Holiday Baklava December 23, 2008Posted by Toy Lady in Cooking, Food, Home, random stuff.
I’ve pretty much avoided the whole “holiday baking/cooking/decorating/ going crazy” thing for the last few years. I mean, we’re all adults here (well, except the puppster, of course, but he doesn’t care), and, really, is anyone even going to notice – or care – if you knock yourself out decorating and all that?
Be honest, now. Not really.
That being said, there is one holiday tradition I’ve upheld since, well, since shortly after Surly Boy and I moved to Rochester – the tradition of the baklava.
First thing, though, is the usual ethnicity disclaimer: I am Swedish. I’m not Greek (or Turkish) (sorry about using both of those in the same sentence), and I do not have a Greek grandmother or mother-in-law stashed away to teach me how to properly make baklava. My version, therefor, is, of necessity, an interpretation of any traditional family recipe or method you, or your grandmother, may be familiar with.
There, all good, now?
My friend knew the owners, and I was able to wheedle the baklava recipe out of the chef. And I use the term “recipe” very loosely.
It’s written in the margin of a December, 1998, Freetime magazine:
6 c. walnuts 2 c. sugar 2 Tbsp. cinnamon —————————– Honey + H2O lemon c. sugar 3-4 cloves cinnamon stick —————————– simmer Brush butter Cut before baking
And that’s it. The end.
There’s got to be a little more to it than that, doesn’t there? Well, yes and no.
Here’s the thing. Baklava isn’t complicated; it’s actually very simple. But it’s tedious as all hell.
But the combination of buttery pastry and sweet, rich nutty filling is so worth it. All the better to impress people with, my dear!
Here’s the secret. Baklava needs to be made ahead of time. Like a month ahead. Give it time to just sit and soak up the honey-sweet buttery goodness, and you’ll have a pastry that will be the hit of any cookie exchange that you manage to crash.
So here’s what you need to do to make a 9×13-inch pan of baklava:
Start with your walnuts (or pistachios, but walnuts are cheaper, plus they’re already shelled, and really, once they’re swimming in butter and honey, who really cares?), about 6 cups worth, and chop them coarsely. You don’t want dust, but you don’t want them to be whole nuts, either. Coarse chop. Oh, and you’ll want, um about 6 cups.
Dump the coarsely chopped nuts into a large-ish mixing bowl, along with a couple of cups of sugar and a couple of Tablespoons of ground cinnamon.
Meanwhile, melt a couple of sticks of butter (not margarine, not shortening – BUTTER). You can use a saucepan or the microwave – whatever’s easier for you. I usually start with a saucepan, and, if I need more, I can just add it and re-melt.
Meanwhile, assemble your sauce ingredients. A couple of cups of honey (2 cups) a little (about ½ cup) of water, ½ cup of sugar (because just straight honey isn’t quite sweet enough, oh no!) a couple of cloves, a cinnamon stick, and a lemon. You’ll want to zest the lemon (I just peel the zest off with a potato peeler) then squeeze the juice into the sauce.
And it will look like this when you put it on to simmer:
Once your sauce comes up to a boil, turn it down to low and let it simmer gently while you assemble the rest of the dish.
Phyllo. Have you ever worked with phyllo? It’s a pastry sheet, rolled, literally, paper-thin. And it’s kind of delicate, though not too bad if you handle it properly.
Proper handling of phyllo is actually pretty simple. Just don’t let it dry out, that’s all. If it dries out, it will crumble and become pretty much unmanageable. I open the package it comes in, lay the packaging flat, then lay out the pastry sheets on top of it, then a sheet of plastic wrap and a damp tea towel on top. That does the trick. See, simple.
Oh, before I forget. Depending on the brand of phyllo, you may need to cut the sheets in half – you want the sheets of pastry you’re working with to be about the size of your 9×13 -inch pan. Did I mention this stuff is paper-thin? Just use scissors to cut in half, if necessary. Seriously.
So let’s get started. We’ve got our gear all laid out – the phyllo, the pan (I use a glass pan – this stuff is going to be sitting in the pan for the better part of a month, at least, and I don’t know, I just don’t like the idea of leaving it in metal that long), the melted butter, the nuts (not pictured, but they’re there) and a tall glass of ice water. This is thirsty work!
First, I brush the empty baking pan with butter.
Then – and pay close attention here, because you should be able to see a theme develop – two sheets of phyllo, brush with butter.
Two more sheets of pastry, brush with butter.
Two more sheets, brush with butter. (Basically, you’ll have a total of 6 sheets of pastry, and brush every other sheet with butter.)
Two more sheets of pastry, brush with butter, then press down, tucking the pastry edges into the sides of the pan – more pastry, butter, pastry, butter – six layers of pastry, just like before.
More pastry and butter. . . you can take it from here, right? Keep layering until you run out of either the pastry or the nuts - it should (hopefully) come just about even, with 4-6 sheets of pastry left over – just continue layering the pastry with butter on top, with a final brushing of butter over the top.
Meanwhile, your honey-syrup-sauce has simmered long enough – you can shut that off now.
What we need to be sure to do now is pre-cut the pastry. This is important because it’s uncooked – still soft. You won’t be able to cut it once it’s baked without crumbling the top layers, and that’s just not attractive. Baklava is traditionally cut into diamond shapes, so that’s what I do. After all, it’s tradition. That, and it leaves wee little triangles along the ends for sampling. . .
Bake at 325° for about half an hour. Lower the oven to 300° and continue baking for another 45 minute to 1 hour. The pastry will be nicely golden.
Strain the syrup – I strain it right into a glass 2-cup measure – the pour it over the pre-cut, golden brown and delicious baked baklava.
Be sure to pour slowly – you want the syrup to ultimately soak into the pastry. I try to pour along the cuts – it kind of gives it a head start to “inside” the baklava. It’s going to pool in the bottom – don’t worry about that. It’ll get soaked in eventually.
Now for the secret part. Once your pan has cooled sufficiently, cover it tightly with plastic wrap, shove it on a high shelf somewhere, and forget about it.
Just walk away.
You’ll thank me later.
We traditionally make baklava for Christmas on Thanksgiving weekend.
Seriously. We let it sit, covered, on the very top of the kitchen cupboard, for a month. There’s really nothing in baklava that can’t be kept at room temperature, and the honey acts as a preservative anyway.
It’s OK, really.
After a month (or a couple of weeks) (or even a few days) of marinating in the ridiculously sweet honey-sugar syrup, this pastry is, honestly, one of the most divine holiday treats you’ll ever make. And, because it’s so rich, a little bit goes a long way, which means you can please an awful lot of people with a single pan!