Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Baklava - World Peace Through Food

Food is the universal peacemaker. Baklava is a perfect example of this. There are two schools of thought on this subject, one group worships this sticky and sweet confection, which contains fruits, crushed seeds and nuts or raisins. The other group reviles this pastry either because they don't like it, or more often, are unfamiliar with the ingredients. I'm not Julia Child, or the Galloping Gourmet, so you will have to look elsewhere for a recipe. I am a consumer of Baklava, not a producer.

The Baklava you see pictured here was sent to me by my son Keith in Rochester, N.Y. He got a huge holiday tray of Baklava from a family down the street, whom I have never met. Hence, I have no idea where they are from. But I do know that they make great Baklava!

In years past, when I was a working man, huge platters of Baklava would be delivered to the offices in which I worked. While all the other Christmas chocolates and cakes disappeared at an alarming rate, the tray of Baklava went down at a slower pace, mainly because I was the only one eating it.

In my travels, as a younger man, I came to see that each region of the world has it's own form of Baklava. Some use crushed sesame seeds and raisins, or dates. Some use minced apples and berries. But all are surrounded by a light flaky and layered crust which seems to melt away in your mouth. There are so many different versions of this wonderful treat, and all scattered so widely throughout the world, that it makes you very aware that we all must share some kind of mutual background.

Even the Arab and Israeli cultures have much in common with regard to the Baklava issue. Unlike their counterparts in Europe, with the flaky crusts, the middle eastern version is usually more likely to take the form of Halavah, which is made of finely compressed sesame seeds and sometimes with chocolate swirled in. There are also chocolate covered versions of this treat as well as ones mixed with jelly, which, at least for me was pushing the envelope a bit too far.

The Chinese have a version of their own, as do all the European countries. The European dough tends to be heavier, but the sweet sensation is still there. The lightest, and flakiest Baklava seem to have come from the Ottoman Empire and the kitchens of the Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Sultan. Even the Janissaries got into the act, being the receipents of this treat each Ramadan.

The oldest known recorded recipe is from China in about 1300, during the Yuan Dynasty. Others claim it originated in ancient Mesopotamia, where it centered itself around the use of walnuts.

The dough is referred to as phyllo dough and each layer is placed in warm milk with sugar and then topped with the various nuts and fruits before being re-layered with more phyllo dough. The Persians like to cover theirs with honey, as do the Hungarians. I like mine unadorned, in order to enjoy the taste of the crushed seeds and nuts, with their natural sweetness.

Whichever you prefer, the treat is there for the tasting. I have long had a fantasy for a commercial to sell Halavah, which could also be used to promote Baklava and World Peace. The commercial would open with two armies besieged. One army is surrounding a fort in an attempt to starve the enemy out. But the siege lasts too long, and as both sides run out of Baklava, they forget the issues over which they were fighting, declare peace and set off together to obtain some more of this tasty treat.

I did try selling this idea to the people at Halavah, but they rejected it out of hand. I am currently toying with the idea of a special session of the United Nations Security Council that would focus on the Cultural Links that we all have to some form of Baklava. Wish me luck!

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