the moveable feasts

Pistachio Baklava (and a trip, awhile ago, to Istanbul)

with 35 comments


This post has been a long time in the making. Almost exactly a year ago I arrived home from spending three weeks in Europe with my boyfriend. He had been studying in Switzerland for the year, and we had decided that when the semester finished we would spend one week each in Istanbul, Italy, and Southern France. It was maybe the best three weeks of my life (short as my life is), and although I feel kind of silly for thinking such a brief amount of time could have such an impact, especially when friends of mine study abroad for months at a time, I really do think it changed the way I see a lot of things.

At first, I didn’t know how to feel about my time spent in Istanbul. That part of the trip had been picked out by my boyfriend, who restlessly wanted to see some place outside of the Christian Western European zone. I was desperately trying to stay within that zone on our trip, though, as my experience in foreign travel has been contained largely within the developing world. And even though I was really enjoying Istanbul while I was there, at the time it just seemed to blend together with all of the other busy, large, dirty cities that scatter the world outside the most touristy fully-industrialized nations. (I realize now writing this out that I sound like the most spoiled and self-righteous person around. I really would like to say I’m not, but the best I can do is assure you that I hope I’m not.)

hagia sofia turkish tea

But, of course, I was wrong. It may have been hard to compete with the holy capitol of the world at the time (I was so, so excited to see Italy and France for the first time), but I have found myself nostalgic for Istanbul a lot lately. When I smell hot sun warming up a dirt road, I miss when Waylon and I walked the few miles from the Northern part of Istanbul to its old-town as the sun was setting and the silhouettes of the speckled mosques on the horizon stood out. I miss walking along the coast and grabbing fish sandwiches for lunch and hearing the Islamic prayer calls being played out of speakers all around the city. I miss the colors of the city, the flavors of the Grand Bazaar.

sillouette of mosques at sunset

I think most of all I miss the people, who were some of the most generous and friendly I’ve ever met. Like the man who owned a rug and tile shop, who talked to us about Turkish rugs for a couple hours while offering us tea despite the fact that he knew we weren’t about to buy anything. Or the two guys who became our friends and who we talked to around lots of tea and hookah for the second half of our week in Istanbul. They were both from the Kurdish part of Turkey, much farther inland, where they claim fruit, syrups and jams are the best in the world. They told us stories of their childhood there, and about one of their fathers who they claimed that although he was old, “he still has the strength to sleep with two women at the same time.” (!) I hope I get to see them again.

Amy at Istanbul restaurant Waylon at Istanbul restaurant

Throughout the entire trip, I kept a food journal where I would write down everything we ate. At the time I just saw it as a silly way to keep track of foods I liked and wanted to make back home. But now, even a year after our short trip, I love looking back and reading parts to remind me of places and people and the feelings I had. As the trip progressed in Italy and France (and the wine became more and more prevalent), my food journal became pretty extravagant as though I had artistic license in describing and romanticizing our food experiences. But while I was in Istanbul, I kept the entries pretty concise. Still, the second day I was there, Tuesday May 17th, I had written down:

“Afterwards cafe Hafiz Mustafa (again), got turkish tea (always), got best baklava ever—pure pistachio, super soaked, creamy-like consistency and taste. Post dinner had fried honey croquette-looking things, free tea + free turkish delights. Sugar!!!”

hafiz mustafa hafiz mustafa

Friends, as I’m sure you can tell from the quantity of sweets I keep posting on this blog, I have quite the tolerance for sugar. And yet, when I was eating my dessert of syrup-soaked deep-fried pastries along with sweetened turkish tea after having snacked on samples of turkish delight all day… yes, it happened, I was sugared out. But that doesn’t mean I don’t remember all of those Turkish treats now and salivate.

One of my favorite parts of all the pastry shops and cafes was the prevalence of pistachio. It was everywhere and in everything. This was new to me, as pistachio as a flavor in sweets doesn’t seem that common here in the States (am I wrong in thinking this?). But I’m a converted person now: after munching on that pistachio baklava in Istanbul on my second day there, I can’t return to eating run-of-the-mill walnut or mixed nut baklava now. Call me a snob or maybe weirdly-food-obsessed, but I’m afraid that from now on I will only be loyal to pistachio.

lemon in the syrup syrup is cooling

slice it before it bakes\

I was determined to make baklava, the correct way, when I came back from my trip. (The fact that that feat took a little more than a year to do is neither here nor there.) But as always in this sad life, my baklava would not come out the same. I blame this largely to the fact that that America has not embraced pistachio the way that it should, and the only thing available to me in about 4 different supermarkets nearby were toasted and salted pistachio nuts. I know, I am dumb and should have looked the other way and continued on a search for raw, unsalted nuts. But I was desperate! I figured the toasted part may not mess up my results too much and that I could just not add any salt and hope for the best.

all done and soaked

So, what I present to you today is Pistachio Baklava, a True Disappoint and Not Correctly Made (shame on you, Amy). I think the toasted nuts is what truly did me in, as the flavor of this baklava basically ended up tasting like any sort of mixed-nut sort. However, over-cooking it so that it crisped up beyond the creaminess I remember sealed the deal of my disappointment.

I realize that the above description probably will turn any and all of you away from trying this recipe. But, please don’t blame the recipe for my faults. When I get my hands on a bag of unsalted, untoasted pistachio nuts (which may or may not take yet another year to accomplish), I will be using this recipe again.


One Year Ago: BLT Soup, Orange Chocolate Chunk Cake, and Espresso Ice Cream with Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake

Pistachio Baklava
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup water
1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 large strips of lemon zest
1 cinnamon stick

12 ounces raw unsalted, untoasted pistachios
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter (3 sticks), melted, and cooled slightly
1 pound frozen phyllo, thawed

To prepare the sugar syrup, combine sugar, water, honey, lemon juice and zest, and cinnamon stick in small saucepan and bring to full boil over medium-high heat, making sure the sugar dissolves. Transfer to a small glass bowl and set aside to cool while making the baklava. Once the syrup cools, remove the cinnamon stick and strips of lemon zest. (Note: This can be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge in an airtight container for up to 4 days.)

Next, to make the nut filling, pulse the pistachios in the food processor until very finely chopped—think the texture of coarse sand. Add the sugar and pinch of salt and toss to combine. Set aside a couple tablespoons of the ground nuts to be used later as a garnish on the finished baklava.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Unwrap and unfold the phyllo dough on a large cutting board. Most phyllo dough will already be in a 13 by 9-inch shape, but if yours comes in one large sheet, cut the phyllo dough so that you have roughly two evenly sized stacks that are 13 by 9-inches. Cover with a damp kitchen towel to prevent drying and cracking. Brush a 13 by 9-inch glass baking pan with some of the melted butter.

For assembly of the layers, it’s important to note here that you should save the best-fitting, most intact sheets for the top and bottom layers of the baklava. Place a sheet of phyllo dough in the bottom of the buttered baking pan, and brush the sheet until completely coated in melted butter. Repeat with 7 more well intact phyllo sheets, brushing each with butter, until you have 8 phyllo sheets stacked on each other.

Evenly distribute about 1 cup of the nuts over the 8 phyllo layers. Cover the nut layer with a phyllo sheet, and dab butter all over it (if you try brushing it on, the phyllo will slip all over the place). Repeat with 5 more phyllo sheets, brushing each with butter, for a total of 6 phyllo sheets on top of the nut layer. Repeat the layering process with another 1 cup of the ground nuts, 6 sheets of phyllo and butter, and the last 1 cup of nuts. Finish off the layering with 8 to 10 sheets of good, intact phyllo dough, brushing each layer with butter except for the final top sheet. Use the palm of your hands to press down on the layers, starting at the center and pressing outwards to remove any air bubbles. Then, drizzle 4 tablespoons of butter over the top layer and brush to cover completely.

Using a good, sharp knife, cut the baklava into diamonds—I found it easiest to make one long cut from one corner of the pan to the other and then making parallel diagonal cuts every couple inches on either side. I then repeated this on the other side of the baklava, to make complete diamonds.

Bake in preheated oven until lightly golden, about 50 minutes to an hour. Once removed from the oven, immediately pour all of the reserved syrup over all of the cuts lines and then over the surface of the baklava. Garnish each piece of baklava with a sprinkling of the reserved ground pistachios. Cool to room temperature, for about 3 hours, then cover with foil and let stand at least 8 hours. Really, please don’t try cheating on this. The baklava gets really, really good after some good rest to soak up all of the syrup. Since honey never goes bad, baklava can be kept wrapped tightly in foil or plastic wrap for a couple weeks.

Written by Amy

June 14, 2012 at 5:51 pm

35 Responses

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  1. It will never taste as good as it did at that moment in time. That said, I do love recreating recipes from my travels–the best souvenirs!


    June 14, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    • I think you’re right, Emmy. No harm in trying though, I suppose. :)


      June 15, 2012 at 9:32 am

  2. this is fantastic.


    June 14, 2012 at 7:30 pm

  3. I didn’t know that your boyfriend studies in Switzerland, where did he live/study?
    I think this summer I will make my way to Istanbul. My boyfriend and I are planning a trip to Turkey in September, travelling by train to Istanbul and then visit a few other places and regions in the country.
    Do you have any (restaurant/other food) recommendations for Istanbul?
    And concerning the pistachio baklava, I am not a huge fan of baklava, but I love pistachios, so maybe I might like these? I just looked in the one “oriental” cookbook I have whether they have a recipe for pistachio baklava, too, and saw a pistachio pie that I think I might make for my birthday.


    June 14, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    • He studied at a really small American school in Lugano called Franklin College. Have you heard of it? He returned after one year but he’s thinking of going back now, actually.

      I’m so excited to hear about your trip when you go. Waylon and I were really cheap during our time in Istanbul and I actually didn’t really like the cheap/street food in Istanbul. Kebab… eh, not my thing haha. The few times we did spend the money to go to a nice place the food was great though. Any fish, calamari, or seafood was always really, really good. And of course I loved the treats, and they were always affordable. :) Sorry I’m not of more help!

      Oh! Actually one thing I can really recommend is make sure you take a boat out to the Asian part of Istanbul. There were very, very few tourists and every cafe or store we went to the people were so incredibly gracious and friendly. It was definitely my favorite part of our time in Istanbul.

      And pistachio pie, how exciting! I hope to see it on your blog.


      June 14, 2012 at 9:28 pm

  4. What a lovely post, I’ve never been to Istanbul but this makes me want to go so much!


    June 15, 2012 at 12:36 am

  5. and now i’ve actually read it (surprised?). parfait! bravo! hole in one!
    your true frame of mind is a continual inspiration.


    June 15, 2012 at 1:00 am

    • “if not every man ends the night in love with you then I have no judgement of beauty”


      June 15, 2012 at 1:01 am

  6. Amy, this is such a lovely, lovely post and it’s so well written. I love to read about memories related to food. I have so many of them myself from my travels. I can really relate to longing for certain moments you’ve experienced in the past on a trip. I stopped in Turkey for a few days but have never been to Istanbul. And I think a few weeks can certainly change your perspective. I went on a five week trip across Europe the summer after my freshmen year of college and I’d say it was one of the most life changing experiences I’ve had. Now onto the baklava-I’ve NEVER made it! I have a neighbor who lived next door to me when I grew up who would bring it over occasionally and it was always delicious. It looks gorgeous. I love the last photo too.


    June 15, 2012 at 3:22 am

    • Ah, thanks Stephanie. I’m glad to hear that you had a life changing experience out of such a short amount of time too. And you should give baklava a try sometime! It’s always fun to make, even if the results are less than stellar (like me)!


      June 15, 2012 at 9:38 am

  7. That sounds like such a lovely trip! I think it’s funny how sometimes the places we don’t think we want to go are the places that stick with us the most. And the baklava looks lovely too!


    June 15, 2012 at 4:52 am

  8. What a fabulous post—my daughter just left yesterday for a 6 week fellowship in the middle east, and I have been so worried about her trip, but reading this makes me feel better. Travel is so enriching, especially when you venture out of your comfort zone.
    I’m a huge fan of pistachios, and baklava, so now you’ve got me searching for the raw nuts, but I don’t think even Trader Joes can help out with this one! Your baklava looks amazing, though, as all your dishes do.

    • Thanks, Sue. My dad was really worried before I left on my trip, especially since I’m his youngest daughter—he wanted me to stick to the very stable Northern countries like Norway or England. I’m so glad that Istanbul was included as a part of my trip though. I think you’re definitely right about venturing out of your comfort zone. And the Middle East, how exciting! There’s no harm in worrying a little, but I’m sure you’re daughter is incredibly smart and competent and will get so, so much out her fellowship.


      June 15, 2012 at 9:42 am

  9. Sound like a wonderful trip Amy and I love that you met some amazing people along the way. I find that to be the most special part of traveling, the people you meet. Every year when I hike half dome it restores my faith in humanity. I meet the most encouraging and downright amazing people. We all come together and bond in a 30 minute time span. We’re really all here to love and when you meet people who just want to sit down and have a cup of tea and just talk, well you have to appreciate that. We all rush to and from so much and always think that someone is trying to get something from us etc that we don’t just acknowledge that maybe that person just wants some friendly conversation and to connect with us.

    I also love that you keep a food diary when you travel. I was doing that on my phone when I was keeping my journal of what I ate last week, and it really made me sit down and focus on what I was eating. I will resume that post when the kids get back in school. It’s much to hard to stop and take photos while running around with them and I want to be present with them and not always have my camera on taking photos of every morsel. The other day I was taking photos of some cookies I had whipped up and the burgers I had made and both of my kids had a friend over for dinner. They had to explain to their friends that this is what a food blogger does. She feeds everyone and then gets on the floor and takes photos of her dinner at every angle and then comes to the table for dinner!

    Anyway, your baklava looks amazing, so give yourself a pat on the back!




    June 16, 2012 at 6:02 am

  10. aww just echoing everyone else about what a great post this is Amy.. and isnt holiday food the best!? Even when its a bit crap it can still be great (especially in retrospect!). Ive never been to Istanbul. but when we went to the Turkish coast I LIVED off calamri. It was the ‘dirt cheap, deep fried, fast food that feels classy because its eaten on a beach’ sort of thing… BUT it left me with a life long semi obsession with the stuff.
    I just love that you kept a food journal as well.. I was so caught up in the last few weeks with Louis I didnt do ANY writing but just these past few days Ive started keeping a food journal of sorts. It feels a bit weird and trivial but I know me (greedy as I am) will LOVE re-reading it in a few years time.
    ANYWAY your balaklava looks great. Im more of a brownie girl myself (still waiting for your final post on that!!!) BUT were I balaklava girl I would so bake your recipe. Youre a talented little cook! Lots of love to you!!!

    Em (Wine and Butter)

    June 16, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    • Nice to hear from you, Em! I’m really glad I kept a food journal, but it ended up being like 1/2 about food, 1/2 about some random thoughts of how lovely I thought everything was. I just started keeping a food journal a few days ago to have for the summer, but I think my food journal now less for the purposes of remembering this time later, but more so I can try and keep myself on track with eating less sweets. :)


      June 19, 2012 at 7:53 am

  11. Amy! I love this post so much. A couple things…

    1) I didn’t know Waylon studied in Lugano. How did I miss that? Maybe you mentioned it once and it slipped my mind. And wait, now he’s thinking of going back? You’ll HAVE to come visit if he does. We can take a foodie tour of the Ticin, visiting grotto after grotto until we discover the perfect polenta. And then we can go on a hike before sampling some Ticino Merlot. Ahh…already dreaming!

    2) You know me…I love arriving home from a trip stocked food/recipe ideas. I tried baklava when were in Istanbul and I didn’t really like it that much. I’m not sure if it was the texture or perhaps the nuts but there was just something off. It wasn’t anything like I expected. Perhaps I was expecting a more marzipan taste and the more savory and less sweet taste of baklava through me for a loup.

    3) We found that the Turkish people were some of the nicest we’ve come across. Certainly nicer than anyone we’ve run into in France. They were all so welcoming, and so happy to smile for the camera.

    4) Love your idea of a food journal. I was just thinking last night actually that I should start one.

    5) Even if they didn’t taste good your baklava are BEAUTIFUL!


    June 18, 2012 at 5:38 am

    • Talley, of course I’ll come visit you if Waylon ends up going back to switzerland! As fun as Waylon is to travel with and as good as he is when he tries to visit as many food shops as he can handle, there’s nothing like travelling on a foodie tour with someone who is as crazy as food as you are, haha. Visiting grottos and discovering the perfect polenta sounds perfect! I’ll definitely be keeping you in touch if I get to travel over there in the future. :)


      June 19, 2012 at 8:01 am

  12. Amy, i’m from Turkey in Istanbul :D and i think baklava is delicious food. In addition, baklava is perfect when you are drinking Turkish coffee! Did you try Turkish coffee? :)


    June 19, 2012 at 9:27 am

  13. Amy, i’m from Turkey in Istanbul :D and i think baklava is delicious food. In addition, baklava is perfect when you are drinking Turkish coffee! Did you try Turkish coffee? :)

    Sanal Günlüğüm

    June 19, 2012 at 9:31 am

    • Nice to meet you, Sanal! It’s always exciting to meet new readers, it’s just a shame I didn’t meet you before my trip. I did try turkish coffee, and I loved it (as did my boyfriend). It’s funny, because I don’t even usually like coffee. I think it has something to do with the texture—it’s so good! But as much as I liked the coffee there, I think I drank a lot more tea. Oh well, either way I can’t complain. :)


      June 19, 2012 at 10:49 am

      • I enjoyed it and i like your blog. I will wait for future writings and pictures on the blog! :)

        Sanal Günlüğüm

        June 19, 2012 at 11:08 am

  14. Would it be possible to make these dairy-free? Would you recommend olive oil or margarine?

    • I haven’t attempted to make it without butter, so I can’t recommend anything based on experience. But I think either substitute would work. I don’t personally cook with margarine and I’ve heard that olive oil was what was traditionally used with phyllo dough in Greece, so I’d give that a try.


      June 19, 2012 at 7:15 pm

      • I’d try coconut oil (not extra virgin) or earth balance margarine. Coconut oil is a magic butter replacement in many contexts. It has a similar consistency/melting point to butter, and has a mild coconut flavor. Earth balance margarine seems to be accepted as the best dairy free margarine out there.

        Ghee is also a possibility. I know it can be made almost entirely lactose free, and have read that it can be casein free. I’d double check the casein free part.

        Good luck!


        June 28, 2012 at 5:02 pm

  15. Great post! I love your honesty about the baklava and I’m incredibly jealous about the trip to Turkey. It’s one place I’ve always wanted to see. Nice to see your blog, I’ll be back for sure!


    June 20, 2012 at 1:01 am

  16. Amy, I loved reading about your experience in Turkey! After having watched the No Reservations episode about Istanbul about a year ago, it’s been at the top of my list of places to travel. I’m happy to hear that people are so friendly and that there are pistachios galore (my acquaintance with pistachios in dessert is mostly through pistachio gelato…amazing stuff). I also like the idea of your food journal. I always intend to make note of amazing meals while travelling, but after a glass or two of wine, I often forget to…

    Even if the toasted nuts were a disappointment, the baklava still look amazing. I’ve wanted to make baklava for ages. I’m going to have to give it a try once the heat lets up around here.

    P.S. You’re so pretty! Glad that you shared some photos of you and Waylon.


    June 20, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    • I feel so silly for not being that interested in going when Waylon first suggested it to me when we were planning out our trip. I’m so glad I went, and hope I can go back. I hope you get a chance to visit sometime in the near future! Haha, and some of my favorite entries in my food journal were while a glass or two of wine were still in my system—I was almost poetic in describing my meals!

      And thank you for the compliments, Katie. :)


      June 20, 2012 at 10:13 pm

  17. Reblogged this on minibaklava.


    July 5, 2012 at 2:14 am

  18. Hi Amy,
    Your baklava looks so good, thanks for sharing. BTW, I was just at Trader Joe’s and they have unsalted pistachios. I’m in Boston though. Good luck.


    July 7, 2012 at 2:58 pm

  19. Lovely story, Amy! You write beautifully as you cook! A true talent!


    February 11, 2013 at 9:10 am

    • Thank you for the kind words, Stacey.


      February 11, 2013 at 9:05 pm

  20. I applaud your efforts, I have been searching high and low for a good baklava recipe and where better to turn than my pastry-chef friend in Tekirdağ, Turkey? :) (It’s a city about 2 1/2 hours outside of Istanbul) Before turning to him, I turned to Google and YouTube. What I found was that the Turks are ADAMANT that they DO NOT use honey in their syrup for baklava, it’s simply water, sugar and lemon juice. But this woman is Turkish and she posted this on her site:‎
    and my friend said it’s pretty good to make at home and will taste delicious if made properly. Also, you can order raw unsalted pistachios online…they’re a little expensive, but I think it’s worth it :) has a good selection to choose from. Anyway, your baklava did look delicious and I only hope mine comes out so nice! teşekkürler!


    June 11, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    • Noura, thanks for your comment. It is hard to find good baklava recipes online, isn’t it! And unfortunately, I do not have the great geographic proximity to wonderful Turkish pastry chefs. ;) Thank you for sharing what you’ve found with me — I will be sure to take those into consideration when I work up the energy to make another big batch of baklava. :)


      June 11, 2013 at 4:11 pm

  21. […] the bakery stocking up on cheese pastries for breakfast, be sure to pick up one of everything else. Baklava is, of course, the most famous of Greek treats. After biting into the layers of honeyed pastry and […]

    10 Must Try Greek Eats

    March 10, 2015 at 5:00 pm

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