Growing up, I had a friend who was Persian. It was at his house that I got my first taste of saffron, emerald green pistachios that squeaked on your teeth, juicy Medjool dates that I wrongly assumed were soaked in honey because they bared little resemblance to the leathery raisins I knew, and yogurt as a savory ingredient.
To take things over the top, his brother was a chef. If his brother was making dinner, you better believe that I was breaking curfew to stay for an all-night Persian feast: chicken thighs marinated in yogurt and saffron, charred on the grill next to tomatoes, fluffy mounds of saffron rice with pats of butter and ground sumac stirred in, a saucy herb stew (called ghormeh sabzi) and a little dish of pickled vegetables (called Torshi) on the side. Just when you couldn’t eat any more, it would be time for hot tea with sugar cubes and tiny squares of baklava. I couldn’t get enough of the sweet, sticky crunchy baklava. I was perfectly content munching on bites of baklava, sipping the rich black tea, and listening to the beautiful sound of Farsi conversations all around me. It was always a great night and worth every bit of trouble I got in for coming home late. Sorry Mom and Dad, it really was all about the food. Looks like it still is, huh?
Just when my palette was fully awakened to Middle Eastern flavors, it was time for me to move away for college. Waco had limited options when it came to ethnic foods. I had to improvise to satisfy my Middle Eastern food cravings. The little bags of yellow rice at the H-E-B that were supposed to be saffron flavored were gummy and full of MSG. I didn’t even waste my time trying to find orange flower water for traditional baklava. I subbed in sorghum syrup and used pecans for the pistachios.
I’ve come to love this Southern, small-town version of baklava. It lacks the delicate floral notes from the traditional ingredients, but the smoky pecans, warm cinnamon, and sticky sorghum syrup make a bold dessert that I crave just as often.
- 1 cup finely chopped raw pecans
- 1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar, divided use
- 4 teaspoons plain bread crumbs
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 1 package of phyllo (also called filo) dough sheets, defrosted in the fridge overnight
- 1/4 cup water
- 3 tablespoons sorghum syrup
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1" square of orange zest (optional)
- In a small bowl, combine the chopped pecans, 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the bread crumbs, cinnamon and lemon zest. Stir until well combined. Set aside.
- Have the bowl of melted butter ready on the side.
- Carefully unroll the phyllo dough. Use your loaf pan to mark the size of dough you will need. Cut through all the layers, cover them with a damp towel, and roll up the remaining dough and place back in the freezer or fridge for another use.
- Preheat the oven to 325. Brush some of the melted butter on the loaf pan, layer 2 sheets of phyllo dough, brush more butter, layer another two slices of phyllo dough and repeat once more for a total of 6 layers. Don't worry too much if the sheets break, it doesn't have to be perfect. Sprinkle on half of the nut mixture, then repeat the dough layering procedure. Add the last of the nuts and follow with the remaining dough sheets. Brush melted butter very well on the top layers, and using a sharp knife, cut the dough into 6 pieces (you won't be able to cut the dough neatly after baking). Bake for 20 minutes. Lower the oven to 300 and bake another 40-45 minutes longer, til the top layers are golden brown.
- When 10 minutes of baking time remains, heat the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, water, sorghum syrup, lemon juice and orange zest in a small pot. Let it come to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the orange zest (if using) and pour the syrup over the dough as soon as it comes out of the oven.
- Let cool to room temperature before serving.