I love Middle Eastern desserts because they don’t seem to know the meaning of “light and fluffy.” Unlike Western European desserts, which are overwhelmingly types of cakes, croissants, eclairs, and other pastries with air baked into the dough, Middle Eastern desserts tend to be thick and heavy, instead using many sheets of paper-thin phyllo dough to form their pastries. It also doesn’t hurt that the main sweetener used is pure, unadulterated honey–lots and lots of it! It makes these desserts super-sweet but also sticky and dense; they fill you up quickly so you don’t have to eat too many…but you will totally want to! Take the tiny baklava, for example: most of the time, these tiny Turkish pastries are only one or two bites big, but they pack enough flavor and sweetness to keep you satisfied. Made from layers of phyllo dough, chopped nuts, and honey, baklava is an incredibly simple dessert that is so delicious I hardly know what to do with myself when offered one. I can turn down a French cream puff or a slice of fluffy buttercream cake, but that little square inch of baklava has got to get into my mouth, no questions asked.
Though the main ingredients always stay the same, there are many different slight variations on baklava’s seasoning ingredients based on the region where you’re getting them from. Armenian baklava includes cinnamon and cloves for an extra kick; in Iran, they use rose water instead of honey as a sweetener, and their baklava is much less gooey because of it. And in Syria, butter and sugar are added to the mix to make a richer, more international type of baklava. There are a ton of restaurants and bakeries that make some amazing cubes of baklava, especially in neighborhoods like Astoria, where many Middle Eastern and Greek families live. Al-Sham Sweets and Pastries makes a baklava that, even if you live in the tip of Brooklyn like me, is worth taking the Q all the way to its end. Their Syrian-style baklava is buttery and rich, and instead of the traditional Turkish pistachios crumbled up in between the phyllo leaves, it’s walnut. The sweetness of the baklava comes from the nuts instead of the heavy honey syrup; they use a lighter, sugar-based syrup instead. All this makes for an absolutely decadent baklava, and at only 75 cents per piece, it’s almost worth ordering a whole tray!
Al-Sham Sweets & Pastries
24-39 Steinway St
“These were small diamonds, also for 75 cents, but the baklava from Al-Sham had a rich and much more buttery taste than the one at Laziza. No cinnamon in these, the pure walnut flavor really stood out, and the crisp-to-soft contrast was spot-on.”–Serious Eats
“A humble temple to walnuts and pistachios in Astoria, Al-Sham Sweets and Pastries crams a dizzying array of baklava into its small display case. They serve the Syrian variety (“Sham” is the old name for Syria and still the local appellation for Damascus). Unlike Turkish baklava, the Syrian versions derive most of their sweetness from the nuts rather than syrup. The diverse styles available demonstrate the importance of texture to properly made baklava and invite grazing to identify your favorite.”–We Heart NY
“Their dizzying window display is piled high with pyramids of phyllo-wrapped and pistachio-studded goodies. I finally stopped in last week and tried a square almond cookie on the recommendation of the woman behind the counter. The little bar, which only set me back a dollar, featured a delicious, tender cookie (with no small tad of butter, yum) topped with almond paste and a thin layer of sweet glaze. The shop features all sorts of Palestinian and Jordanian desserts, from baklava to whole cakes. I’ll be back too soon for my own good, and look forward to the time when I tell my incredulous grandchildren about the good old days when I used to get dessert for a dollar.”–Astoria NYC
“But my favorites included the mixed nut bar, featuring pistachios, almonds, pecans, and walnuts mounted on a thin layer of shredded phyllo dough, held together by only a thin glaze of honey. And the real winner was the feisty cinnamon-spiked baklava, which kicked like a mule and bit like a crocodile, despite being crammed into a petite, 75-cent treat.”–United Nations of Food
“Step out and walk two feet to the right into the Syrian bakery Al-Sham Sweets & Pastries to pick up dessert: buttery smooth walnut baklava, tender date-filled shortbread cookies called mamool and kanafeh, the famous Middle-Eastern dessert pie of fresh cheese and shredded wheat soaked in honey syrup and served piping hot by the slice.”–Borough Magazine
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“Hands down, BEST baklava in all of NY. So fresh and rich, you taste the clarified butter oozing through the sweet nuts and crispy filo. A++ Quality. Excellent ingredients make excellent desserts. They stick to this philosophy and it shows in their desserts. Worth every calorie you’ll need to work off later. I’ve tried 1-2 of their other things, but to be honest, I always end up order a pound of their baklavas and guilty conscience won’t let me try anything else.”–Sunny C.
“Lets start off with the standard pistachio baklava; it is incredible when you bite down you can hear the filo dough crunch and the soft flaky texture break, then you get a hint of pistachio that is sprinkled on top, followed by a delicate sweetness that blends in with the nutty and buttery taste of the filo and nuts together. The strong currents of nut and honey with hints of butter from the dough make this place a treasure. Honestly all their pastries are great but the pistachio baklava described on top is just incredible and will redefine what Baklava is and the place it has in your lives.”–Jack X.
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