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
for filling:
1/3 cup semolina or white cornmeal
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups milk
1/4 tsp each, cinnamon, nutmeg
pinch salt
for syrup
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.

Helpful Tips:
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.


Figs, Bay, Wine said...

Happy Eid to you too Mercedes! This baklava looks exquisite, and I really hope to try them soon. There's an unbelievable Syrian pastry shop on Atlantic in Brooklyn, and the guy's so lovely - I wonder if he have this....I should make yours and bring him some as a gift.

Figs, Bay, Wine said...

PS. Quick question: Do you see these at Eid al-Adha too?

Anonymous said...

Excuse my language but holy crap those baklava look amazing. I've never seen any that are custard-filled! Thanks for the pictures!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the cultural lesson, Mercedes! It's such a treat to get the background on a delicious looking treat. Sounds like quite a journey to discover the recipe. I SO enjoy your stories. Thanks for sharing. I'll have to try it out.

Nabeela said...

I cannot be trusted around baklava...any kind!! I finished a 2 pound bag of Baklava all by myself in a week this Ramadan....and still have room for more in my tummy ;)

Unknown said...

The Greek name for this delicious stuff is galaktoboureko ('milk pastry'). "Baklava" in Greece is always with a nut filling inside. That's the difference.

html test said...

Happy Eid Mercedes! For a while I was thinking you weren't posting because your blog isn't updating on bloglines (did anyone tell you?) but I'm glad to see that you're posting delicious recipes as ever.

Mercedes said...

Hi Amanda- oh yes, Damascus Bread and Pastry, they're wonderful right? I often stop by on my way to Sahadis. You'd probably see these on eid al-adha, simply because they're a special occasion pastry, but they're less associated with the holiday than with Ramadan. I'm trying to think of any pastries specifically associated with eid al-adha, other than the usual baklava and mamoul...

Hillary- ha, thanks!

Bri- what a lovely compliment, thank you! Yes, it was rather difficult figuring out the recipe!

Nabeela- oh me too, the stuff is soo addictive, espcially the really good stuff!

Kim- I referenced galktoboureko in the post, and noted the difference. The greek term, meaning "milk pie," actually comes from the turkish term borek, and the pastry can also be found in turkish cuisine.

Hilda- eid mubarak! Ah, bloglines is driving me nuts, I thought I fixed it, but please let me know if it continues not to update, argh.

saint said...

Hi Mercedes,
You keep coming up with great posts.
I have posted a comment back on your September 16, 2007 and I hoped to get a word from you.
I would like to add to that comment that I would love to have my mother who lives in Syria to prepare to you the dish I mentioned. It gives me great pleasure.

The Chic-agoans said...

Mercedes kel saneh w inti salmeh! Eid mubarak! Lovely baalaweh you've made, I'm going to get my mom to make your recipe since I'm hopeless with anything pastry-related. Muhalabeyyeh by itself with some pistachios and a drizzle of honey is amazing. Speaking of other sweets that are made both at Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha, didn't they make ka'ak il Eid (ma'amool) in Syria? A semolina, samneh and water (cakey dough) stuffed with pitted dates, crushed walnuts and cinnamon, or crushed pistachio. That is our Eid staple here in Jordan and Palestine. Also, methinks you should put up a recipe for Ataayef, I'm sure they're made in Syria. No family goes without them after breaking fast in Jordan and Palestine. A pancake like batter cooked on one side till dry, and then stuffed with either sweet ricotta or crushed walnut, sugar and cinnamon, stuffed and then the sides are pinched together to make a crescent shape, then dipped in sugar syrup. Easiest and most delicious Ramadan sweet ever!

Mercedes said...

Hi Saint- thanks for the comment, I looked back and I didn't post anything on Spetember 17, and I couldn't find your comment, so maybe you could ask your question again?

Hi Chicagoans-
wa kul aam wa intom bi kheir!
Thank you for the compliment, I do think this pastry is more user-friendly than others, so maybe you or your mum will give it a try, and yes, muhalabiya is lovely on its own.
I hope you'll see I did note that the usual baklava or mamoul are available on eid al-adha (and I should note also for christian easter and other religions' holidays). I was wondering if there were any specific pastries associated with eid al-adha, as opposed to those that are just general celbratory pastries??
I am very familiar with 'atayef, but I'm afraid they aren't my favorite dessert. I'll admit I don't like kunafe either, so I doubt I'd want to make them (no offense, I hope).

urbanite jewelry said...

amazing! i'm absolutely excited to make it. oh, and i have to mention, i made your hummus recipe today and it turned out mumtaz. It turned out exactly like the hummus at this amazing restaurant we visited frequently in Morocco. It was owned by a Syrian man who made the best hummus ever. Jameelah! Shukran, habibty!

Mercedes said...

Ya habibatee fee al-maghreb-
I'm so glad you enjoyed the hummus, that is quite the compliment, hummus is indeed good stuff! I hope you'll get a chance to enjoy the baklava as well! Shukran jazeelan!

Mallow said...

I have a Bosnian friend that has shared something like that with me and it was heavenly! I may have to try this!

saint said...

Hi Mercedes,
Sorry for the error, my first comment was for the post on September 16, 2007.

Glenna said...

Yum! this looks exactly like something both I and my husband would love! Thanks for your hard work to get to the recipe.

Anonymous said...

Looks great! Here in Jordan I think I'll just leave it to the professionals, but I bookmarked it so I could make it when i get to the States. Uh! I got so tired of atayif! But then we shameless foreigners were using them as pancakes for suhoor. And my husband reported that his friends (also foreigners, and guys) were using them as a substitute for flatbread at a party!
I love the mamoul, though. Eid Mubarak!

amber {daisy chain} said...

Yes!! Baklava is hands down my most favorite desert. I'll try this recipe , how exciting, something new!
love the blog!

Dori said...

This sounds really good...I love baklava but have never had anything like this!

Anonymous said...

Belated Happy Eid, Mercedes! Thank you so much for this recipe - I made it for my son's caregiver for Eid al-Adha, and she was truly touched and amazed that I had even heard of this recipe (as I am not Muslim though my mother was) never mind knew how to make it from scratch! Big thanks for the tip about cool syrup and hot baklava - it truly made the dish!

Anonymous said...

Made some Baklava Muhalabiyya and it came out lovely and very tasty. Will make again and on special occasions. Thanks for a good recipe. My family really liked the baklava.

Fahima Gamza, South Africa

Anonymous said...

Hi, just randomly fell on this post through some browsing TasteSpotting. I just wanted to say that there are two types of Greek galaktoboureko. One is made with semolina and eggs and the other is made with farina and no eggs. I always make the farina no egg version from a recipe I got from my mother-in-law. I've never actually tried the eggy version.

Laila said...

Jus a quick note ... i enjoyed surfing through your site .. its very informative and the recipes are really delicious .. but this recipe isnt called baklava muhalabiya ... its known as Warbat ... and usually made in a triangular shape ... the baklava is only made with nuts (any type really) ... but when phyllo is stuffed with cream (muhalabiyah) its called warbat ... hope this will make it easier for you to find :-) ... take care

Laila .. http://lailablogs.com/

Anonymous said...

Hi there! I came across your blog when I was searching for Sobiyet recipes, how lucky am I?! I followed your recipe and made a few changes to make it my own. It is delicious and I'm enjoying your blog. If you'd like to see what I did with your recipe, here's the link http://wp.me/pFzw3-DJ
Thanks again!

UmmBinat said...

Salam I want to make this and was wondering is the semolina called for regular durum semolina? What did you use? I bought both durum semolina and Cedar brand semolina #2 which one should I use please?

UmmBinat said...

Well I got no response in the time I had to make this so I used Cedar brand semolina #2 which is whiter in colour than durum semolina. The custard cooked very thick with it. I think too thick considering it says pour and there is no way it would pour. I broke the "custard" into pieces with my hands and spread it like that over top of the phyllo from a night of it sitting covered with plastic wrap touching it in the refrigerator. I used homogenized milk to be creamier, a little allspice instead of nutmeg as we do not consume intoxicants, sea salt, and orange blossom water. I felt a need to simmer the syrup more which took a lot longer than stated. I can not taste it myself since I am gluten free yet my husband did and to him I think it was a pretty normal tasting Arab pastry as even upon asking he didn't comment much. I doubled the filling and used approx 4 more sheets phyllo in a 9X13 pan, there was not much fold over. Thanks for this different phyllo recipe.

Anonymous said...

wonderful pictures thank you so much
will try this recipe this weekend looks yummy

jess said...

THIS IS WONDERFUL. I have been looking for the name of these forever! I am trying this recipe this weekend.

Debbie said...

This looks amazing! I have been dabbling with phyllo dough and look forward to making this recipe!

Unknown said...

A childhood girlfriend of mine was Greek and her mom always had some on hand for me. :) Wow....I miss that!

Dominick said...

I just fall in love with this beautiful dessert. Thank you, author, for your nice work. And believe me these baklava cookies is too good to see also I hope the of this will be amazing. Right now most of the people want to buy baklava online because it is now very easy and main thing this online shop always try to maintain their quality.