Baklava Diplomacy

“Conversation is what we all need right now. That and baklava diplomacy.” That is how Deena and I ended our conversation.

“. . .  whenever I hear about someone badmouthing Arabs, Muslims or any other group for that matter, I just want to sit them down with some baklava for a nice chat. It seems impossible that we wouldn’t be able to find common ground over something so delicious. Perhaps we could only argue about where baklava comes from. Well unless you are allergic to nuts or gluten in which case I could offer you a damn good hummus and we could still argue about its country of origin.”

I reached out to Deena after reading a Facebook post she’d written about the inclusion of baklava on her holiday table. It holds place between the pumpkin and pecan pies. She wrote of being a proud Arab-American and how food can serve as a tool for bridging gaps and fostering conversation. Her post resonated with me and a few clicks later we were chatting online. She was kind enough to answer questions from a nosy stranger and provide her recipe which she had never before reduced to writing. It was instead, as many family recipes are, passed down orally. This award-winning baklava (it took 2nd place at the 2010 Minnesota State Fair) is always on her holiday table and the recipe was passed down from her grandfather.

To understand the importance of this baklava gracing Deena’s table you have to know a bit about the man who brought this dish into her life. Though her grandfather died when she was young she still speaks of him affectionately and her high regard of him is still evident. Ali Kamal Sakr immigrated to the United States from Egypt in 1960. He was such “a forward-thinking man, so kind and gentle. He brought my grandma and mom (who was 10 at the time) and her brothers to the United States so they could have a better life and especially so that my Mom could get an education. She ended up joining the U.S. Army and served for 20 years before she retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.” Though her grandfather was an educated man his degrees weren’t recognized in the United States so he returned to school, earned a PhD in Islamic Studies and then began a career teaching Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. When he became a naturalized citizen he took the name Richard Allen Johnson “to become more American.”

Her grandfather made this baklava from memory and his children learned by watching him. Deena initially learned the recipe from her cousin Tiffany and her Mom provided additional details on how to prepare it. When she became a vegan she thought she’d have to give up her beloved baklava but she found a vegan butter recipe that enabled her to perfectly replicate the dish. So good news vegans this recipe is for you too. Deena explained the best way to learn to make the baklava is to share tea with her in her kitchen while she shows you but in the absence of that here’s the recipe. It looks involved but it’s actually quite simple. Many hands make light work so follow Deena’s lead and invite a friend over, sip some tea, share the work and soon you’ll be laughing and chatting over baklava.

Deena, when not teaching English, is blogging about her adventures running abroad, cooking and traveling. Follow her at The Expatriate Runner. She currently lives in Riga, Latvia with her husband who is employed by the State Department.

Opa’s Baklava (as provided by Deena)

You will need:

1 package of filo/phyllo dough, about 28 sheets (let it thaw in the fridge and then sit on the counter for about 30 minutes before you open it)

1-1/2 c. ground walnuts (or pistachios, or a mix)

about 3 c. sugar

1-1/4 c. margarine or butter (I am vegan, so I make my own vegan butter and it works perfectly)

a pastry brush

a large cookie sheet with a lip of about 1-inch or a 13×9 baking pan

For the syrup:

equal parts sugar and water (I use about 1 cup of each, but it depends on the size of your pan)

3 Tbs lemon juice

If you’ve never worked with phyllo dough before, the trick is to work swiftly but gently, as it dries out quickly. Don’t open the package until you have all of your other ingredients ready. Once the package is open cover the sheets with a damp towel.


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

1. Melt the butter in a small saucepan. As the butter is melting, mix together the ground nuts and sugar in a bowl.

2. Open the phyllo dough and carefully unroll it. Count the sheets, and divide them in half. If you have an odd number, don’t worry- just include the extra sheet with one half. Set half of the dough aside and cover with a damp towel.

3. Take two sheets of phyllo dough and carefully arrange them in the baking dish, using your fingers to smooth them. Depending on the size of your pan, you may have to trim the dough to fit, or do what I do, and fold the layers over. I don’t like waste! 

4. Use the pastry brush to evenly spread a thin layer of butter over the whole sheet. Be sure to get the edges and corners, but do not drench them.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you have finished the first half of the phyllo dough. (Some people butter every layer, but every other layer provides plenty of buttery goodness with half the fat.)

6. Pour the sugar and nut mixture over the top and smooth it all out with a spoon. This layer should be about ½ inch thick. If you have more mixture, simply save it for another time.

7. With a spoon, lightly sprinkle some drops of butter over the top of the sugar and nuts. This will help the next layer of phyllo adhere to the sugar mixture.

8. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you have one sheet of phyllo dough remaining.

9. Carefully put the last layer of phyllo dough over the top, and smooth it out. I often look for the prettiest sheet when I open the package so that I can use that sheet for the top.

10. Use a very sharp knife to score the baklava and cut into pieces. You can make squares, rectangles… I like to make diamonds.

11. Bake the baklava for about 40 minutes, or until golden brown.

12. While the baklava is baking, make the syrup: Bring the equal parts of sugar and water to a boil, and add the lemon juice. Bring the heat down to low and cover. The syrup will thicken as the baklava bakes. It should not be boiling, reduce the heat if it is.

Once the baklava is golden brown, remove from the oven, and immediately spoon the syrup over it. It will make a sizzling sound. This is my favorite part! (Well, besides eating it!) Allow it to cool completely. Use a fork or spatula to ease the pieces out of the pan and then serve and enjoy! 

Leave a Reply