Who doesn’t love baklava? If you’ve had real good baklava, not the overly-syruppy goopy stuff, not the piled-too-high nonsense, but proper baklava, then you know the addictive properties of which I speak. I lived in the Middle East long enough to overdose on the good stuff more than once, and I also know better than to chime in on which city or region has the best baklava (or baklawa in Arabic). The people in Beirut’s Taj al-Malouk would probably still recognize my face, I went there so often when studying there, and I can also tip my hat to Tripoli’s Rafaat Hallab, and Damascus’ Merjeh district, and many others in Aleppo, Gaizantep, Amman, and other cities and countries to numerous to mention.
Unfortunately, America is a baklava-bereft land, deprived of the sweet-sticky glories that are good baklava with the exception of only a handful of good bakeries. So for years, I’ve made my own baklava. It is, I’ll admit, a nerve-wracking process, you have all those sheets of phyllo, which must be individually brushed with butter, but you must keep the phyllo covered and work quickly or it will dry out, deftly trying to brush and stack them with expediancy. The baklava was always amazing, but also exhausting, until I learned there was an easier way...
In my favorite baklava shop in Damascus, a tiny place tucked in near the old train station, I peppered the vendor with questions and to my great surprise and delight, he invited me to the kitchen to see how their baklawa was made. The true generosity of Syrians never ceases to amaze me. There in the kicthen I watched as fresh phyllo dough was rolled out in fast deft strokes and layered in large round trays with the nut mixture, then the pans were (smack!) droppped on the ground where someone poured a whole boatload of clarified butter over the whole thing. Be still my arteries. The trays were baked, and then cool syrup was poured over them with a great sizzle as soon as they came out of the oven.
I learned a lot about baklava making that day, but I didn’t realize it could be applicable to my own kitchen. I continued my laborious brush-and-layer routine until I found a tip online that the faster layer-and-pour method could be used just as successfully at home. I’ll admit I was skeptical (after all, fresh phyllo is more absorbant than frozen), but I gave it a try. And you know what, my baklava before was pretty darn good, but this baklava? This baklava was swoon-worthy, I’ll fight you for the last piece good.
I say baklava the easier way because making baklava will never be easy. You have to use clarified butter or ghee, only butter in which the milk solids have been removed will give it that perfect crisp yet melting texture. For the syrup, I find honey much too cloying, but if you do want a touch of honey flavor, I suggest swapping it out for no more than 1/4 of the sugar syrup. All this makes baklava a multi-step process, but not a difficult or complicated one. And finally, don’t be afraid to play around with different nuts and different flavors for the syrup, while it’s not traditional I’ve made many of the versions listed below (most recently the pecan-bourbon baklava), and the effects are really very subtle twists that hug closely to the baklava oeuvre.
I should add one final caveat that the pouring method didn't work quite as well when I tried it on the rolled (cigar or finger shape) baklava, but I found that as long as I gave about every third or fourth layer a good brushing, then poured butter over top, it worked well. Still easier than before! The richness of baklava means it's a perfect special occaision food, whether Christmas, Easter, Eid, or whatever holiday or event you celebrate!
My game plan is usually to make the clarified butter and syrup one day, bake the baklava the follwing day, then let it rest overnight. Check out some ideas for unusual variations listed below. Makes a 9x13 inch pan, easily doubled.
1 lb package phyllo dough, defrosted
3 sticks (12 oz) butter or 1 1/4 cups ghee
2 1/2 cups nuts (walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, cashews)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon each rose and orange blossom water
1. Clarify the butter: melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Let it boil gently without stirring just until a layer of foam has risen to the surface and the white solids have sunk to the bottom (do not let the solids brown). Remove from the heat and skim off the foam as best you can. Then carefully pour the golden liquid into another container, leaving the solids behind (I normally strain it through a cheesecloth while doing this). Discard the solids. Skip this step if using ghee.
2. Make the syrup: Place the sugar, water, lemon, and blossom water in a pan and bring to a boil so that the sugar dissolves. Let boil 5-10 minutes until syruppy. Set aside to cool.
3. Preheat the oven to 350F. Place the nuts, sugar, and cinnamon in a food processor and grind until they form a coarse meal.
4. Pour 1/4 cup of the clarified butter in the bottom of your pan. Unroll the phyllo and place half of it in the bottom of the pan, trimming the edges to fit. Drizzle 1/2 cup of butter over the phyllo. Spread the nut mixture over top. Lay the remaining phyllo over the nuts (personally, I don’t like my top layer to be quite so thick so I use only about 2/3 of the remaining phyllo). Slowly drizzle the remaining butter over the pan so that phyllo appears evenly moistened. Using a very sharp knife or a razor-blade, score the top of the phyllo in a square or diamond pattern, then use a knife to cut all the way through the score marks to the bottom of the pan.
5. Place in the oven and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until deeply golden and crisp but not overly browned. Remove from the oven and immediately pour the cool syrup over the hot baklava. Set aside to cool and absorb completely. It is really best if you let it sit overnight, covered with foil, before serving.
Coffee-Hazelnut Baklava- use coffee in place of water in the syrup, use hazelnuts plus 2 tablespoons chocolate-coated espresso beans.
Pecan-Bourbon Baklava- use pecans, substitute 1/4 cup bourbon for water in the syrup.
Champagne-Rose Baklava- replace the water in the syrup with Champagne.
Macadamia-Lime Baklava- macadamia nuts, use the juice and zest of 1 lime and 1 tablespoon rum in the syrup.
Pear-Vanilla-Walnut Baklava- use pear nectar and a vanilla bean to make the syrup.