12 October 2007
A Baklava Worth Searching For
Custard-Filled Baklava (Baklava Muhalabiyya)
Ramadan ends on October 12th this year, depending on the sighting of the moon, and that means the start of the biggest Muslim holiday, Eid al-Fitr, a three day celebration marking the end of the month of fasting. Often referred to simply as Eid, the holiday, it is marked by celebrations in the streets, booming canons, fireworks, ritual lamb slaughterings, and lots and lots of food. All throughout Ramadan pastry shops put out their best pastries every afternoon, and beautiful breads, baklava, and candies are part of the evening fast-breaking. Last year I was living in Damascus and I was captivated by the array of sweets, so many things I had never seen or tasted before, and I made quick business of sampling many of the exquisite treats. By the time Eid rolled around I was in such a sugar-coma, I couldn’t bear the thought of another piece of pastry and my stomach turned at the thought of baklava. However, there was one exception, one pastry to which I had developed a drug-like addiction.
The problem was, I had no idea what the pastry was called. It was available at all the pastry shops, but whenever I asked the name, I always got a different name or description, and my friends were no more helpful. A problem I have often encountered in exploring Arab cuisine is the lack of clear names for dishes: because the food is familiar to locals, it is generally assumed everyone knows what it is and so they aren’t very good at describing it. The pastry in question was similar to baklava except it had a creamy white filling: that wasn’t very helpful either because traditionally most Ramadan desserts are white or have a cream-filling (white being the color of purity for the holy month).
It took me lots of asking, a dozen cookbooks, and a bit of detective work to figure out exactly what I was looking for. When I finally learned the name of this now-mythic pastry, the ingredients in the filling were quite a surprise to me. The name, baklava muhalabiyya, refers to a simple milk pudding (muhalabiyya) thickened with semolina or rice flour which makes up the smooth-textured filling. The milk pudding alone is a common dessert, and so baklava muhallabiyya is simply a combination of two classic desserts. Once I knew the name all of a sudden I was able to find plenty of recipes and variations for this dessert. It is very similar to the Greek dessert galaktoboureko, the exception being the Greek version adds eggs to the filling, which in my opinion makes the dessert a bit too rich.
I know the idea of making your own baklava may be a bit intimidating, and even in the Middle East this is a task usually left to professionals. However, this is one of the few types of baklava often made at home (sometimes it’s also made as triangular turnover shapes called shabiyyat), and it’s pretty user friendly. For best results I recommend using ghee or clarified butter. It is basically butter where the milk solids and water are removed through slow cooking, the nature of this butter yields the best texture to the phyllo layers, both melding together and crispy crunchy.
The result is the pastry I worked so hard to replicate: something so addictively good I almost never let myself make it. My friend Tasha calls it the best baklava she’s ever had, and while I won’t make such grand claims, don’t be surprised if you hear accolades. This year I learned from my experiences and I’ve saved plenty of room for baklava on Eid. Here’s wishing everyone a happy holiday and a sweet year to come!
Custard-Filled Baklava (Baklava Muhalabiyya)
If you haven’t worked with phyllo before, check out the tips below. Unlike other baklavas, this is best within 2-3 days of making, after which it may get a bit soggy, but I’ve never had it last that long anyway. You probably won’t use all the butter, but it’s always good to have extra rather than not enough.
20 sheets phyllo dough, defrosted if frozen
1 cup samne, ghee, or clarified butter*, melted
1/3 cup semolina or white cornmeal
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups milk
1/4 tsp each, cinnamon, nutmeg
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup water
2 tbl orange blossom water, rose water, or lemon juice
equipment: pastry brush
1. Make syrup: Place sugar, water, and flower water in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring so that the syrup dissolves. Let boil for a couple minutes, until it is a thick clear syrup, then set aside and let cool completely.
2. Make filling: Place milk, sugar, spices, and salt in a sauce pan. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring so that the sugar dissolves. Add the semolina in a slow stream, stirring to combine. Simmer the mixture over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thickened and the semolina is soft, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool completely before using.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Have your melted butter and pastry brush ready. Get two cloths or dish towels, moisten them, then wring them out as much as possible.
4. Unroll your phyllo on your work surface and cover it with plastic wrap then cover with the damp cloths. Brush a 9 inch baking dish all over with some of the melted butter. Brush one sheet of phyllo lightly with the butter, then place in the baking dish, letting any extra come up the sides. Repeat, brushing a phyllo sheet with butter and layering it in the baking dish, keeping the remaining phyllo covered, until you’ve used half the phyllo.
Pour the pudding filling into the dish and smooth the top. Continue brushing phyllo with butter, then layering it on top of the filling, allowing the edges of phyllo to hang over the sides of the pan. When you have layered all but 2 sheets of the phyllo, take all the pieces of phyllo that are hanging over the sides and fold them back into the pan, (some of the edges may be dry, you can snap them off and discard them), Brush the fold overs with butter. Brush the final 2 sheets of phyllo with butter and place them over the pan, tucking the edges down into the side of the pan. Brush the top with melted butter.
5. Score the top layer of the pie to form small squares, then run your knife through the scores again, cutting all the way through to the bottom the pan. Place in the oven and bake 30 minutes, until crisp and golden.
6. Remove from the oven and immediately pour the cool syrup slowly over the pie. Set aside to absorb for several hours before serving.
1. When working with phyllo, it’s important to work quickly to keep the dough from drying out. In order to do so, make sure you have all your ingredients and tools ready, and know what you are going to do. Read through the recipe several times to familiarize yourself with the process, this will help prevent you from constantly stopping to check the recipe, which will slow you down.
2. Never leave phyllo uncovered for more than a minute.
3. Brush each phyllo sheet lightly with butter, beginning at the corners and working inward. You want to brush it with enough butter to prevent dryness, but you don’t want to saturate it so that it’s heavy or soggy
4. Make sure your syrup is cooled before you use it. Cool syrup + hot phyllo = crispy baklava.
5. Don’t worry! It’s a more forgiving process than you think and even less-than-perfect attempts are bound to yield delicious results.
*Samne is an Arabic type of clarified butter similar to the Indian version ghee. You can purchase samne or ghee at most international markets. You can also make your own clarified butter, make your own ghee, or substitute regular melted butter.