Baklava has come a very long way - in both historical and geographical terms. Many ethnic groups lay claim to this moreish pastry, and, truth be told, many have played a part in its evolution. Known as one of the Middle East's grandest sweets, it's believed to have started, in its crudest form, with the Assyrians around 8BC. Thin bread dough was layered with chopped nuts and honey and baked in wood-burning ovens. Greek merchants travelling east to Mesopotamia then took the recipe to Athens, and finessed it with leaf-thin filo pastry (phyllo means leaf in Greek). The Armenians, located on the Spice Route, introduced cinnamon and cloves; the Arabs added cardamom and rosewater.
From its humble origins, it became a sweet adored by the wealthy. At the peak of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish sultans and their harems prized it for its purported aphrodisiac qualities - cinnamon for women, cardamom for men and cloves for both sexes. Unfortunately, many people's experience of baklava today does little to recapture its former glory. Often what's commercially available is made with low-grade oils instead of butter, and peanuts are substituted for the traditional (and more expensive) walnuts and pistachios, to poor effect.
The success of baklava lies in using the freshest nuts you can find. Source them from a supplier with a large turnover or try Middle Eastern stores, which often sell large quantities at reasonable costs. (You can store nuts in the freezer at home for optimum freshness.) The same rules apply with spices - use the freshest possible. We've used just a single note of cinnamon in this recipe, but you could also add a pinch or two of other traditional spices.
You can use any honey for the syrup, but this is a good opportunity to use your favourite single-blossom honey - it will be shown off to good effect here. And allow plenty of time for the syrup to work its way between the layers of pastry and nuts. The end result shouldn't be dry - rather it should be a syrup-soaked treat which still has a nutty crunch. Baklava will keep for several days and arguably gets better over time, so make up a big tray and indulge your sweet tooth with this perfumed delicacy.