22 March 2008

Baklava the Eas(ier) Way

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!

Baklava
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.

33 comments:

Helen said...

mmm I might have to steal the pour method for preparing filo when I make M'Hencha. I have long thought there had to be an easier way than brushing, brushing, brushing..

Ellen said...

yum...may have to give this a shot sometime. Thanks for the post.

Eat Me Outta Here said...

Oh I love baklava especially when it is the right balance of sweetness and nuts. You are right, you can't find good baklava here in the states. Usually it's made so sweet that it is not edible.

Bri said...

Yum, Mercedes! What a treat, homemade baklava. I've never made it, but I should. I just saw a recipe the other day in Fine Cooking, that suggested using a bit of cardamom. I think that would be a wonderful variation. Yours all look delish. I'm really curious about the macadamia and lime.

Beth said...

Mmmmmm. Thanks for such a great post, Mercedes! I've been wanting to try baklava, but without great instructions felt intimidated. Now I'm going to dive right in!

Robin said...

This looks delicious. Do you use salted or unsalted butter, though?

A. Grace said...

as a baklava lover who is frustrated by the lack of good baklava where I live yet intimidated by the thought of making my own, i appreciate your detailed recipe! i can't wait to try it! :)

adele said...

Mmm. Coffee-hazelnut baklava sounds fantastic.

Jen said...

Hi Mercedes,

I've never made baklava before, and before I embark on this adventure, I want to make sure that I understand your recipe. Am I supposed to brush butter between every layer of filo at the bottom of the pan (or every 3rd or 4th layer) or is the point that the drizzled butter on the top of the whole half pound suffices (which is what I suspect)? Thank you kindly....

Wild Thyme Kitchen said...

this post seriously just changed my life...Baklava every Saturday, from now on!BTW, I tried some version of the turnips you posted last week..they tasted pretty good! Check them out at wildthymekitchen.blogspot.com

woodenmask said...

From a tip on Chowhound a couple of years ago, I ordered some baklavah from Amal Bohsali in Beirut as a birthday present for my wife. A mind/life altering experience. This is an indication of how shallow I am - when the violence broke out in Lebanon last year, my first reaction was - "My baklavah!!!"

aforkfulofspaghetti said...

Right - that does it. I'm going to give baklava-making a try this year. Thanks for the great tips!

meeso said...

Ohhhh, the pictures are making me crave!!! I LOVE Baklava!

Mercedes said...

Jen- no, no brushing is required! That's the ease of the recipe. You make up for it by pouring on a boatload of butter :-)

Robin- I use unsalted butter. Actually, I usually use good quality samne, a kind of middle eastern clarified butter like ghee, which enables me to skip the clarifying step.

Helen- I noted that this didn't work as well for me with the rolled shape. To hedge your bets I'd suggest brushing at least three layers, then pouring butter over top. You definitely don't have to brush every layer though. Not as easy as I would like but still easier!

Hillary said...

I love baklava! Thanks for sharing a good recipe for some!

Suzanne said...

Although my baking is generally limited to box mix cakes (which I actually find really relaxing to make) I love reading your blog. You really should consider submitting your articles to Gourmet. (perhaps you already have?)

Anyway, as a bit of fan appreciation, I mentioned your site and tagged you on my blog today with one of those six word memoirs. Bon chance!

Kevin said...

That baklava looks really good! I like the sound of th quick way of making it. I just made my own baklava for the first time. The next time I make it I will have to try clarifying the butter first.

Jen said...

Mercedes: This isn't a comment for public consumption, just a quick note to thank you for your response to my question. I so enjoy your blog, and am happy to have found it. With that in mind, I was mortified MORTIFIED to see that I typed "filo" instead of "phyllo" in my posted comment. No matter that Larousse Gastronomique has an entry under "filo." Clearly I should not be drinking a glass of wine and typing! I promise that I cook (and spell!) better than my comment suggested :)

cookingallday said...

Ahh... Baklava. Nothing quite like it, is there. After having been residing in Istanbul a couple of years back and stopping once in Damascus scavenging the small shops for the best baklava in town, I must admit that these little sweet, crunchy and delicate jewels are high on my wish list when returning. I've tried a different recipe with good results but yours look even better!

Julie said...

Thank you for the great recipe and information. I'll be making some for myself and husband.

Oh, and I made your recipe for turnips and the family loved it! Even the ones who "don't like" turnips.

Cheryl said...

I just made baklava for the first time a few months ago and am now madly in love with it. It has such an amazing flavor and crunch. I love all the great ideas you gave and got on your creation.

KatyK said...

Oh my, that baklava sounds out of this world good! I'm sure I could eat a whole pan of baklava, as a matter of fact, I think I have before. Thanks for sharing this recipe. I enjoy your blog. n

musicalchef said...

Lol at woodenmask's comment on being worried about the baklava in Beirut!

What was your favorite baklava place in Amman? So far I've found that Anabtawi's ok, but I haven't tried too many other places yet.

Lachefderouge said...

wow... i never thought of other alternatives in flavoring a baklava... i really like the borbon and the hazelnut idea.

Judith said...

Ah ha! I never thought of pouring, or using clarified butter even, for baklava. I'll have to try this. I never had a big problem with the brushing with melted butter, but I am interested in trying a more "authentic" way. Last time I made it in Ireland, I must have cooked the syrup too long, because it hardened completely! Baklava candy!

Robin said...

I made this last night with almonds and cocoa nibs (about 1/3 cup of nibs per recipe), which gave it a lovely chocolate flavor without the problem of melting. In the syrup I used quite a bit of vanilla (omitting the lemon juice and cinnamon and cutting back on the rose water and orange flower water) and a dash of almond extract (I think amaretto would have been delicious but I was out). Anyway, the combination was WONDERFUL and I highly recommend it as a variation. Oh, and I halved the recipe and it worked perfectly. In fact, I was able to use less than half the box of phyllo because I could cut the sheets in half to fit a smaller pan (8x8 or 9-inch round).

molly said...

would regular indian ghee work, do you think?

Mercedes said...

Molly- yes, Indian ghee works beautifully. That's exactly what I use.

Justin said...

We just made three sheets of this for a party, and it was a hit! People's favorites were the pecan-bourbon and coffee-hazelnut (with raspberry-chocolate coffee) -- the walnut was great too.

Bbq Dude said...

Gonna have to make this soon. This looks crazy delicious. Rose and orange blossom water? Pure genius!

Stamatia said...

I thought I had read all of your posts when I found your blog, but perhaps I didn't because if I had, I would have been making baklava this way much sooner! Wow! My only question is...do you think this would work with savory phyllo-based dishes? Like if I made a spanakopita, could I pour the butter over at the end? If so, I'm going to be going through a lot more phyllo in the next little while...

Stamatia said...

Wow, if only I had known about this method sooner! My one question would be, do you think that this technique would work with savory phyllo-based dishes? Like, could I do this with a spanakopita and have it turn out? If so, I'll be making a lot more things with phyllo in the future! (thank God I found bottled ghee at my local import store!)

Aussie Kath said...

I made this the other night to take to an NFL party. It went down a treat with the crew. The easier method means I will make it again and pass on your recipe. I am an Aussie living in the US, have travelled to the middle east in the mid 90's and developed a love for baklava.Thanks for bringing back great memories!