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!
- 150g ground almonds (almond flour)
- 100g almond meal (or whole un-blanched almonds if you are making your own)
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 150g butter, softened at room temperature plus a knob for greasing the tin
- 150g very fine (caster) sugar
- 4 medium eggs, beaten
For the rosewater syrup
- 100g very fine (caster) sugar
- 300ml water
- 2 tbsp rosewater
For the topping:
- 1 tsp seeds from green cardamom pods or 3/4 tsp ground cardamom
- 2 tsp coarse sugar
- 100g whole un-blanched almonds
- A few unsalted pistachios, crushed, to decorate
- Preheat the oven to 180C/ 375F. Line a 20cm x 20cm square cake tin (preferably loose-bottom or springform) with baking paper and lightly grease with a knob of butter. Set aside.
- If you are making your own almond meal put the whole un-blanched almonds in a food processor and whiz until fine, like in the picture. Then mix the almond meal with blanched ground almonds, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
- For the topping (and middle layer) grind the cardamom seeds with the sugar until fine. Put the whole almonds for the topping in a food processor and chop until they are in small pieces, not too finely. Mix with the ground cardamom and sugar in a small bowl and set aside.
- Beat the softened butter with sugar on medium speed for at least five minutes or until the sugar is well incorporated and the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the beaten eggs in small amounts and beat very well after each addition.
- Add the almond mixture by spoonfuls and beat well after each addition to make the almond batter.
- Spread half of the batter in the prepared tin. Sprinkle half of the topping mix on the batter. Spoon the rest of the batter into the tin and level with a spatula or large spoon. Sprinkle the rest of the topping mix on top and gently push the almond pieces into the batter with the back of an oiled spoon. Bake the cake for about 45 minutes or until the top is golden and a skewer or toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for ten minutes.
- Meanwhile, put the sugar and water for the syrup in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Cook on medium heat until it’s reduced to 260 millilitres (1 cup). Add half the rosewater and stir. Give it a taste and smell. Add more if desired. Bring the syrup back to the boil and turn off the heat.
- Turn the cake out on a chopping board and peel off the paper. Use a bread knife to slice it into diamonds or squares. To serve with tea make smaller pieces, for dessert cut into larger pieces. Don’t separate the pieces. Put the tin back on the cake and carefully invert the chopping board and the tin to slide the sliced cake back into the tin so the topping layer is back on top again.
- When the syrup is lukewarm pour it over the cake evenly. Let cool completely. Cover the tin with cling film and let the cake absorb the syrup, ideally for a day.
- Very gently remove the slices of the cake from the tin. Using a loose-bottom or springform tin makes this job much easier, otherwise try using a small spatula to remove one piece first. This may not come out so clean but the rest should be easy to remove intact. Serve with strong tea, preferably Earl Grey. Enjoy!