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.

HOMEMADE BAKLAVA

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.

Hummus

You’ve never had hummus this good.

Well. . . Unless of course you buy Sabra, or already happen to know the two simple secrets to making the best hummus (revealed below).

Hummus is one of those pan-regional foods that every Mediterranean country today seems to have as a staple, and also claims to have invented. Its roots go back further into history than we can trace.

There is no direct historical evidence for ancient humans consuming literal hummus. HOWEVER, the record shows that chickpeas were a significant part of farmers’ crop and diets throughout the Near East,  beginning way back in the prehistoric Neolithic.   For people that ate mostly grain, legumes like the chickpea were a critical source of protein.  While simple consumption was probably most common, I have no doubt that ancient culinary minds were also occasionally mashing their chickpeas into dips, spreads, and pastes.

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With that established, we also know that onions and garlic were beloved by populations all over the region, and that by the time of the later Bronze Age after 2,000BC, the vast trade networks between the Near Eastern powers of the day ensured that olive oil and sesame seeds were widespread throughout the land.

Which means we have all the ingredients we need to make a classic hummus. All we’re missing is lemons, which had not yet spread to the region by the Bronze Age.  So this recipe substitutes vinegar, but is otherwise no different from a modern hummus today.
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Here are the two promised secrets to making hummus fit for the gods: Continue reading “Hummus”

HOF Episode 8: Hunger and Collapse (Mesopotamia and Bronze Age)

No civilization lasts forever.  In fact, it’s kind of a miracle any starts at all.  The conditions must be exactly right for people to come together into urban environments.  So like an overextended, teetering Jenga tower, it’s not if but when the whole system will fall, as it did again and again across history.

Come listen as we go back to explore the Neolithic, the history of Mesopotamia after Sumer, and finally the Bronze Age, to understand the riddle of why the rise of civilizations is so tied to their collapse.

Theme music by  Michael Levy of Ancient Lyre. This rendition of the Hurian Hymn, the oldest known piece of sheet music, and the whole album “An Ancient Lyre” and much more is available from all major digital music stores and streaming sites.

Theme music by the incredible Michael Levy of Ancient Lyre. This rendition of the Hurian Hymn, the oldest known piece of sheet music, and the whole album “An Ancient Lyre” and much more is available from all major digital music stores and streaming sites.

Continue reading “HOF Episode 8: Hunger and Collapse (Mesopotamia and Bronze Age)”

Sumerian Onion Bread (for gods or royalty)

No peasant fare today.  This bread is for deities or royalty only.

We know the Sumerians, original urban culture of the world, were obsessed with many types of onions, especially leeks.  We also know that temple priests took great care to prepare special food for their resident god or goddess. Most people used flour that was pretty coarse compared to modern ones, but it’s likely that the finest, and most finely ground, sieved, and combed through flour would go into bread made for Enlil or Inanna, presented by priests at four lavish meals per day, every day.

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This recipe, which is a modern invention, simulates a bread that was fit for the gods by incorporating all-purpose, wheat, and barley flours together with cooked leeks and green onions.  The technique is similar to how Chinese style scallion pancakes are made, but this bread uses a leavened dough and is cooked in pork fat, as the Sumerians loved to do.

(Makes 6 flatbreads)
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup barley flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tablespoon (or 1 packet) of yeast
2 teaspoons salt
1.5 cups warm water
1 bunch leeks, sliced
2 bunches spring onions or scallions, sliced
4 tbsp. butter
3-6 thinly sliced strips pork belly (or bacon)

Start by making the dough. Add the yeast to the warm water and let activate for 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, mix your flours and salt, then combine into a loose dough. Turn onto a surface coated with flour and knead for 10 minutes, until smooth and stretchable.

 

Continue reading “Sumerian Onion Bread (for gods or royalty)”

HOF Episode 4: How to Turn Food into Wealth (Sumer)

We’ve done it. We’ve finally crossed into the realm of written records and recorded history.  Join me on an odyssey going back 6,000 years ago, when the Sumerians of what is today southern Iraq, took a mega-surplus of grain and transformed it directly into wealth and power.  In the process, they managed to invent cities, urbanism, and all the trappings modern civilization. (Not to mention the first written recipes and cookbooks)

Theme music by the incredible Michael Levy of Ancient Lyre. This rendition of the Hurian Hymn, the oldest known piece of sheet music, and the whole album “An Ancient Lyre” and much more is available from all major digital music stores and streaming sites.

AVAILABLE ON SOUNDCLOUD AND ITUNES.
Please leave a review to help spread the word!

(Fun note: this is the era and society that produced the banner art for this website, a royal banquet in Mesopotamia) Continue reading “HOF Episode 4: How to Turn Food into Wealth (Sumer)”