There is an abundance of traditional pastries to savour in the run-up to Novruz, but for food writer Natalia Golumb, pakhlava is the queen of them all. Here she shares her family recipe for an Azerbaijani national treasure
Novruz is the most celebrated holiday in Azerbaijan and almost every family, even if they have no Azerbaijani roots, follows the beautiful tradition of making special sweets for the festive period. They’re prepared up to twenty days in advance – precious presents to exchange with friends, family and neighbors over the holiday. Each family has their own unique recipes for the pastries, so part of the fun is comparing them! For me, the queen of the Novruz pastries is pakhlava. In Azerbaijan, the recipe can differ from region to region, but I want to share my Baku-style version: sweet and spicy multilayered diamonds of pastry that are moistened with syrup and butter. The nuts that decorate the top of each pakhlava symbolize the star that lights up the beginning of a new life. And don’t be put off by what looks like a long recipe – you’ll get the hang of it after the first layer and will soon finish!
You will need:
For the pastry dough:
2 cups warm milk
6 cups white flour
230g ghee butter
¼ teaspoon dry yeast
For the filling:
570g peeled nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts or almonds)
570 g sugar
¼ tsp vanilla powder
1 tsp ground cardamom
To soak the butter:
140g ghee butter
To brush the pastry:
170g ghee butter
For the glaze:
2 large egg yolks
2 tsp olive oil
¼ tsp ground saffron
Nuts, halved (walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts)
For the syrup:
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
Makes about 50 pieces
Make the dough and filling
Yallah, let’s get started! In a medium mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of warm milk. In a separate large bowl, add sifted flour and salt. Make a well in center of the mixture and add the remaining cup of milk, yeast mixture, eggs and ghee. Use your hands to mix together and then shape into dough balls. Knead each of these until they’re very smooth and elastic. Put them, covered, to one side to rest for about 20 minutes.
For the nutty filling, finely grind the nuts and combine them with sugar, cardamom and vanilla powder in a separate bowl. Set aside.
Grease a 13 X 11 inch baking dish and melt the ghee that you’ll be using to brush the pastry. Set aside.
Assemble the pakhlava
Now we can return to the dough. Divide the dough into 12 pieces – 10 of equal size, and 2 a little bigger for the bottom and top of the pakhlava. Shape them into balls.
As you roll out each of the balls, remember to keep the others covered so they don’t dry out! Sprinkle just a little bit of flour to your surface and use a long wooden rolling pin to roll out one of the bigger balls until it’s the size of your baking dish. This will create a thicker base. Brush this layer with 1 tbsp of melted ghee, and move on to the next layer, without adding any nut filling.
Use one of the smaller balls for the next layer and roll it out until it’s the size of your dish, and then place it on top of the base layer. Brush it with ghee butter and spread ¾ cup of filling on top. Repeat with the remaining smaller dough balls, buttering each layer and spreading the nut filling on top, until you reach the last small ball. This layer should be buttered without any filling and topped with a layer made from the last large dough ball.
Now it’s time to cut your pakhlava. You’ll need a very sharp knife to create neat diamond shapes, dipping your knife into a bowl of cold water occasionally to ensure that the dough doesn’t stick to the knife. After cutting, leave your pakhlava to rest for 10-15 minutes.
Heat the oven to 400F and melt the butter for the next step. Set aside.
Glaze and decorate
Glazing the pastry and decorating the top is my favourite part of the process – it’s so meditative. In a mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks, powdered saffron and olive oil. Brush the top of your pakhlava with the glaze and decorate with a “star” – a halved almond, walnut or hazelnut.
Make the syrup by adding sugar and water to a medium saucepan and heat, stirring constantly, until sugar is dissolved. Leave to cool.
We are at the finish line! Bake the pakhlava for 15 minutes, then run a knife along the cuts that you created earlier. Pour your melted ghee along these lines, then return to the oven for 25 minutes.
Now, remove from the oven and pour the syrup along the same cut-outs.
Let it cool, soaking up the syrup, and then use a sharp knife to cut out the shapes again. Carefully lift out each piece and leave to cool completely. You can enjoy them the next day.
The ultimate accompaniment for this queen of pastries is strong black tea with wild thyme. Enjoy, and happy Novruz!
Images courtesy of Richard Haughton