Greek and Lebanese baklava: two sweet, simple recipes

Baklava, a sugary treat made from homemade syrup and layers of crispy phyllo dough. Courtesy of Lukas Johnson.

Growing up as descendants of Lebanese immigrants, my younger sister and I had one thing on our minds at all times: baklava. This luxurious sugary treat made from a homemade syrup and layers of thin crispy phyllo dough is both delicious and incredibly fun to make. I will often use one of two recipes: one originating from Greece, the other from Lebanon. Both have very similar constructions, but differ in the homemade syrup and spices used. Making baklava takes a while, but if you ever have a weekend day with nothing to do, just the smells of honey, spices and dough filling up the kitchen make the time commitment absolutely worth it. The recipe below makes a lot, so be sure to share with your friends (and hopefully me)!


Baklava/Baklawa:

Ingredients

Syrup (Greek):

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • orange peel

Syrup (Lebanese):

  • 4 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 squeeze lemon juice (fresh lemon tastes better)
  • 2 teaspoons rose water
  • 2 teaspoons orange blossom water

Pastry:

  • 1 lb toasted walnuts
  • 1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 16 oz packaged phyllo dough, thawed 
  • 1½ cups butter

Directions:

  1. Make the syrup: 
    • For the Greek variety: Mix water, sugar, honey, cinnamon and orange peel in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
    • For the Lebanese variety: Mix water and sugar in a medium pot. Put on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved; then boil for five to seven minutes, letting it thicken slightly. Add lemon juice and rose and orange blossom water. Store with a small slice of lemon in the refrigerator once cooled.
  1. Preheat oven to 350℉.
  1. Process walnuts, cinnamon and cloves in a food processor until finely ground. If you don’t have access to a food processor, place them in a plastic bag or fold under a dishcloth, then smash with a rolling pin.
  1. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat.
  1. Brush a 9-13” (or similar, I usually use a casserole dish) pan with butter and place a layer of phyllo at the bottom. Brush again with butter and place another layer. Repeat until you have seven layers of phyllo.
  1. Spread about a quarter of the ground walnut mixture evenly on top. Add five more layers of phyllo and butter. Repeat three times, spacing out walnut layers with five layers of buttered phyllo, until all walnut mixture is used up; then finish with seven layers of phyllo over the last walnut layer. Brush top with butter one more time.
  1. Trim any phyllo dough sticking out with a sharp knife, then cut into 24 even triangles (first cut into 12 even squares, then cut each square in half diagonally).
  1. Place the pan of baklava in the oven and bake for about 50 minutes, until golden brown.
  1. Remove from the oven and immediately pour syrup over the dish,  making sure it is as evenly distributed as possible and fills every crack. For Greek version, you can use all of your syrup, while for the Lebanese you only need 1-1½ cups. Let sit for four hours to allow the syrup to soak in. Serve at room temperature and store leftovers in an airtight container either refrigerated or at room temperature.

A few notes on phyllo and baklava:

  • Yes, there’s a lot of butter and sugar. It is worth it. However, it is very rich, so I wouldn’t recommend eating too much at once.
  • As for the difference between Lebanese and Greek: it is really a personal preference. Greek is much more common, but the Lebanese version tends to be a little lighter and with a noticeable difference in flavor palette. The lemon and waters provide a more subtle fruity taste while the cinnamon and honey create a very strong sense of pure sweetness and comfort.
  • When working with phyllo, remember it is very thin and will rip and tear easily. It’s not a huge deal if a layer does break, but be careful and gentle when handling and brushing with butter.

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