By Keith Howerton
Making baklava, or baklawi/baklawa/ba’lawa, as it’s generally called in Arabic-speaking cultures, is a real pain in the…well, everywhere. Pain in the neck, pain in the wrist, pain in the bank account. My mom used to make it with my aunt once a year, usually around Christmas, and I have managed to dodge helping every single time. Sorry mom. Since her side of the family is Lebanese, we’ve always called it baklawi, so I’ll refer to it as such here, though I usually call it baklava around other people, because otherwise, they won’t know what I’m talking about. Even my laptop doesn’t; it has already auto-corrected baklawi to baklava three times since I started writing.
Greek baklava is essentially a few dozen layers of incredibly thin phyllo dough brushed with melted butter between each layer, and then sliced, baked, and drenched in a honey-based, or sugar-based, syrup to soak into all those buttery, flaky layers of phyllo dough. Usually a light layer of nuts is added halfway through the layering, and again on the top. Sometimes the nuts are tossed with cinnamon before layering them in, and many people also add vanilla extract.
There are probably more versions of baklava/baklawi/baklawa/ba’lawa than there are layers of phyllo dough, which is why I won’t bother writing a detailed recipe here. Okay, if you insist. It’s at the bottom.
Baklava and baklawi, while nearly the same dessert, have one key difference. There will always be other subtle differences between families, bakeries, restaurants, regions, or what have you, but in my experience, there’s one ingredient swap that makes the Lebanese version (and that of the surrounding area) pretty different.
No, no…wait that’s not right.
The “secret” ingredient is rose water. Or orange blossom water, but my family uses rose water.
The version my family makes is the same structure as what is described above, except the syrup is infused with rose water. This one ingredient substantially changes the flavor, though it may look the same as baklava. It is very easy to overdo it on the rose water, so if you decide to try out making the Levantine version, go light on the rose water the first time!
Rose water, from my understanding and some quick online searching and YouTubing, is fairly simple to make at home. It’s basically an infusion made from rose petals. I have not done it personally; we always just bought some at a local Middle-Eastern market. And I think the commercially produced stuff is a bit more interesting anyway.
Rosa damascena, or damask rose, an extremely fragrant rose resulting from a natural hybrid of a few different roses, is the preferred species for making rose water. The petals are picked by hand and then distilled. The result is two different products: a waxy, oily substance called attar used in perfumery and the rose water itself. A number of different countries cultivate Rosa damascena, both for the fragrance industry and for food uses, and it’s easy to get lost in the weeds trying to figure out who is producing how much and who they are exporting it to–at least for me. And I find stories more interesting than statistics, anyway. So, I went to a local Mediterranean market and took a look at the different rose water brands they offered. Well, I went to my local big-box store first and then to the Mediterranean market. Let’s start with the big-box store.
I picked up the first bottle of rose water and checked the ingredients. Yikes. I picked up the second. Yikes. Needless to say, I was shocked at the lack of quality in the rose water brands they carried! Jokes aside, I find it a bit surprising you can call something rose water when there is no rose water in it whatsoever.
The Mediterranean market was much better. Both brands I checked contained simply rose water. I purchased a bottle sourced from Lebanon. The Bekaa (or Beqaa) Valley, a sort of agricultural heartland in Lebanon and well-known for its wines and other products, boasts pretty substantial damask rose production, and it’s likely that’s where this manufacturer sourced its rose petals, although it’s difficult to say for sure.
I did not go out of my way to purchase Lebanese rose water rather than rose water produced somewhere else, but I do like the thought of us using a little piece of Lebanon to make a traditional recipe passed through my family for generations, all the way over here in the United States.
Once the baklawi is finished, we keep it at room temperature out on the counter and someone, who will remain nameless, will sneak a piece and blame it on Dad.
It’s a painstaking, expensive dessert to make, but it is one of my favorites and one that will always hold a special place in my heart. Just not special enough to actually help. Oh, what’s that you say? We’re making baklawi? Shoot…I’m…I’m busy. Have to walk the cat.
Lebanese Baklawi Recipe
Pastry and filling
2 pounds (7 or 8 cups) chopped walnuts, pistachios, or pecans (my family usually uses pecans)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1 ½ pounds butter
2 pounds (or 2 boxes) phyllo dough
Combine nuts, cinnamon, and cloves. Brush the baking pan with melted butter. Place a layer of phyllo dough sheet on the bottom of the pan and brush with butter. Repeat until you have piled up half of your phyllo dough, each one brushed with butter. Distribute the nut mixture (½ inch thick) over the top of the bed of phyllo dough.. Then add the other half of the phyllo dough on top of the nut mixture, brushing each layer with butter. With a sharp knife, cut in diamonds. Bake at 250 degrees for 2 hours until the top turns a light golden brown and the pastry pulls away from the sides of the pan. Makes 2 dozen. While it is baking, prepare the syrup.
3 cups sugar
1 ½ cups water
½-1 tsp rose water
Juice of 1 lemon
Mix sugar, water, and rose water. Boil until tacky and then add lemon juice. When syrup is cool, pour very slowly over baklawi. Do not refrigerate.
Photo Credits: 1) Lebanese baklawi (Oasis Baklawa, http://www.oasisbaklawa.com); 2) Rosa ‘Autumn Damask’ and Rosa ‘Kazanlik’ (Chrissy Moore); 3) Lebanese rose water ingredient list (Keith Howerton); 4) Map of Lebanon and Bekaa Valley (www.news.bbc.co.uk).
Cherri, Rima. 2019. Syrian rose farmer uses skills to graft new life in Lebanon. The UN Refugee Agency/US. Accessed 6/2021. https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/stories/2019/12/5e01c9164/syrian-rose-farmer-uses-skills-graft-new-life-lebanon.html
Financial Tribune. 2019. Iran meets 90% of global rosewater demand. Accessed 7/15/2021. https://financialtribune.com/articles/domestic-economy/98443/iran-meets-90-of-global-rosewater-demand
The Herb Society of America. 2011. The Herb Society of America Essential Guide: Roses 2012 Herb of the Year. Accessed 7/31/21. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/83784ac3-dac2-4586-8d62-6bbf56a98b74
Gourmet Food World. Accessed 7/31/21. https://www.gourmetfoodworld.com/cortas-rose-water-11762#recipes
Mahboubi, Mohaddese. 2015. Rosa damascena as holy ancient herb with novel applications. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. Elsevier. Accessed on 6/2021. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2225411015000954
After getting a horticulture degree from Texas A&M University, Keith was the 2017 National Herb Garden intern, and then spent a year and a half in the Gardens Unit at the US National Arboretum. He has worked with restaurants and hydroponics and now works in urban forestry at Casey Trees in Washington, DC. He is obsessed with all things growing food, foreign languages, and cooking (and eating).