Baklava

Baklava overheadI first made baklava at home in Fort Worth, during my high school years, using a recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens Heritage Cookbook, one of the best volumes in my mother’s shelf of cookbooks.  This was probably the recipe that got me started in cooking, as I discovered that with a little time and effort, I could make something with my own hands that could impress and delight people.

Many years later, when I traveled to Florida to meet my future wife’s Greek-American family for the first time, I brought them a pan of my tried-and-true homemade baklava.  Yiayia Katty, the 87-year-old matriarch of the clan, was impressed.  “It’s very good,” she said in her old-country accent. “But… there’s just one more thing.”  She reminded me never to put hot syrup on hot baklava right out of the oven, which makes it soggy.  Instead, let the syrup cool before pouring it onto the hot baklava, or alternatively, pour hot syrup onto cool baklava. And ideally, let the syrup soak in for several hours before serving.

I’ve sampled baklava around the world, and the best I’ve tried is this recipe from America’s Test Kitchen. My Greek in-laws agree that this is πόλη νόστιμο.

A straight-sided metal baking pan works best for making baklava; the straight sides ensure that the pieces will have nicely shaped edges. If you use a nonstick pan, be sure not to use a metal utensil to cut it.  A glass baking dish also works well.  Make sure that the fillo pastry dough is fully thawed before use; leave it in the refrigerator overnight or on the countertop for 4-5 hours. When assembling, use the nicest, most intact fillo sheets for the bottom and top layers. Use sheets with tears or ones that are smaller than the size of the pan in the middle layers, where their imperfections will go unnoticed.

While butter is obligatory for this recipe, clarified butter is optional.  Clarifying the butter removes matter that can cause brown blotches on the prepared baklava — a matter of aesthetics rather than taste.

Baklava cutSyrup

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup water
1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 large strips lemon zest (use a vegetable peeler)
1 cinnamon stick
5 whole cloves
1/8 teaspoon salt

Nut Filling

8 ounces blanched, slivered almonds
4 ounces walnuts
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt

Pastry

1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), melted, and cooled slightly
1 pound fillo, thawed

1. For the syrup: Combine syrup ingredients in small saucepan and bring to full boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to ensure that sugar dissolves. Once it reaches the boiling point, remove from heat and allow to cool while you assemble and bake the baklava. When syrup is cool, discard spices and lemon zest. Cooled syrup can be refrigerated in airtight container up to 4 days.

2. For the nut filling: Pulse almonds in food processor until very finely chopped, and transfer to medium bowl. Pulse walnuts in food processor until very finely chopped, and toss together with almonds. Add cinnamon, cloves, sugar, and salt, and toss well to combine.

3. To assemble and bake: Brush melted butter onto the bottom and sides of a 13″ x 9″ baking pan. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300ºF. Unwrap and unfold fillo on large cutting board. Carefully smooth with hands to flatten. Cut sheets crosswise with chef’s knife, yielding two roughly evenly sized stacks of fillo. Cover as needed to prevent drying.

4. Place one fillo sheet in bottom of baking pan and brush with butter to coat. Repeat with 7 more fillo sheets, brushing each with butter.

5. Evenly distribute about 1 cup nuts over fillo. Cover nuts with fillo sheet, and drizzle with butter using the pastry brush. Repeat with 5 more fillo sheets, brushing each with butter. Repeat layering with additional 1 cup nuts, 6 sheets fillo, and remaining 1 cup nuts. Finish with 8-10 sheets fillo, using nicest and most intact sheets for uppermost layers and brushing each except final sheet with butter. Use palms of hands to compress layers, working from center outward to press out any air pockets. Spoon 4 tablespoons butter on top layer and brush to cover all surfaces. Use a serrated knife with a pointed tip to cut baklava in a gentle sawing motion. I prefer to begin by slicing the baklava into 20 squares, and then cutting each square in half diagonally to form 40 uniform triangle-shaped pieces.

6. Bake until golden and crisped, about 1½ hours, rotating baking pan halfway through baking. Immediately after removing baklava from oven, pour cooled syrup over cut lines until about 2 tablespoons remain. Drizzle remaining syrup over surface. Cool to room temperature on wire rack, about 3 hours. Baklava can be served at this point, but flavor and texture improve if left to stand covered at least 8 more hours. Baklava can be wrapped tightly and kept at room temperature up to 10 days.

Makes 40 pieces

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