Minnesota Honey: The Essential Ingredient in Greek Baklava

There’s nothing like the taste of raw honey. That musky, grainy, slightly tart explosion of sweetness is the most important part of my morning routine. Thickly spread between a slice of toast and a thin schmear of almond butter... and, ahhhh, who needs coffee?

It’s because I’m half-Greek, you know. We Greeks grow up with the taste of honey in our mouths. We get honey in warm milk to help us sleep; honey and lemon juice in hot water to soothe our sore throats; honey straight up to calm our coughs. All that honey almost makes us look forward to the next cold or flu season.

Luckily for us honey lovers, Minnesota is the fifth highest honey-producing state, according to the University of Minnesota, which has “maintained an internationally recognized research and extension program on honey bees since 1918.” The U’s Extension website claims that this honey bee program is unique “within five contiguous states" -- two of which, North Dakota and South Dakota, are the second and fourth highest honey producers in the country.

So suffice it to say, honey is a big deal in Minnesota, even though there aren't a lot of Greeks who've made their homes here. (We're physiologically ill-suited to live outside the temperate latitudes of Santorini, Mykonos, and Rhodes. A Greek living in Minnesota is like a chihuahua in Newfoundland.) The National Honey Board lists 12 Minnesota suppliers on its online "honey locator." Here are three notable ones:

Mel-O, based in Cannon Falls, is, for the most part, a huge honey wholesaler. According to its website, its products, including an organic line called John Mountain, are found in stores throughout the country, including Lunds, Byerly’s, Super Target, and Cub Food.

Ames Farm has 300 bee hives in 17 locations around the state. Its honey is raw and unfiltered, which means that the beneficial blend of vitamins, antioxidants, enzymes and yeasts is not lost during pasteurization. You can buy Ames Farm honey from its own online store or from its retailers, including the Twin Cities food co-ops, Kowalski’s, Syrdyk’s, and Cooks of Crocus Hill.

Johnston Honey, located in Rochester, is available at Turtle Bread and Sincerely Yours in Minneapolis, and The Golden Fig and The Bibelot Shop in St. Paul. Its website also includes an online store as well as a free recipe database with entrees, salads, breads and desserts – all made with honey as an ingredient.

Speaking of desserts made with honey, my favorite is the classic Greek pastry baklava.

Although the Turks are probably the originators of this confection of nuts and honey spread between layers of phyllo dough, no Greek holiday, feast or festival would be complete without it.

Below is my Aunt Evelyn’s baklava recipe. (Although she’s not Greek herself, she’s married to Uncle Ted, who is more Greek than Zorba. Plus, she lived with him and their five kids in Athens back in the 1970s. So she’s about as authentic as you can get.) Warning: This recipe is very, very sweet; it calls for ½ cup of honey plus FOUR CUPS of sugar! If you’re interested in a less sugary alternative, try this one on the Whole Foods web site. It uses one cup of honey and only ½ cup of sugar.

Aunt Evelyn's Authentic Greek Baklava


2 pounds of ground walnuts

4 cups of sugar (1 for nut filling, 3 for syrup)

1 teaspoon of cinnamon

½ teaspoon of nutmeg

1 pound thawed phyllo sheets

1 pound of melted butter

2 cups of water

½ cup honey

1 lemon peeled,  sliced and seeded

Whole cloves


Preheat oven to 350°F.

Butter a 11 x 17 inch cake pan.

Mix walnuts,  cinnamon, nutmeg and 1 cup of sugar in a bowl and set aside.

Divide the phyllo sheets into four stacks and cover with a lightly dampened towel to keep them from drying out.

Working quickly, place one sheet of phyllo in the pan, brush with melted butter.

Place another sheet on top of the first sheet and brush with melted butter.

Keep placing and buttering sheets until you finish the first of the four stacks.

Evenly spread 1/3 of the walnut mixture over the phyllo sheets in the pan.

Using the same place-one/butter-one method as before, place the second stack of phyllo leaves in the pan.

Evenly spread 1/3 of the walnut mixture (or half of what’s remaining) on top.

Using the same place-one/butter-one method as before, place the third stack of phyllo leaves in the pan.

Evenly spread the last 1/3 of the walnut mixture (all of what’s remaining) on top.

Using the same place-one/butter-one method as before, place the fourth and last stack of phyllo leaves in the pan.

Cut the pastry through to the bottom into diamond shapes by cutting diagonal parallel lines about 2 inches apart.

Lightly press a whole clove into the center of each piece.

Bake for 45 minutes or until the baklava is golden brown.

For the syrup: combine water, honey, 3 cups of sugar, lemon, and 1 Tablespoon of whole cloves in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 - 15 minutes.

Remove baklava from oven. Slowly and carefully pour the hot syrup over it. (Aunt Evelyn writes, “It will sizzle.”)

Cool completely.

Serve in cupcake papers.