalabiya with Almond Milk & Maple Syrup

I cannot deny that Middle Eastern desserts are some of my favourites. I've never really been a baklawa person, and that's often what first comes to mind when people think of Arabic desserts. But throw me some rosewater and an extra helping of pistachios, and I'm there. Mahalabiya, a rose water and pistachio milk pudding, is top of my list.

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I used to make this with my grandmother (bibi) all the time. She used to always make little pots - one for me, one for her, and one extra for whoever was coming over later. Because of that, I'll always prefer having my own little bowl of it rather than scooping some out of a big one, which is how it is more typically served.

 

It helps that my brother brought back some of the most beautiful handmade ceramic bowls from his recent trip to Palestine. I've been wanting to recreate mahalabiya for a while now, and with such pretty bowls at hand, I thought this was the perfect opportunity!

Traditionally, the dessert is made with whole milk and caster sugar. However, I thought I'd experiment with making it a little bit more healthy by substituting the normal milk with almond milk, and the sugar with maple syrup. I was pretty nervous as I had my grandma's sister (basically grandma number 2) on the other end of the phone waiting to hear whether my messing around with her recipe had worked or not!

Thankfully, it turned out just as I'd hoped. The almond milk makes it feel so much lighter and adds a lovely texture, and the maple syrup adds just the right amount of sweetness. Gluten free, dairy free, refined sugar free, and delicious!

It's actually also probably the easiest, quickest, and least-messy dessert I've ever made. You can whip it up in a matter of minutes, and just need a little bit of patience whilst waiting for it to set. 

Here goes...!

Ingredients

2 cups almond milk (plus 1/4 almond milk)
2 tablespoons rosewater
1/2 cup maple syrup
3 tablespoons cornflour
1/4 cup almond milk

Recipe

1. Pour the 1/2 cup almond milk and the maple syrup into a saucepan and warm over a medium heat. 

2. Meanwhile, place the cornflour in a mug and add the extra 1/4 almond milk. Working quickly, mix these together with a spoon to form a paste.

3. Take the milk and syrup mixture off the heat, and add in the cornflour paste. Stir, and bring back onto the heat. 

4. Continue stirring until the cornflour has completely dissolved and the mixture thickens to the consistency of cake batter. Do not allow the mixture to boil!

5. Divide the mixture into small bowls, and leave to cool completely.

6. Transfer the bowls to the fridge, and leave them to set for a few hours, or even overnight. Decorate with ground and whole pistachios, and some edible rose petals if you have any!