Baklava from Scratch

Baklava is another one of those Mediterranean foods that every country touching the sea claims to have invented in some form or another. While the sweet nut and filo pastry in its exact form is a more modern creation, the basic ingredients go back much further, to the ancient days of those same lands.

I thought it would be fun to make a more “primitive”baklava, forgoing all the fussing around with store-bought filo, using nuts indigenous to the ancient near east, and just honey for sweetening.  Sugar doesn’t amount to more than a rare luxury good for many thousands of years.


For the Dough:
500g All Purpose Flour
300ml water
1 tablsepoon coarse salt
1/2 cup melted butter, 1/2 cup vegetable oil mixed together

For the filling:
2 cups mixed nuts (pictured walnuts and pistachios) 
3 tbsp. honey
1 tablspoon freshly ground cinnamon.

For the syrup:
1 cup honey
1/2 cup water
2-4 cinnamon sticks

It starts with just flour and water (and salt of course). Combine and mix with a wooden spoon until all the flour is incorporated into a rough dough.20180628_150759.jpg

Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 8-10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. No shortcuts! If you underknead, the dough will not stretch correctly later.

Divide the dough into four pieces, shape them into balls then flatten them into discs, roughly the size and thickness of your hand or a little bigger.

Combine butter and vegetable oil  in a large bowl and layer the discs of dough so as much of their surfaces as possible are submerged in the mixture. It’s okay if they are sticking out a bit though.

Let rest for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling. Shell the nuts as necessary and grind them in a mortar and pestle or a food processor.  You want a decent mixture of whole crushed pieces of nut with more powdery bits that got the most pulverized.  But err on the side of not over crushing it.

Drizzle in and thoroughly mix three tablespoons of honey. Don’t worry about it not being too sweet. That’s where the syrup comes in later. This is just a touch of that, plus a good binder.

Preheat your oven to 400F.

By now, the dough has rested in the fats mixture, getting nice and elastic and oily.  On a surface that isn’t wood,flatten out one of the discs with your hand, then brush with a heavy amount of the oil on both sides. Push it as flat as you can with just your hand, then let it relax for 5 minutes. Now, with a combination of more hand presses, plus literally lifting and stretching the dough until it’s thinner than paper, almost completely transparent and a rough circle 3 feet in diameter.

It seems tricky, but go slow, and gently stretch in all directions, and the buttery dough layer will shape up beautifully.

Now we have to fold it all up.  Take one corner and fold it in, OVER the center. Then take the corner next to it and do the same, layering on top of the first fold.  Go on to the next corner, working your way around the circle a total of 5 times to make a rough pentagon.

Set the pentagon aside and move on to the next disc of dough in the oil.  Repeat what you just did, stretching the dough into a very large, super thin circle.

This time, place the first pentagon into the center of the dough, spooning half of the prepared filling on top.  Fold the corners of the circle over the center, just like before, this time over the filling, closing the baklava up into a round or squarish pastry (I made one of each).

Bake at 400F for 40minutes, until golden brown. Let cool for two hours.

After the pastries have fully cooled, cut them up into any desired size, pressing close together. Let cool rest one more hour.

Make your honey syrup. Combine two parts honey to 1 part water and your cinnamon sticks, and bring to a light boil, stirring occasionally until the mixture is thicker and more reduced, about 20 minutes.

Pour the syrup over the baklava squares, making sure it runs down the cracks and sides. Let cool for 30 minutes, then cover. LET SET AT ROOM TEMPERATURE OVERNIGHT, or at least 8 hours.

Yes you really have to wait that long, for the crust and insides to absorb all that honey syrup.  This last step is frustrating, but really important! The slow melding of syrup and pastry will give you a stable finished product, rich with flavor and the sweetness of honey.

Finally, after not TOO much work and a lot of waiting, it’s time to enjoy your Mediterranean treat. Probably not as cringingly sweet as you’re used to, but instead a salty, nutty, buttery, delicious bite of old world flavor.

Sumerian Beer

Our first real recipe from history. . . why not for a beverage?

The discovery of beer goes far back into Neolithic times. It’s reasonable to assume that the first beers were made by accident, when porridge or mash from grain malted for other purposes was left too long for whatever reason, and fermented.

Thus by the 2000sBC and the rise of  Mesopotamian civilization, people were already proficient brewers.  Sumerian texts mention eight barley beers, eight emmer beers and three mixed beers (one of which we’ll be making today) This special beverage was made from the same grains which the Sumerians were well aware how important it was to their civilization. As such, brewing was sacred, serious business.

Sumerians drinking beer through giant straws, via

The Hymn to the goddess of brewing Ninkasi, from around 1800BC at the peak of Sumerian culture, not only shows the peoples’ reverence and awe at this fermented beverage, but also contains a recipe for how to make the stuff! Modern brewers have taken the instructions and recreated this ancient recipe for barley and wheat beer, which Cathy K. Kaufman handily publishes in her great book Cooking in Ancient Civilizations.

The basic method is to malt some wheat berries, then soak them with water, yeast, date-syrup, and a par cooked, fermented loaf of barley dough.  The whole process takes about a week and yields a mild, pale brew that’s only 2% alcohol and doesn’t quite taste like what you’re used to in modern beers.

But it’s not unpleasant!  And it does the job. I would compare the flavor more to cider than to beer. Barley cider if you will, but this is a close approximation of the kind of draught which helped build a civilization. Continue reading “Sumerian Beer”

Ancient Honey (date) Mustard

“Mustard is a plant. Mustard is an herb. Mustard is a condiment. Mustard is a sauce. Mustard is a green leafy vegetable. Mustard is a natural medicine.”
—via, Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999

Mustard is not only my favorite condiment, in all its forms. It is the original condiment. Ground wild mustard seed paste goes back far into prehistory. We can’t even say who or when it was invented.

We do know it was popular with the Sumerians and their descendents, covered in HISTORY OF FOOD EPISODE 4: How to Turn Food into Wealth.  Mustard was used for both its seeds and its leaves, and is referenced in multiple cuneiform texts.

This is my version of a sweet and spicy ancient honey mustard, using dates and their syrup as the sweetener and nothing else but mustard seeds and vinegar.  But you can use any combination of seeds, greens, other spices, herbs, or milk can make your own favorite mustard.

For Pickled Mustard Seeds:
1/2 cup mixed mustard seeds
2 cups vinegar, boiled

Pour the boiling vinegar over the mustard seeds and let sit and room temperature for 24 hours.


For dry mix:
1/2 cup mixed mustard seeds
2 teaspoons salt Continue reading “Ancient Honey (date) Mustard”