You may have noticed that the word “artisanal” is becoming something of a joke. Like the bag of frozen shrimp I bought that bragged its contents were caught by “artisanal fishermen.” Basically anything that is not punched out by machine is now “artisanal.” Like handwriting and shelling peas and maybe even slapping another person (as opposed to tazing them). Of course, some things do merit the label “artisanal,” and some are so artisanal as to verge on fantastically arcane—like artisanal baklava. I’m talking about the stuff made from hand-rolled Greek phyllo, or even better, Turkish yufka, the paper thin dough that can take years to master.
Baklava, that nut and syrup-soaked golden pastry that we think of as a quintessentially Greek dessert, is actually Turkish in origin (though don’t be shouting this at Greek weddings or anything). The modern version was dreamed up in the decadence-drenched Topkapi Palace in Istanbul along with a bazillion other lokums (Turkish delights).
(I visited the palace this spring and saw various dead sultans’ very huge pants encased behind glass.)
Baklava spread throughout the Ottoman Empire where regional alterations and embellishments flourished. (In Armenia it's flavored with cinnamon and cloves; in Iran, rosewater.)
Nowadays 30-plus sheets of phyllo a good baklava doth make—the Greeks supposedly shoot for 33, for each year of Jesus’ life. But back in the day, the most extravagant baklava entailed some 100 films of dough. Only baklava ustas (masters) possessed the virtuoso finesse to roll (with a rod carved from pear wood) and toss the diaphanous sheets of yufka into existence. If you couldn't read a Rumi poem through a single sheet, it was too thick. The dough was then layered with filling and baked into golden crisp puffs over an oakwood fire.
Baklava, that nut and syrup-soaked golden pastry that we think of as a quintessentially Greek dessert, is actually Turkish in origin (though don’t be shouting this at Greek weddings or anything).
According to baklava connoisseurs, these are the qualities of baklava par excellence: It should be neither dry nor sopped and syrup-logged. It should crackle when pierced by a fork, a sign of freshness, and it should waft sweet cream butter when you inhale. It should be deliquescent on the tongue and not scorch your mouth with sugar. In Istanbul we learned a serious baklava usta would never bog down their baklava with honey, preferring simple syrup. But then, as an Istanbullu told me, everything (rain, winter) is softer in Istanbul.
Baklava makers insist it’s a finger food, no matter the sticky aftermath, and should be served at room temperature.
As for our humble city, far far from Turkish intrigue and usta culture, we have a few options for non-artisanal, but perfectly tasty baklava.
Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery: Try each one of their roasted walnut, organic pistachio and custard-filled baklava spin-offs called warbat (popular during Ramadan). The real draw of Sahara is the enthusiasm of owner and baklava geek Omar Nesheiwat, who grew up in a Greek neighborhood in Astoria, Queens. Even there, nobody makes their own phyllo anymore, says Nesheiwat. But his pride in Sahara's Jordanian-style baklava is infectious. Cheap ($2) and lip-smacking good.
YiaYia Maria’s Baklava: Best in town, hands down. You have to buy it frozen by the pound at $13 from their kitchen in the industrial district (most of their sales are online). It's worth the splurge—one of those recipes bequeathed by a Greek grandmother. A few bites of the crinkled dough stacked with walnuts and almonds, cinnamon, lemon syrup and clove, and suddenly the huge sultan pants will all make sense to you.
Yanni's Mediterranean Grill: Meaty nuts, continuous crackle and loads of cinnamon. $4, but it’s double the typical size.
Then there’s Café Istanbul, San Pedro Mart, Anatolia and a dozen more baklava outlets. It’s a mini-Ottoman Empire here! Explore by car, bike, or just transport yourself artisanally, by foot.