• How do you do baklava? (SBS Food)Source: SBS Food
Unravel the many layers behind my mama's baklava brain. Who knew opposites attract when filo pastry and a cheesegrater join forces?
Farah Celjo

19 May 2020 - 1:43 PM  UPDATED 20 May 2020 - 4:30 PM

Hi, my name is Farah and I’ve become a baklava snob. It’s not my fault, I’m channeling Goldilocks in search of the “just right”, except my “just right” happened first. So it’s been hard to stray.

I couldn’t even tell you when I had my first baklava, but it was probably when I started eating solids (you may laugh, but this is pretty likely).

Somewhere in the land between, cake, pie, and dessert, baklava stands tall and quite impressively at that. Baklava for my family, like for so many others, marks the end of Ramadan, the beginnings of either Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha – a special time that is also a pastry celebration of syrupy proportions. It really is the perfect “spoon(s) of sugar” to go with a cup of black kahva.

Strong as death, sweet as love: the long rich history of Turkish coffee
An old Turkish proverb perfectly describes the intensity and passion behind traditional Turkish coffee: “Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love”. From marriage proposals to the froth factor, this is a ritual 500 years or more in the making.

I knew if there was a 2 kg bag of walnuts sitting on the kitchen bench that Eid was near! It has always been a special time to come together and celebrate with family and friends - to eat, to laugh and to eat some more (even though we've never quite needed a special occassion to do it). You typically would have guests dropping by, especially during Eid and as a sign of sweet hospitality, kitchens would always be brimming with desserts.

Baklava symbolises sweet traditions and even sweeter stories for so many and it would be impossible for me to not be lured by a tray of baklava. While each family holds their recipes, their secret twists and homemade classics close to their chest, what is synonymous with all baklava makers (and lovers) is the simple gesture of sharing. No matter the type, with each mouthful of really good baklava, you can taste just how much love goes into each layer. 

This Eid al-Fitr not only do I get to watch my mama make her classic tray once again, but I finally get her in front of a camera to film it. I will forever cherish the laughter, banter, bickering, lessons and complete passion we share when we get together in the kitchen, but most of all I appreciate those occasions when she eats out of my tray while I scoop out of hers.

Every birthday was synonymous with mama's grand four-layer buttercream torte, just like every Eid had syrupy baklava by its side. What can I say, we’re a family of feeders and eaters and I may be biased, but I know that anyone who comes into contact with a piece of mama’s baklava is guaranteed to live his or her best eating life as well. 

After 50 years, mama's baklava game is simple

So what is it about her baklava that excites me most?

The tirit. The buttery-baked crumb that is mixed with walnuts to form the filling – the ingredient that is crucial to the moist and creamy texture of the layers. Mama still uses an old-school cheesegrater to mill her walnuts and she's had it since she first came to the country, with no imminent plans to switch it for a food processor any time soon.

Also, the texture of the spiced-syrup is spot on. When I was a child, I would stand on my tip-toes, hands on the bench so I could get a glimpse of that final pour-over. I always remember it making me smile because it was then when the magic happened. The soaking of each layer, the sizzling sound of crackling pastry and the seeping - or as my mama says “the thirsty pastry needing a drink” - would all come together. It was at this moment that I knew it was ready and it was also at this moment that I knew I had a problem.

Moist baklava is where it’s at (let me talk you through this). The key is all in that tirit crumb and the consistency of the spiced syrup. While some prefer the drier, crumbly version, I am soft and syrupy all the way home. Don’t be afraid to be tactile with your pastry, your filling, and your layering.

Mama learnt her baklava prowess from her mum and I, too, have been fortunate enough to reap the sweet lessons from her at an early age. One of my mama's most cherished memories was learning to make pastry from scratch from her mama when she was only 15 years old and this is a skill that she holds dear. Cotton sheets would flood our lounge room - draped over chairs and the dining table. This is where she would dry her sheets before taking her thin rolling pin to each sheet. My father crafted a distinct rolling pin, thin handles with a slightly denser centre, for a more consistent roll. At the age of 68, she now interchanges homemade with storebought due to the frequency and as what she references as, "...years of simply being a mother".  

While deep down she shares her aspirations of rectangular trays and layering filo sheets as they come, mama has her own style and bakes hers like she always has, in a deep-dish circular baking tray and cuts her pieces diagonally to form diamond shapes. “It is important to cut the pastry as even as you can. I have been practicing for a very long time and my tip is to make sure you cut it before you bake. You won’t get the same result if you cut it after and your syrup and pastry are wanting to come together straight away, so don’t make it wait any longer,” she tells me.

Ensuring you lightly sprinkle some butter/vegetable oil between each layer of pastry will avoid your sheets sticking together and the clang of the teaspoon hitting the bottom of the enamel cup of butter and oil is a sound I will always associate with my mama.

Make sure you cut your baklava pieces before baking. And remember, opposites attract. Cool syrup poured over hot baklava OR hot syrup poured over cooled baklava. Choose wisely.

Mama loves to eat it straight out of the pan, just like we all do now. And yes, those half-diamond pieces make great taste-testers as they're not quite big enough slices to serve to your guests - there is method to her circular madness. #wellplayed

Love the story? Love her mama? Follow the @uberfah via Instagram.

Eid al-Fitr is a three-day celebration that marks the end Ramadan and begins on the evening of Saturday May 23 2020. For more recipes to create your own banquet, check out our recipe collection here.

Baklava beauties for the baking
Armenian baklava

The cinnamon and clove set this Armenian version apart from the crowd.

Baklava with custard filling

This version of the classic Lebanese pastry combines my two loves - custard and baklava, all wrapped up in filo and finished with fennel-spiced walnuts.

Baklava cookies

If cookies were a currency, these would be gold. These baklava-inspired pucks are weighty with nuts (walnuts, pistachios and almonds), all bound up with honey and butter. Trade your cookies wisely. But don't stockpile them - eat within 1-2 days. It's important to cool the honey syrup before pouring over the straight-out-of-the oven cookies to avoid a soggy mess.

Turkish coffee and kaymak “baklava”

What makes Turkish baklava so good is that the first layer of pastry is spread with kaymak, a thick rich cream that adds a buttery silkiness. I would never try to improve on baklava – it’s pretty perfect just as it is, but this version takes some of the best elements and combines it with Turkish coffee to make a pretty good twist on a classic.

Baklava my way

Every family has a baklava recipe and while the differences may not be significant, every one is proud of their own version.

Antep-style pistachio baklava

Antep-style pistachio baklava is named after the city of Gaziantep in southeast Turkey for which this classic sweet pastry is renowned. "Normally at the restaurant we make our own filo" says Somer Sivrioglu. "It’s so thin that you could read a newspaper placed under it. This is a more practical recipe, particularly fun to do with children".

Pistachio baklava

At Efendy, Somer uses Turkish or Iranian pistachios and makes the filo pastry from scratch, rolling it so thin that you could read a newspaper through it.