One of the burning questions sparked by my recent holiday in Greece was: “Why didn’t the Mughals bring baklava to India?”
Perplexing—because they certainly weren’t shy in imposing most of their favourite foods like biryani, kofte, kebabs and korma. Also, baklava suits the Indian palate well—it’s totally vegetarian, has the same tooth-achingly sweet nature as many Indian sweets and uses ingredients readily available here. I suspect one reason might be that all that syrupy, nutty sweetness is held together with layers of phyllo pastry which requires practice and skill to make (although, in fact, most home cooks in Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Iran would use bought pastry for their baklava).
Happily, ready-made phyllo is now available at specialist grocers in India too, which means it’s high time the baklava had an Indian incarnation. For my filling I decided chironji might be a fitting alternative to the traditional walnut. It’s a wonderful little nut, no bigger than a lentil, which I first discovered during a trip to Sagar in Madhya Pradesh, where the 100-year-old Chowdhari Mishthan Bhandar makes a unique chironji ki barfi. I also added some jaggery to the mix, spiced up the syrup with cardamom and brushed every layer of pastry with ghee.
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Working with phyllo pastry requires a little care—the sheets are transparently thin and tear easily. They also dry out quickly—another good reason to get on and make them now while our kitchens are still humid.
If I say it myself, my Indian baklava was a triumph. In fact, it was so outrageously decadent and addictive I could hardly bear to pass it round. And perhaps there’s the answer to my question. The Mughals brought baklava all right, their saddlebags were probably crammed full of the stuff—but strictly for personal consumption.
Chironji and Cardamom Baklava
Makes approximately 24
For the baklava
1 pack of ready-made phyllo pastry—375g, about 18 sheets
150g skinned almonds, chopped (or briefly blitzed in a grinder) to about the same size as the chironji nuts
2 tsp cinnamon, ground
2 tbsp powdered jaggery
125g melted unsalted butter or ghee (the Greeks also use a lot of clarified butter in their cooking)
24 whole cloves for decoration
For the syrup
350g granulated sugar
2 tbsp honey
Juice and zest of 1-2 lemons--be careful not to add any of the white pith which will make the syrup bitter
6 cardamom pods, crushed lightly to open them
2 cinnamon sticks
Make sure to prepare all the ingredients for the baklava before you start—assembling the baklava needs to be done as quickly as possible.
Brush the inside of a baking tin approximately 20x30cm with the melted butter. Mix the chopped chironji and almonds with the cinnamon and jaggery.
Unwrap the phyllo pastry and lay the sheets flat on the work surface. Cut the pile of sheets to fit the tin, then cover with a clean tea towel. Take one sheet of the phyllo and lay it carefully in the tin. Brush all over the pastry with melted butter/ghee. Do this until you have seven buttered sheets lying on top of each other in the tin.
Sprinkle half the nut mixture evenly on top of the pastry layers. Lay four more sheets of phyllo, buttering each one, then sprinkle the remainder of the nuts.
Layer it up: (clockwise from left) The baklava is the rare exception that the Mughals did not bring with them; for a desi touch, replace walnut with chironji; and the sugar syrup infused with cinnamon and cardamom makes the pastry irresistible. Photographs by Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Finish by covering with seven more sheets of buttered phyllo. Don’t be tempted to reduce the amount of butter—not only will you be cheating yourself of the full buttery, syrup impact of baklava, but the butter crisps the layers of pastry.
Brush the surface with butter, then cut through the top few layers into roughly 5cm diamond shapes. Put a clove into the centre of each diamond.
Bake for about 25 minutes until the baklava is golden brown. Phyllo pastry burns easily so keep an eye on it. In my electric oven, which has optional top and bottom elements, I bake the baklava for 20 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius with only the bottom element, then switch on the top element for the last 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the syrup. Put the sugar, honey, lemon zest and juice, cardamom and cinnamon into a pan. Add the water and heat until the sugar has dissolved. Boil for about 5 minutes until it has thickened slightly, then turn off the heat. Leave to steep for about 5 minutes, then strain off the lemon zest, cardamom and cinnamon.
When the baklava is baked, take it out of the oven and while still warm, pour over half of the warm syrup. Let it soak in, then pour over the other half. The nutty, lemony, syrupy, cardamom-y smells will be impossible to resist, but try to wait until the baklava has cooled before eating.
The baklava keeps well for at least a week in a tin (or saddlebag) although it’s unlikely to survive more than a day’s compulsive nibbling.
Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at Eatanddust.com
Write to Pamela at email@example.com