Sheets of silky phyllo dough stretched so thin they’re transparent are buttered, then layered with a filling of finely chopped pistachios, walnuts and cinnamon. Phyllo dough is unleavened so that after it has baked, it does not rise, and the layers settle into each other like the pages of a closed book. The butter allows it to crinkle without becoming brittle, soften without going soggy. We top the hot stack with a honey-based syrup, allowing it to soak into the layers and cool.
In 17th century Istanbul, at the Topkapi Palace kitchens, this pastry dessert was perfected. A favorite treat of the Sultan, on the 15th day of every Ramadan, he’d serve trays of baklava to his Janissaries, the elite infantry units who guarded his household. This day came to be called “The Baklava Parade” and is a representation of both the strength of the Ottoman Empire and its loyal armies, but also of the Sultan’s appreciation to those who protected and fought for him.
Sitting together at the smaller dining table in Howell House’s kitchen, a pan of freshly made baklava cooling in front of us, my roommates and I also felt like celebrating. It was our first time cooking in a College House kitchen–really, our second time cooking together ever. As we gazed at the culmination of the last two hours’ efforts layered atop each other with sweet honey and crunchy nuts, we felt too proud to take a piece, too in awe of our creation, the room still abuzz with the excitement of cooking somewhere unfamiliar, of being college students, of embarking on a new journey. When we finally took a bite, we all agreed that we might have gone a little too heavy on the lemon. But the flaky layers dissolved under a sweetness so rich that we still felt as if we had landed the dessert jackpot.
This is our tradition. Every Sunday, we three come together to bake. No matter the demands of the week, assignments due, and exams to study for, we are always able to make time to indulge in something delicious. And with every passing week, I learn more—not just about how to become a better baker, but also about myself, my roommates, our friendship and what food means to each of us. I have come to realize that every dessert we have made has a history as rich as its flavor. Each recipe is a plot on a map that pinpoints a shift in the way a dessert can be made and, in a broader sense, traces the cultural changes and diverse identities of those who eat it.
And no dessert could be a better display of the malleability of food within the hands of different people, as well as its endurance across time, as empires rise and fall and crops thrive and falter. The method of layering unleavened flat bread with chopped nuts and honey can be found in 9th century BCE during the Assyrian Empire. The Ancient Greeks, growing fond of this Assyrian delicacy, developed the incredibly thin phyllo (leaf) dough and as the silk and spice trade began to flourish, they began to include other ingredients such as rosewater and cardamom and cinnamon. Others argue that modern day baklava was invented in Turkey at the time of the Ottoman Empire, which was so vast and encompassed so many countries that each nation came to have its own version of baklava.
In Bulgaria, Macedonia and Serbia, baklava is made with walnuts from the Black Sea Region and sugar syrup. Gaziantep, Turkey, known as the spiritual home of baklava, uses pistachios so vivid that they grind them into fine green powder to sprinkle on top. Grecian baklava is supposed to be made with 33 dough layers to symbolize the 33 years Jesus spent on Earth.
This winter break, my roommates and I went to a South Asian market together and walked out with lentils, halal meat, naan bread and spices. But just as we were unloading into the car, the man at the counter called my roomate Aniqa back in. When she returned to us, in her hand was a small container of finely cut baklava. As we drove home, each of us with a piece of baklava in hand, I came to understand that baklava is about giving. Just as it has been influenced and shared between nations, transcending the changes in power and culture, we too as individuals can share this treat with each other, and share a part of ourselves along the way. Just like the many variations of baklava inspired by the differences in ingredients available to individual countries, each of us has something unique to offer—even if it’s a lot of lemon.