Baklava

Be bold! Baklava may seem like a big bad scary dessert to tackle, but it's fairly simple (if time consuming). My first experience making it was for - get this - a group of very lovely women (my wife included) at a photo shoot for belly dancers. This dessert seemed the perfect compliment to such an occasion so I did what you're doing right now: I searched the web for a good road map to making my first batch. I printed off directions from several sources and went at it. It turned out that one of the dancers brought her Albanian mother to the shoot. After trying my baklava this sweet elderly woman sought me out and, in a thick accent, told me that "it tasted just like her mother made it." I melted. Literally. I mean, I'm sitting here typing this in my reconstituted form. Good thing too, 'cause now I'm able to share the story of my successes with you!

INGREDIENTS

  • Dough
    • 1 lb. Phyllo Dough
    • ¾ lb. Sweet Butter
  • Nuts
    • 4 to 5 Cups Coarsely Chopped Nuts (e.g. walnuts, pecans, almonds)
    • ½ cup Turbinado Sugar (a.k.a. "sugar in the raw" or "demerara sugar")
    • ¼ tsp. Fresh Ground Cloves
    • 1 tsp. Fresh Ground Cinnamon
  • Syrup
    • 2½ cups Water
    • 3 cups Sugar/Sweetener (e.g. turbinado sugar, stevia, honey)
    • 3 tsp. Fresh Lemon Juice
    • 1 tsp. Vanilla Extract
    • 1 Cinnamon Stick
    • 3 Whole Cloves

INGREDIENTS (optional / alternative)

  • Nuts
    • ½ cup White Sugar
    • ¼ tsp. Pre-Ground Cloves
    • 1 tsp. Pre-Ground Cinnamon
  • Syrup
    • 3 cups White Sugar
    • 3 tsp. Bottled Lemon Juice

EQUIPMENT

  • Pastry Brush
  • Whisk
  • Saucepan (for the butter)
  • Casserole Dish (~8" x 13")
  • Tin Foil Or Plastic Wrap
  • Sharp Knife
  • Tablespoon
  • Mortar & Pestle

EQUIPMENT (optional / alternative)

  • Saucepan (for the syrup - could be the same one as the butter pan)
  • Flat Spatula
  • Fork
  • Strainer
  • Serving Platter
  • Cupcake Cups
  • Spice Grinder (a.k.a. Coffee Grinder)

PROCESS

The dough consists of layers of phyllo, each of them buttered, and interspersed with layers of spiced nuts. This is cut, baked, soaked in syrup, allowed to cool, covered, refrigerated, cut again, and served. In all, it takes at least nine hours, three hours of which are active labor, to make and serve a batch.

Ingredient Preparation

Butter

The butter should be carefully melted in a saucepan; using a pan with a thick bottom helps control the heat distribution, making it easier not to burn the butter. I usually drop the butter in, set the burner to it's lowest setting, and go about prepping the rest of the ingredients. By the time I'm done, the butter is ready, and the residual heat of the pan keeps the butter melty as I assemble the pastry. NOTE: Use unsalted (a.k.a. sweet) butter; salted butter will overpower the baklava with the wrong taste.

Nuts

Variety is the spice of life. Baklava is traditionally made with walnuts and/or pistachios, but I've found that the more nuts you bring to the party, the better. In particular, I like to mix in pecans and/or almonds. I haven't tried peanuts though - I think they would be a little too overpowering in this dish. Whatever you choose, just make sure they are chopped course or fine and mix them all together along with their spices.

Spice

For this dish, fresh ground spices go a long a way and are well worth the effort. I find the "pounding" method to be most effective; start by smashing the spice with a grinding motion and then pound at it vigorously for five to ten minutes. When it looks fairly powdery, your done. As far as quantities, I usually eyeball it (e.g. 2 or 3 cloves and 2 or 3 inches of chopped up cinnamon stick).

If you don't have the mortar and pestle but still want fresh ground spices, then you're could use a coffee grinder. Either purchase one for the sole purpose of spice grinding (and label it as such!) or wash your existing grinder thoroughly (you don't want the dish tasting like it came from Starbucks, do you?) and grind for about ten seconds.

I've made this recipe with pre-ground spices in the nut mix, and that works out fine... I guess...

Sweetener

I find I get the best flavor from a mix of turbinado sugar and honey, but you can see below that I made this batch with white sugar. Most of the syrup's flavor comes from the spices, and this is essentially just a simple syrup, but subtle complexities are created that compliment the dish nicely by using a mix of sweeteners. For the three cups total, I recommend two cups granulated sugar and one of honey. For full-on vegans, one might use portions of turbinado sugar, brown sugar, and/or a bit of stevia rebaudiana.

Phyllo Dough

Phyllo dough can be purchased at any well stocked market or supermarket. When I've purchased it, they are always stored with the refrigerated pizza dough, ready-made biscuits, etc., near the dairy section. It comes in a box with two rolls, each wrapped in plastic. You can refrigerate or even freeze this until you're ready to use it; on a warm day it will thaw sufficiently in about half an hour.

What you really need to know about phyllo is that dries out very, very quickly, and when this happens it's impossible to work with. For this reason, it is important to work fast with the dough. You should prep all of your other ingredients before opening the phyllo package.

On humid, rainy days I find I get a lot more leeway, but on dry, hot days I have to take some extra precautions. After unrolling the dough, lay it on the plastic it came in and fold that plastic over the top so the dough is completely covered.

Then dampen a dinner napkin (or cheese cloth or a thin, light kitchen towel) and cover the plastic. This effectively holds the moisture in as you work, allowing you to take what time you need to add nuts and butter the layers with impunity.

The reason I've specified a casserole dish with dimensions of approximately 8 inches by 13 inches is that this size closely matches that of a full sheet of phyllo. I've also cut stacks of dough in two with a sharp bread knife and used dishes half this size. The base wisdom I'm driving at is that the closer the dimensions are to the size of the phyllo, the easier it will be to construct the baklava.

Assembly and Cooking

Ogres Are Like Baklava; they both have LAYERS!1

This is actually the easy part; time consuming to be sure, but straightforward. Thoroughly mix the nuts, sugar, and spices together. Brush the casserole dish with a light and even coat of butter (did I mention about the pastry brush?).

Lay a sheet of phyllo in the bottom of the casserole dish and lightly butter it. If you are not able to match the size of the dish to the size of the phyllo sheets, then devise a "back and forth" overlapping strategy; if your sheets are smaller than the pan, lay the first sheet snug into one side or corner, then lay the second sheet into the opposing side or corner. In this case, it is important to avoid ending up with any deep or open "wells" where the syrup will pool into, robbing the dish as a whole of its sweetener and over saturating the pieces adjoining the well. If your sheets are larger than your pan, then follow a similar strategy, but instead just fold over the excess dough back into the pan, buttering before you fold down, and alternating sides as you go.

Continue laying sheets into the pan, lightly buttering each layer. While it's important to coat the entire sheet so that the pastry cooks and separates nicely, it's also important not to over-butter the sheets as this will result in less syrup absorption later and an undesirable change in flavor. On the other hand, don't over-obsess on this point; just keep your buttering light and even and you'll be good to go.

And On The Sixth Day Layer There Were Nuts2

Every five to six sheets, put in a layer of nuts. It's hard to say exactly what measure of nuts to use. On the first nut layer, I tend to go a little light - say ¾ cup to a full cup. I have a theory this produces a more stable base. On subsequent layers, I tend to be a little more generous - say 1 cup to 1½ cups.

After each nut layer, add another 5 to 6 phyllo sheets, buttering each, then add another nut layer. Wash, rinse, repeat. When you run out of nuts, cover with an additional 6 layers of phyllo (expect 5 to 7 layers of nuts total). I usually pour the last of the butter on top and spread it around with a pastry brush; I don't have a good reason for this, it just seems like "a good thing"3.

Divided We Stand, United We Fall Apart4

Now is a good time to preheat the oven to 300 °F (150 °C).

The dough needs to be sliced before baking so that when it comes out of the oven it is ready to receive the syrup. The buttered phyllo will bake properly without slicing it beforehand, but will crumble horribly under any cutting attempts after its been cooked. However, the pre-bake cuts do not represent the final size of the baklava pieces unless you want them to; after the syrup has been added and the dough has cooled then slicing is once again an option. The reason for slicing before baking is to allow the syrup to properly penetrate after baking.

Using a sharp serrated knife, start in a corner and cut a 45° slice through the dough.

Make your next cut parallel to the first approximately 2 or 3 centimeters apart (about one inch). You will find this more difficult as the top layers will now tend to bunch and pull away from the first slice as you cut. I've found that the gentle application of a fork solves this problem nicely. The trick is to lay the utensil flat on the surface to hold it in place and then slice alongside or between the tines of the fork.

Continue making the sequence of diagonal cuts out to either corner of the pan. Be sure to slice all the way to the bottom; rerun the knife through each slice to ensure it has been fully cut. Then make cuts perpendicular to the edges of the dish, creating parallelograms from the existing cuts. Go slowly, use the fork to hold things in place, and be sure to go back over and cut all the way through.

Note that while it is important not to mush the dough, this is another occasion where perfectionism will get in your way. Some slices will get a little twitched and bumped, but the baking, soaking, and subsequent serving will cover up such issues.

Bake at 300 °F (150 °C) for about 1½ hours or until lightly brown. Note that the syrup has to be made and hot when the baklava comes out of the oven!

Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble!5

The syrup should start cooking about half an hour before the dough comes out of the oven. I like to set the timer for an hour, get all of the ingredients staged, and go do something outside the kitchen for a bit. Note that pre-ground spices won't really work here; it is difficult to strain them out later, they don't impart enough flavor, and they are likely to be prematurely removed during the skimming process.

Bring 2½ cups of water, the whole cloves, and the cinnamon sticks to a boil (or nearly so).

Add the sweetener slowly, whisking constantly; the slower you add the sugar, honey, et al, the faster it will dilute and mix in.

Bring the mix up to a steady boil and attend it carefully. If you're using honey, then a white filmy substance will collect on the surface as it boils. Skim this off with a tablespoon and set aside for your compost bin. Continue to boil the syrup until the dough comes out of the oven.

While the dough and syrup are still hot, pour the syrup evenly onto the dough through a hand-held strainer. If you don't possess a strainer, then remove the whole spices and skim thoroughly beforehand. Obviously, do not attempt this if the sauce or the dough has cooled overmuch as this could cause a grand explosion of searing hot glass and sugar followed by a great wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Wait For It... Wait for it...6

Do not attempt to serve it up at this time; the dough and syrup are way too hot and each piece will quickly fall apart in a most unappealing fashion. Just put the thought from your mind. Yes, I know it looks and smells amazing, but we're still hours from lift-off.

Allow it all to cool long enough that it is easily handled without the use of kitchen gloves, usually about half an hour. If you want super-moist and sticky baklava, then cover the casserole dish with foil or plastic wrap. If you want more traditional baklava, then leave it uncovered. I waver back and forth on this one and have not yet decided which I like better. Either way, refrigerate until well chilled, usually at least six hours. My S.O.P. is to chill it overnight for a total of eight to twelve hours.

Run a knife though all of the existing cuts, slicing through the now-cooled syrup and dough. Using a large tablespoon, carefully remove one of the corner pieces being sure not to disturb the surrounding baklava any more than necessary and, as slowly as you can manage it, insert this into your mouth (i.e. just the freshly removed piece, not the rest of the pan). Then remove another corner piece with equal care and offer it to someone you love - you'll very likely find a volunteer standing behind you and sporting a pleading and/or impatient look.

The baklava may now be sliced into smaller pieces. Whether or not to take this step depends on your audience. For more formal dinners where the baklava is a featured dessert, I leave them at their current size. In this case, it works out best to leave the baklava in the dish until it's time to serve it as this produces yummy, drippy, goodness on a plate and is easy consumed with a fork.

For buffet-style event, I like to reduce the size of the pieces by half and serve in cupcake inserts. These stack nicely and allow the discriminating connoisseur to choose between eating directly from the package or from the plate.

  • 1. Think "Shrek", not "Revenge of the Nerds".
  • 2. Think "trees", not "religion".
  • 3. Think "Paula Dean, not "Martha Stewart".
  • 4. Think "Newton's Third Law", not "Aesop's Fables".
  • 5. Think "Harry Potter", not "William Shakespeare".
  • 6. Think "Be Patient", not "Barney Stinson".