I love Persian baklava but I usually don’t have enough time to make proper baklava. This baklava cake recipe has all the flavours of Persian baklava but is a breeze to make. It’ much lighter than regular baklava and totally gluten-free to boot.
Persian baklava is one of the delights of Nowrouz, the Persian New Year that usually falls on the 20th or 21st of March (spring equinox). It’s so luscious, so fragrant and so delicious it must be crowned as the king of all Persian sweets. But Persian baklava is quite different from other Middle Eastern sweets of the same name. It has only two or three layers of thin pastry on top and in the bottom so don’t expect all the layers of phyllo pastry you find in Turkish and other Middle Eastern baklavas to begin with.
Persian baklava is usually flavoured with rosewater and sometimes also cardamom. This is a flavour combination that we love (like in my Cardamom and Rosewater Muffin recipe). Most Persian baklavas are made with almonds but pistachio is sometimes used too. As you can see in the picture above there are also layered baklavas with different kinds of nuts and flavouring all coming together in one baklava.
Best Persian baklavas come from Yazd, Qazvin, Kerman and Tabriz. Baklavas from these places look and taste somehow different because each city has its own style of sweets-making and cuisine. I love them all. There’s a lot of debate as to which Middle Eastern country baklava originates from. I have no opinion on this. What matters is that we all make and enjoy it.
I learned making baklava from my mum who’s a great baker. She is from Tabriz where baklava is made with almond flour so the colour is very light. In old days preparations for baklava making took several days. She had to blanch her almonds, dry them and then use a special nut grinder to grind the almonds in small quantities. With blanched almonds from the supermarket and a food processor it takes literally seconds now to ground almonds.
Persian sweets like baklava are usually made very small as accompaniments to tea, much like biscuits here in the UK. It’s actually considered a great skill to make the sweets as tiny as possible. This is because in our culture guests are served with endless tiny glasses of tea (so the tea is always hot) and an array of small sweets including baklava with each glass. By the way, we serve tea in small glasses because the colour of the tea has to be seen and appreciated.
But why make a cake instead of proper baklava? Firstly, making a cake is so much easier than making baklava. Secondly, I find the cake lighter and moister so it’s a better choice to serve in larger pieces for dessert.
I experimented a lot with various ratios of ground almonds and flour and finally realised this cake was best without any flour at all. Ground almonds (sometimes called almond flour) is readily available in most supermarkets but if you have a food processor it’s easy to make at home too. Just throw in blanched almonds in the food process and whiz until fine, one cup at a time.
Don’t be tempted to process the almonds too much because you may end up with almond butter! If the almond flour is too fine the cake will be dense which is exactly what I think must not happen.
I used a mixture of almond flour and almond meal. Almond meal is basically the same thing as almond flour except that it’s made from almonds with their brown skin on. This gives the cake its beautifully textured beige-brown colour. You can make the cake with either of the two types on their own without any particular change in the flavour. Only the colour will be different.
I sprinkled a layer of roughly chopped whole almonds mixed with cardamom and sugar between two layers of cake batter and on top of the cake for a little crunch. You can skip this step and just mix the chopped almonds into the batter if it’s too much hassle.
The good thing about this cake is that you can make it several days ahead if you tightly wrap the tin in cling film after feeding it with syrup. Actually the more the cake stays, the better the flavours of rosewater and cardamom will develop in the cake.
One word of caution about rosewater: Rosewater comes in various strengths. Some can be very strong and overpowering. When making your syrup add the rosewater in small amounts and smell and taste to avoid making it very strong. I use Persian rosewater which is available in most Middle Eastern groceries in the UK and also online. It smells lovely but is not too strong. The amount given in this recipe is for Persian rosewater.
I’ve kept you too long, so here is the recipe, at last!
For the rosewater syrup
For the topping: