Today is the spring equinox, when day and night balance out after six months of more darkness than light. For peoples across Central and South Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, this is a major holiday—Nowruz, or Persian New Year. (“Nowruz,” or various spellings thereof, means “new day” in Persian.) Preparations for the celebration traditionally begin with a massive spring cleaning, buying new clothes and flowers, and days of cooking. Families pay visits to their relatives and friends at home, and it’s important to welcome your guests with snacks—tea and coffee, dried fruits and nuts, cookies and pastries like baklava.
I like the idea of a new “New Year” beginning in the spring. It’s another chance to revisit those resolutions you might have made in January and never got around to fulfilling, a good time to clear away clutter and must, both literal and figurative.
While I never celebrated Nowruz while I was living in the Caucasus, I did eat plenty of baklava. It’s a requisite dish at weddings, birthdays, and other holiday feasts throughout the region. There were the long, skinny diamonds dripping with syrup at my host sister’s wedding in Georgia and tiny squares of cardamom-spiced baqlava at the corner bakery in Azerbaijan, both exquisite. But my favorite was the cookie-like pakhlava that Inna Grigoryan, an Armenian friend of mine in Krasnodar (Russia), baked for her son’s 13th birthday party.
Instead of the countless paper-thin sheets of phyllo pastry that most Americans associate with the dessert, this recipe calls for just four layers of a simple sour cream dough, with a sweet paste of ground walnuts, sugar, and egg whites slathered generously between each one. It’s elegant yet entirely unostentatious, satisfyingly rich but not cloyingly sweet. I came across it again at a New Year’s meal at another friend’s home in North Ossetia, hundreds of miles away.
Inna made her pakhlava “by the eye,” as Russians say, not measuring anything precisely and working from an old family recipe long since committed to memory. I’ve done my best to recreate it in my own kitchen, but I’m still tinkering with it. (I think there might be too much dough for the filling.) Please let me know how it turns out if you try it!
Makes 1 9×13 in. pan
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, chopped into ½-inch chunks
¾ cup sour cream
2 egg yolks
2 ½ cups walnuts (or a mixture of walnuts and other nuts), toasted
1 cup sugar
3 egg whites
3 Tbsp. honey
1 egg yolk and 1 tsp. water, beaten together with a fork
¼ cup toasted hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, walnuts or other nuts for topping
- To toast the nuts: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread the nuts in a single layer on a large baking sheet (or two if necessary). Toast them for 10 minutes in the oven. Allow them to cool. Set aside the ¼ cup of nuts you’ll be using to top the pakhlava—don’t chop them.
- In a food processor or food mill, grind 1½ cups of toasted nuts to a sand-like powder (not a paste!). Finely chop the remaining 1 cup of nuts. (This can also be accomplished by sealing the nuts inside a large Ziploc bag and running a rolling pin over them repeatedly.)
- In a large bowl, combine the flour, soda, and salt. Mix in the butter with a pastry cutter, two forks, or your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse sand.
- Lightly beat the egg yolks into the sour cream and fold into the flour mixture. Turn the dough onto a cool, well-floured surface and knead it just until a sticky dough comes together, about 30 seconds. Separate dough into four equal balls, place them on a buttered plate, cover, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
- Just before rolling out the dough, prepare the filling: beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they become white and foamy, about 30-45 seconds. Stir in the walnuts and sugar. Set aside.
- When dough has chilled, butter and flour the bottom and sides of a 13×9-inch baking pan. On a cool, well-floured surface, roll one ball of dough into a 13×9-inch rectangle (or larger and cut it to fit) and place in the greased pan. Spread half of the walnut filling onto this layer, being careful to spread it all the way to the sides.
- Roll out the next ball and place on top of the walnut filling. Spread the honey on top of this layer. Roll out the third ball and spread the remaining walnut filling on top of it. Roll out the final ball and place on top. Brush the top layer thoroughly with beaten egg and milk mixture. Cover the pan and chill for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
- Preheat the oven to 375 F. Cut the pakhlava diagonally at a steep angle into 2-inch-wide stripes, then cut them crosswise in the same manner to form diamond-shaped pieces. Press a toasted hazelnut, almond, pistachio, or walnut in the center of each piece.
- Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes, then uncover and bake approximately 10 minutes longer, until top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool before removing from pan.