In the weeks leading up to Nowruz, Iranians happily line up at confectioneries and bakeries to buy cookies, pastries and a variety of nuts for their 13 days of new year festivities. The holiday begins March 21 this year.
My dad always took my sister and me with him to do the holiday shopping. Like most Iranians, he would always walk out of the shops with arms filled with boxes of sweets and bags of nuts.
Although Persian cuisine is deservedly known for satisfying Iran’s collective sweet tooth, Persians in most big cities — particularly in Tehran — don’t bake these holiday treats at home. Instead, they buy sweets from other regions of the country; the cities of Isfahan, Yazd and Qazvin are particularly known for their sugary creations.
To me, small Persian pastries are unique. Most are rich-tasting, filled with walnuts, pistachios and other ground nuts. They are sweetened with honey and often flavored with syrup that is scented with rosewater, that undeniably powerful and sometimes polarizing ingredient. I love to make my own pastries, because to me, as an immigrant cooking my native recipes, it is not just about the food butmore about home. So I am happy to share the recipes for my favorites.
A box of tiny but flavorful Chickpea Cookies was always the first Nowruz item my dad would pick up, because they are what he likes best. So it was important for me to learn how to make these for him. They typically are cut in a flower shape, but if you don't have the right-size cookie cutter, rolling the dough into small balls will do.
White mulberries are a favorite snack of most Iranians, including me, but the sugar-packed nuggets grow for only a very short period each year. We love them so much that when they are out of season we crave something to remind us of warmer months, and we make nutty Marzipan Berries instead, shaped like the fruit.
I was just 9 years old when I learned to make Honey Cashew Caramel Candies. My mom's brother used to assemble them just a few hours before guests arrived so he could serve them while the chunks of nuts were fresh. I loved being his sous-chef. It's one of my fondest childhood memories, and now when I think about making sweets, these candies are what inevitably come to mind.
One of the most popular confections during Nowruz celebrations is baghlava (pronounced BAHG-la-vah in Farsi). It differs from baklava you may have had because ours is traditionally made with an olive-oil dough rather than with thin sheets of phyllo dough, which is more common in Turkey and Eastern Europe.
Iranians enjoy their baghlavas all year long, of course. The most spectacular ones — small, bite-size diamonds, densely packed with pistachios and almonds — are baked in Qazvin and Yazd. These renditions have become so famous that they are widely distributed and available throughout the country, although anyone returning from a visit to these cities is expected to bring some home.
Regional sweets seem to be our most sought-after souvenirs, but you don’t have to be Iranian to enjoy them as I do.
Rezaian is an Iranian-born freelance journalist who discovered a passion for cooking her native cuisine after she came to the United States in 2016. She is married to Washington Post staff writer Jason Rezaian. She will join our Free Range chat at noon Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.
We found slivered pistachios at Trader Joe’s.
MAKE AHEAD: The marzipan berries can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
Recipes from Washington cook Yeganeh Rezaian.
½ cup (96 grams) granulated sugar
1 cup (96 grams) finely ground almonds/almond flour
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
½ cup (63 grams) confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons rosewater, preferably Cortas brand, or more as needed
2 tablespoons slivered pistachios (see headnote)
Place the granulated sugar in a medium bowl.
Combine the ground almonds/almond flour, cardamom and confectioners’ sugar in a mixing bowl. Gradually add the rosewater, stirring constantly, to form a soft dough. If the mixture seems too dry, add up to 1 more teaspoon of rosewater.
Use a 1-teaspoon scoop to create 30 equal portions, molding each one into a (smooth) blackberry shape as you work. Roll each one in the granulated sugar, until evenly coated. Insert a pistachio sliver into the stem end of each marzipan berry, to complete the visual effect. While you are working, cover them securely with plastic wrap to keep the marzipan berries from drying out.
35 to 40 servings
Sometimes, dried rose petals are used to decorate these, as well pistachios.
You’ll need a standard rimmed baking sheet. The dough also can be mixed by hand (this takes about 10 minutes) or with a stand mixer.
MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to rest for 1 hour, and the baked baklava takes about 1 hour to set up. It can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
For the syrup
2 cups (384 grams) granulated sugar
1 cup water
⅓ cup rosewater, preferably Cortas brand
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
For the crust
½ cup whole milk
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus 3 tablespoons for brushing and more as needed (may substitute melted unsalted butter)
2 large eggs
2 cups (284 grams) sifted unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
For the filling
1 pound (453 grams) ground almonds/almond flour
1 cup (192 grams) granulated sugar (may substitute confectioners’ sugar)
3 tablespoons ground cardamom
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 pound (453 grams) ground pistachios (see headnote)
Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing
¼ cup slivered pistachios, for decorating (see headnote)
For the syrup: Combine the sugar and water in a medium saucepan over high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Once the mixture begins to boil, stir in the rosewater and lime juice. Remove from the heat.
For the crust: Combine the milk, oil, eggs and 1 tablespoon of the syrup (you just made) in a food processor, pulsing until well incorporated. Gradually add the all-purpose flour; pulse or process until a non-sticky dough forms, adding small increments of extra flour as needed.
Divide the dough in half, placing each portion in its own bowl. Cover the bowls with a clean towel and let them rest at room temperature for 1 hour. The doughs will not double in size, but they should become somewhat firm, which will make them easier to shape.
Meanwhile, make the filling: Whisk together the almonds or almond flour, the sugar, cardamom and cinnamon in a mixing bowl.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously brush a rimmed baking sheet with oil. Lightly dust a work surface with flour.
Use a rolling pin to roll out one portion of the rested dough on the work surface, as thin as possible. Carefully transfer to the baking sheet, letting any extra dough hang over the sides. Spread the filling mixture evenly over the dough, pressing it gently into the dough.
Spread the ground pistachios evenly over the layer of filling, pressing them gently into the almond filling. Lightly brush or dab the pistachio layer with oil.
Re-dust the work surface and roll out the remaining dough as you did before. Transfer it to top the layers on the baking sheet, pressing the dough evenly all over, then press the overhanging edges of the top and bottom layers together to seal them firmly together all around the baking sheet. Tuck the edges under, as needed. (You will be cutting away these thick edges after baking.)
Use a sharp knife (and maybe a straightedge ruler) to cut the baklava into 35 to 40 diamond-shaped or square pieces. They should be of equal size. Generously brush the top surface of baklava with more oil; bake (middle rack) for 25 to 35 minutes, until the crust is golden.
As soon as you transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack to cool, pour the rest of the syrup evenly all over the baklava, allowing it to get into all the cracks and edges as you work. While the syrup is still quite sticky, sprinkle a few pistachio slivers at the center of each piece of baklava.
Let cool for a few hours before serving.
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