Baklava

 

Baklava_2

Baklava. Baklavaaaaa. It’s a magic word for a magical dessert. Seemingly endless layers of crisp, buttery Phyllo dough soaked in sweet syrup, interspersed with spiced toasted nuts make for heaven in a baking dish.

Baklava_Filling_Closeup

Sadly, most baklava is born in a mass-produced kitchen rather than at home. I’d never had homemade baklava until I made it myself; most people just don’t bother. The storebought, or even restaurant-sourced, baklava I’ve had has rarely been perfectly crisp and buttery; most baklava I’ve ever had is soggy and soft. Yet it’s so good that even when soggy, baklava is highly sought after. Just imagine how good fresh, homemade baklava is compared to the soggy, too-sweet baklava that you encounter in the wild!

Baklava_1

I think the thought of making baklava intimidates most people. They look at the endless layers of crisp pastry and are stricken with images of slaving away for eons over the perfect Phyllo pastry, and as if that weren’t enough, they then become overwhelmed by thoughts of layering. The truth is – brace yourself! – baklava is incredibly easy to make! For starters, you don’t have to make your own Phyllo dough. Frozen Phyllo dough is more than acceptable here; even experienced pastry chefs admit that the effort it takes to make Phyllo pastry at home isn’t worth it, given that the homemade stuff is almost indistinguishable from the frozen variety.

Baklava_Pastry_Closeup

And it doesn’t have to take all year to layer baklava. While it took me an hour and forty minutes to assemble the baklava the first time I made it, it only took me 40 minutes the second time – from start to finish! All you’re doing is layering Phyllo sheets in a baking pan and slathering them with butter and nuts. The honey syrup practically makes itself. 😉

Baklava_3

People love the sharp sweetness of the honey syrup in baklava, but I think the honey syrup is too strong by itself, so I make a simple syrup to dilute the sharp flavour of the honey syrup somewhat. I have not seen anyone else do this, so maybe I’m weird. (Well…) The baklava soaks up all of this liquid, so there’s no need to worry that adding more syrup will make the baklava soggy. If you would prefer to leave the simple syrup out of the equation, simply omit it and leave out the step in which simple syrup is mixed into the honey syrup.

Baklava_4

Baklava

Yield: About 3 dozen pieces, depending on how large you cut the pieces

Ingredients:

For the honey syrup:
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup honey (preferably Tupelo honey, if you can find it)
1 cup sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract, optional (adds a nice warmth and complexity of flavour)
splash of lemon or lime juice (I’ve used both, and I consider them interchangeable here)

For the simple syrup:
1 cup water
1 cup sugar

For the layers:
1 lb. roasted, salted nuts (preferably half pistachios and half walnuts, but either all pistachios or all walnuts works here); if you can’t find salted nuts, add a teaspoon of salt to the spice mixture
2 TBS spices: I actually never measure this precisely. I start with 1 TBS ground cinnamon and add a tiny pinch of cardamom (cardamom is very strong); I then add pinches of nutmeg, ground ginger, and ground cloves. I combine all of this in a small bowl and smell the mixture to see if it’s what I am after. The way it smells directly reflects how it tastes, so adjust spices as needed. I may try adding a tiny bit of black pepper next time to add a slight bit of heat.
4 – 6 sticks unsalted butter, melted (start with 4 sticks and melt more butter as needed; I have needed as many as 7 sticks before)*
1 lb. Phyllo dough (the frozen kind in the frozen desserts aisle works perfectly), thawed according to package directions (you may need to trim sheets to fit the 9×13″ pan you’ll be using); you’ll be layering 40 individual sheets, so plan accordingly for ripped sheets and have extra Phyllo on hand
whole cloves for garnish, optional
melted chocolate for garnish, optional

Method:

For the honey syrup:
Combine all ingredients in medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat until simmering, stirring frequently. The sugar should dissolve completely. Remove from heat and let cool completely. NOTE: The honey syrup MUST be completely cooled before pouring over the baklava!

For the simple syrup:
Combine water and sugar in small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat until sugar is completely dissolved. You can also combine ingredients in a 4-cup glass liquid measure, and heat in microwave until boiling. Stir to ensure all sugar is dissolved. Let cool completely.

For the layers:

Working with Phyllo sheets: They can be maddening to work with. Be patient, don’t rush, and don’t worry if sheets tear. It won’t show in the final product at all if some of the sheets tear.

Preheat oven to 325°F. Place Phyllo sheets on waxed paper and keep covered at all times with a damp towel or damp paper towels so that the sheets don’t dry out. If you don’t keep them covered, they will dry to brittle papery layers and be unusable. Re-moisten cover as needed.

Process nuts in food processor until finely chopped, or until they reach desired size. Careful or you’ll wind up with nut butter!

Combine spices in small bowl. Mix thoroughly with nuts. Set aside.

Melt butter in a large bowl and brush the inside of a 9×13″ dish with butter. Place one Phyllo sheet in pan and brush with butter. It’s okay if sheets of Phyllo are slightly too large or too small; scrunch sheet if slightly too large. Layer 9 additional sheets on top of this one, brushing each sheet with butter before placing the next sheet on top. Brush top sheet with butter and sprinkle 1/5 of nut mixture (roughly 1/3 cup; this amount may be more or less, depending the volume of nuts) on top. Drizzle melted butter on top of nut mixture. This helps to get the next Phyllo sheet to stick to the nuts and not tear.

Layer 5 sheets on top of the nuts, brushing between each layer as before and brushing the top layer with butter.

Sprinkle with 1/3 cup nuts and drizzle nuts with butter.

Layer 5 more sheets, then 1/3 cup nuts; then 5 more sheets, then 1/3 cup nuts. Layer 10 sheets on top of this last layer of nuts, brushing each sheet with butter as before and drizzling each layer of nuts with butter as before. Brush top Phyllo layer with butter.

In case this is confusing, here is the order of the layers (courtesy of Sprinkle Bakes):
10 sheets, nuts
5 sheets, nuts
5 sheets, nuts
5 sheets, nuts
5 sheets, nuts
10 sheets

Using a very sharp knife, cut pastry into diamond shapes. To do this, first cut straight lines about 3/4″ apart across the pastry, and then turn and cut lines about 1″ apart diagonally across the pastry. If decorating with cloves, stud the center of each diamond with 1 clove. Cover dish with plastic wrap (don’t let it touch the surface of the baklava) and refrigerate about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, add 1/4 of the simple syrup (if using) to the honey syrup and stir. Taste and add more simple syrup if needed. I usually wind up adding about 70% of the simple syrup to the honey syrup. The Phyllo layers soak up all of the additional syrup.

Bake at 325°F for 40 minutes, or until the surface of the pastry is golden brown. IMMEDIATELY upon removing from oven, pour out any excess butter* (I remove a corner square to make this easier, and then replace the square after I’ve poured out the excess butter) and then pour the cooled honey syrup mixture over the hot pastry. Pouring cool syrup over hot pastry is the only way to ensure your baklava is crisp and not soggy!

Let baklava cool at room temperature, uncovered, for at least 6 hours! It takes a while for the syrup to soak in. If you start eating the baklava before the 6 hours are up, you will wind up with too much syrup and too little Phyllo – in other words, you’ll have baklava that’s a little too wet and sticky. I’ve seen this happen. Just be patient and let the magical syrup do its work. 🙂

Decorate the finished baklava with melted chocolate, or additional chopped nuts, or coconut. Or leave it plain! It’s extraordinary however you serve it.

Store at room temperature, covered lightly with a tea towel or loosely covered with aluminum foil or cling film, for up to 10 days. Do not refrigerate! This will make the baklava soggy.

*If you’re more economical with your butter usage, you may not need to pour out excess butter at all. I’ve tried to use less butter, but I can never get the layers brushed the way I want them without using a ton of butter. Surprisingly, the excess butter adds up to less than a stick when I pour it out – even when I used 7 sticks that one memorable time. 😉 This is a dessert that lives and dies with butter.

Source: Adapted from Sprinkle Bakes

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