Baklava Bias

By Keith Howerton

Lebanese BaklawiMaking 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.

Love.

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 Lebanese Rose Water Ingredient Listproducts: 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 Map of Lebanon and the Bekaa Valleydifficult 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.

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).

References

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).

Rose Hips – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

If you grow roses, plan now for rose hips. Simply leave the spent flowers on your rose bushes after their last bloom of the season. Do NOT cut them off. Allow the fruits of the rose, which are the rose “hips,” to ripen on the bush. The hips will turn red or orange depending on the rose variety. When the sides of the hips are soft to the touch, they are ready to harvest. Waiting to harvest until after the first light frost increases the flavor of the hips.  

Now, you may be wondering why you should allow your roses to form hips. Here are some good reasons:

  • Ounce for ounce, rose hips contain eight times more vitamin C than oranges,  according to the US Department of Agriculture Food Data Central.
  • They are also rich in vitamins A, B, E, and K, as well as other nutrients.
  • Rose hips make a nice tea and can be used in making jams, jellies, soups, and even wine.
  • Rose hips are a food source for birds during the winter. 
  • Their bright red to orange color brightens the winter garden.
  • The formation of rose hips on your rose bushes signals the roots of the rose to conserve energy and prepares the bush for winter.

rose hip teaRose hips can be cooked, dried, or frozen. To prepare ripe rose hips, cut off the blossom and stem ends of the rose hip.  Slice them in half and remove the hairy seeds.  They are now ready to be used for jams or jellies, or dried or frozen for later use. Processing rose hips does reduce the vitamin C content.

Like many other herbs, rosehips have a long history of use.  

  • Ancient Chinese, Greeks, Romans and Persians used rose hips for medicine. Pliny the Elder (23-79 BCE) in his book Natural History documented thirty-two remedies made from the rose.  He said, “In the case of a toothache, the seed (rose) is employed in the form of a liniment; it acts also as a diuretic, and is used as a topical application for the stomach.”
  • Rose hips were served as a sweetmeat in the Middle Ages and were used as a treatment for chest problems (Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine). 
  • Native Americans used the hips of native roses for food and for medicine. 
  • Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654), a famous English physician, botanist, and herbalist, details use of rose hips as medicine in his book the Complete Herbal. He said, “The pulp of the hips have a grateful acidity, strengthens the stomach, cools the heat of fever, is pectoral, good for coughs and spitting of blood.” 
  • During World War II, when supplies of citrus fruits were cut off, rose hips were collected in England and made into syrup. The syrup, high in vitamin C, was given to children to prevent scurvy. 
  • Today, according to WebMD, people use rose hips to boost their immune systems because of the high Vitamin C content. There is some evidence that rose hips may also be an effective treatment for joint pain and stiffness.  Always consult with your health care provider before treating health symptoms with herbs.

rose teaSo, which roses are best for rose hips? Hybrid tea roses are bred for the beauty of the bud and flower, and are definitely not the best choices if you want robust rose hips. The old fashioned varieties, Rosa canina (dog rose) and Rosa rugosa, are the best producers of rose hips. According to the American Rose Society, the Hansa and the Frau Dagmar Hastrup varieties and other R. rugosas produce the best hips. These old roses are the easiest to care for of all of the rose varieties and are a sure winner if you are looking to harvest your own rose hips. One caution though, if you are planning to use your hips in recipes, do not spray them with chemicals.

Rose hips are the Herb of the Month for The Herb Society of America.  For more information, recipes, and a beautiful screen saver, go to https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html 

For a very nice guide to roses, go to The Herb Society of America Essential Guide to Roses. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/83784ac3-dac2-4586-8d62-6bbf56a98b74

References:

American Rose Society. Hip! Hip! Hooray!!!  https://www.rose.org/post/2018/04/19/hip-hip-hooray. Accessed 9/14/20.

Bucks, Christine. Hips, hips, hurray! Organic Gardening. Vol. 43, Issue 9. December 1996. Availble from Ebscohost. Accessed 9/14/20.

Chevallier, Andrew. Encyclopedia of medicinal plants.  NY: DK Publishing Inc. 2000. 

Culpepper, Nicholas. Complete herbal. London: Foulsham, 1880. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/culpeperscomplet00culpuoft/page/298/mode/2up Accessed 9/14/20)

Duluth News Tribune. Yardsmart: History and uses of rose hips. https://www.duluthnewstribune.com/lifestyle/4166730-yardsmart-history-and-uses-rose-hips. Accessed 9/13/20.

Fenyvesi, Charles. Reveling in Rosehips: a deliciously delightful harvest. Washington Post, October 20, 1988. Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 9/11/20.

Hope, Christopher. The medicinal benefits of rose hips. https://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/medicinal-benefits-rose-hips. Accessed 9/11/20.

Patel, Seema. Trends in Food Science & Technology. Vol. 63, pg. 29-38. May 2017. Available from Ebscohost. Accessed 9/14/20. 

Pliny the Elder. Natural history of Pliny. London; Henry Bohn, 1853. Volume 3, Pg. 265. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/naturalhistoryof03plin Accessed 9/16/20.

Toops, Connie. Roses: seven rose species whose hips and thorny thickets provide food and shelter for birds in winter. Birders World. Vol. 18, Issue 6. December 2004. Available from Gale in Context Science database. Accessed 915/20.

US Department of Agriculture. Food Data Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/. Accessed 9/15/20

WebMd. Rosehips. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/rosehip-uses-and-risks#1 Accessed 9/15.20.rose-hip-952318_1280 (1)

Photo Credits: 1) Rosa rugosa ‘Hansa’ hips and flower (Creative Commons, W. Carter); 2) Rose hip tea box (Maryann Readal); 3) Rose hip tea (Maryann Readal); 4) Rose hips (Pixabay)

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a Master Gardener and a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.