The History of Baklava
It is widely believed however, that the Assyrians at around 8th century B.C. were the first people who put together a few layers of thin bread dough, with chopped nuts in between those layers, added some honey and baked it in their primitive wood burning ovens. This earliest known version of baklava was baked only on special occasions. In fact, historically baklava was considered a food for the rich until mid-19th century.
The artisans and craftsmen of all Guilds, the bakers, cooks and pastry chefs who worked in the Ottoman palaces, at the mansions of Pashas and Viziers, and at Provincial Governor (Vali) residences etc., had to be recruited from various ethnic groups that composed the empire. Armenian, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian and occasionally Serbian, Hungarian or even French chefs were brought to Constantinople, to be employed at the kitchens of the wealthy. These chefs contributed enormously to the interaction and to the refinement of the art of cooking and pastry-making of an Empire that covered a vast region to include the Balkans, Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Persia, Armenia, Iraq and entire Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa and the Mediterranean and Aegean islands. Towards the end of 19th Century, small pastry-shops started to appear in Constantinople and in major Provincial capitals, to cater the middle class, but the Ottoman Palace have always remained the top culinary "academy" of the Empire, until its end in 1923.
Here, we must mention that there's a special reason for baklava being the top choice of pastry for the Turkish Sultans with their large Harems, as well as for the wealthy and their families. Two principal ingredients, the pistachio and honey, were believed to be aphrodisiacs when taken regularly. Certain spices that were added to baklava, have also helped to fine-tune and to augment the aphrodisiac characteristics of the pastry, depending on male or female consumer. Cinnamon for females, and cardamom for males and cloves for both sexes.
From 18th century on, there was nothing much to add to baklava's already perfectioned taste and texture. There were however, some cosmetic modifications in shaping and in the presentation of baklava on a baking tray (called Sini). The Phyllo dough (called Youfka) which was traditionally layered and cut into squares or triangles, were given a "French touch" in late 18th century. As the Empire began opening itself to Western cultural (and culinary) influences, the General manager (Kahyabasi) of the Imperial Kitchen didn't miss the opportunity to hire Monsieur Guillaume, a former pastry chef of Marie Antoinette, who in exile at the Ottoman Turkish Palace after learning how to bake baklava, created the "dome" technique of cutting and folding of the baklava squares which was named "Baklava Francaise" (Frenk Baklavasi) after the nationality of its creator.
Thank you to my good friend in Istanbul,Turkey, Ruhan Çelebi for her help.
Here is a video of a Turkish Baklava Factory.
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Last updated March 10, 2009