Baklava is a special dessert in that it’s popular in so many parts of the world, from the Maghreb to the Balkans, the Levant to the South Caucasus. Each region has its own little twist on the beloved pastry, all of which are fantastic. For example, Persian baklava uses almonds, pistachios, cardamom, and rose water; whereas Armenian pakhlava might contain walnuts or cloves. Chances are, you’re most familiar with the Turkish-style baklava (think: walnuts, pistachios, honey-lemon syrup) that inspired this particular recipe.
Though baklava is one of our all-time favorite desserts, we had never tried baking it ourselves, mostly because making ultra-thin, homemade phyllo dough can be an intimidating and long-winded process. But the folks in our test kitchen decided to use a well-known cheat (a.k.a store-bought phyllo) to practice the traditional method of layering dough to create the uniquely flaky, delicately crispy texture baklava is famous for — and it came together effortlessly, like a sweet, nutty, honey-soaked lasagna.
Each step of the recipe is just as unfussy, too. For the filling, we whirl walnuts, brown sugar, lemon zest, cinnamon, and salt in the food processor until the nuts are coarsely chopped. And the honey-lemon syrup, which gets drizzled all over the baklava, comes together with a quick whisking. After that, all that remains is slathering the sheets of phyllo dough with hedonistic amounts of melted butter as you layer them in the pan with the filling.
If you’ve shied away from baklava because it seems too sugary, you’ll be pleased to discover that it’s anything but: it’s nice and nutty with the perfect amount of warm spices — and the lemon zest in the filling, as well as the lemon juice in the syrup, brings just enough tartness to balance out the sweet, floral honey. But the best part just might be the tissue paper-thin layers of phyllo dough, which bake up with a rich, buttery flavor and a crisp, unbelievably flaky texture, and then soak up all the sticky goodness of the syrup.
We love this baklava as a fall dessert; it’s a nice break from all the pumpkin and apple, but still has that cinnamon streak we look for in our sweets this time of year. It’s wonderful all on its own, but in many parts of Turkey, it’s served with kaymak, a clotted cream, or dondurma, a thick, chewy ice cream. We like it with a dollop of whipped cream — it’s an equally delightful pairing to this warm, nutty treat.
3 cups Gelson’s walnuts
¼ cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp lemon zest
¾ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp kosher salt
2 ½ sticks unsalted butter, melted, divided
½ 16-oz box phyllo dough (20 sheets)
1 cup simple syrup
⅓ cup honey
1 ½ tsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp chopped pistachios, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 400°.
In a food processor, combine the walnuts, brown sugar, lemon zest, cinnamon, and salt, and pulse 5 to 8 times, until coarsely chopped.
Trim about 2” off the end of the stack of phyllo dough so that it fits in a 9x13” pan. Cover the dough completely with a damp paper towel to keep it from drying out.
Brush the bottom of the pan with melted butter. Place one sheet of phyllo dough on the bottom of the pan. Brush butter over the top of the dough and layer another sheet of dough. Repeat 3 more times for a total of 5 layers of phyllo dough and 4 melted butter layers (there is no butter layer on top of the 5th sheet).
On top of the 5th sheet, sprinkle ⅓ of the chopped nut mixture over the dough.
Repeat steps 4 to 5 with the remaining dough and nuts until the pastry has 4 layers of layered pastry and 3 layers of filling.
Before baking, cut the baklava into diamond shapes by dividing it into 4 long strips first, and then cutting at a diagonal to form triangles in the corners and diamonds throughout the middle of the pan. Make sure to cut all the way to the bottom of the pan.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the simple syrup, honey, lemon juice, and vanilla. Set aside.
When the hot baklava comes out of the oven, immediately pour the honey syrup over it and sprinkle the chopped pistachios on top. Let the baklava sit until cooled completely, 1 to 2 hours, so the syrup fully soaks into all of the pastry.
Serve immediately or store for up to 5 days covered, either at room temperature or chilled.