Every year for Ramadan, I make baklava for my husband. I'm not Muslim, but he is since he was born in Palestine. I respect his opinions and beliefs, even if I don't share them. Anyway, he loves my baklava. He even told me that it's better than his mother's. And trust me, he's a total mama's boy, so that's a huge deal.
This year, I decided to share my secrets. Are you ready? I hope so, because here we go.
Oh, but first, a shitty side-note. My old laptop died recently. I'd been using that dinosaur for over six years. It had everything on it. Luckily, I use various clouds and I usually write my blogs in advance so that I don't have to start and finish one each and every week. I tend to have several in various stages of completion at any given time. That being said, photos on my blogs will be a little spotty again for a bit. My computer might be new, buy my phone is still a piece of crap. I can't get pics to upload to any of my clouds, some of which I've yet to attach to this computer anyway, because I don't write down passwords. Blyet. So, for the time being, I'm using older photos of my food when I can. Otherwise, not so many pics this summer. (Sad face)
Mise en place
You're going to need a way to chop nuts (food processor, mini-chopper, or chef's knife and cutting board.) You'll need a 13x9 glass baking dish, a mixing bowl, sauce pan, vegetable peeler, measuring spoons, mesh strainer, silicone pastry brush, glass measuring cup, rubber spatula, and a sharp paring knife. I only use silicone brushes because the nylon-fiber brushes are too impossible to clean well since things get wicked up into the base. But silicone brushes don't wick, so they always come clean.
- 12 oz. walnuts
- 4 oz. pistachios
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp non-iodized salt (like kosher salt, but grind it up to a fine powder)
- 8 oz. unsalted butter (two sticks, melted)
- 1 pound phyllo dough, thawed
- 1 cup sugar
- 16 oz. local honey
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 TBS fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1/8 tsp ground cloves
- 1/8 tsp ground cardamom
- 3 strips of lemon peel
The second set is the syrup, the first set is for the actual dessert. First thing you want to do is chop your nuts. Now, the last time I made this, I could not find baking pistachios anywhere. I went to at least half a dozen stores. All I could find were snacking pistachios. I got the lightly salted, shells removed, snack variety. Fearful of it being noticeably salty, I fully omitted the 1/4 tsp of salt from the filling. It tasted perfect. If you also run into this problem, now you have a solution. Or, if you don't want to grind your salt for even distribution, do this instead.
Once the nuts are chopped quite small, but not so small that they're starting to form a paste, mix in the ground cinnamon and salt. Coat the bottom and sides of your baking dish with a few brushes of melted butter. If you don't have the barrier of the butter, the dough will stick to the glass. And if you use cooking spray on the bottom instead of butter, I will come over to your house and throw out your baklava. Or maybe smack you in the face. Or maybe both. Ok, probably neither because I'll never know. But you'll regret tainting the taste if you perform such an abomination. You must also use real butter. DO NOT USE MARGARINE.
Now that the nuts are ready and the pan is coated with a thin layer of butter, unroll your first package of phyllo dough. It is very thin and fragile, so treat it delicately. It won't matter one fucking bit if the dough is torn, but it does make the process take longer. Gently separate one sheet of phyllo and place it evenly across the bottom of your dish. The corners will curl up just a bit, but that's perfectly fine.
If your pan seems to be off by more that a quarter inch on each side, consider trimming the stack of dough. If you do, be careful not to over-trim it. You don't want the edges burning because they're exposed or the filling falling out of the sides. If the edges are ugly after it's baked, you can always trim them after it's finished and it looks way better than if you try to bake it "with perfect edges." Also, the Pyrex dishes are usually slightly bigger at the top than they are at the bottom. Not trimming the dough will give you good coverage when you've reached the top layer.
After the first layer of dough is placed, you want to cover the rest of the stack so that it doesn't dry out. At first, you'll try to get away with not covering it. You'll be like, "No way, Janelle. I can do this fast enough." Trust me. You can't. If you don't cover the stack after each and every piece you take off, the edges of your phyllo will be dry and crumble to bits before you can get it in place. Plastic wrap covered by a damp paper towel works well for this. Notice I said damp, not wet. Your hands must be dry when you touch the dough, or it will become sticky. The weight of a slightly damp towel merely holds the plastic against the dough so that it can't dry out.
Ok. Next step is to repeat, over and over again. We brushed on the butter, put dough in dish, cover the stack of dough, and now we'll put more butter on again. The butter acts as a buffer between the dough layers so that they don't stick together. You must have every little inch of that dough coated in butter. You'll see some air bubbles trapped against the pan, but you don't have to worry about that. It won't hurt anything. When you've got the whole piece of dough buttered, add the second layer of phyllo. Cover your stack, butter it up, and do this again a total of ten times. You want ten layers of phyllo deep before you start to add the filling. If you lose count, it's ok if it ends up being eight or twelve. No one is going to count them. Go ahead and butter that last piece, too.
To go over that again, from bottom to top, it is: glass dish, butter, dough, butter, dough, butter, dough, butter, dough, butter, dough, butter, dough, butter, dough, butter, dough, butter, dough, butter, dough, butter. Now, try saying that like you're Homer Simpson and have a good laugh.
I use Athens brand phyllo dough. It's probably the only brand you've ever seen. I know I can't recall ever seeing a different brand, and I look for that shit because my husband's a tightwad when it comes to how much I spend on groceries. In a one pound package of Athens brand phyllo dough sheets, there are two rolls. Each one contains about 20 sheets. So, if you lose count, try to count what you have left. Looks like about ten? Cool. Let's move on to the filling.
Sprinkle an ever layer of nuts across the buttered dough. You'll have to eyeball it, but try to use about a third of the nut mixture. It will be more than a cup, so I like to use a metal measuring cup as a scoop.
This is the part where it gets tricky. I mean, you got to practice peeling the delicate layers of dough apart and gently brushing them with butter, but now you're going to have to do it on top of a rough surface. This is where you're going to get mad, but it's ok. No one will ever know that the dough has little holes in it. Drip and drizzle a few brushfuls of butter across the surface and spread it around. Do this with two more layers of phyllo, so that there are three between the layers of nuts. The second one will tear less, and the third probably won't tear at all. And you'll be the only one who knows because the layers hide all of your mistakes with this fragile pastry dough.
Repeat this twice more with the rest of the nuts. If you've misjudged your thirds and end up with four layers of nuts, that's ok, too. As long as you don't have only two layers, you're good. If you only have two layers of nuts, the dough will have trouble containing them when it's eaten, and they'll fall out. Once you've used all of the nut mixture, use the second package of dough to finish the pastry, brushing butter between every single layer.
To go over that again, we have: nuts, dough, butter, dough, butter, dough, butter, nuts, dough, butter, dough, butter, dough, butter, nuts, dough, butter, and repeat with the dough and butter until you're out of dough.
You'll probably still have some butter left. I usually do because I don't clarify it. I don't see the need for it and I feel that the milk solids give the dough a nice golden color. I dump whatever butter I have left over the top of the dough.
Before baking, it must be scored or it won't cook evenly. DO NOT cut it all the way through. You only want to cut down to the nut layers, not to the bottom of the pan. Carefully make your lines because once you cut, you can't uncut. I tend to do the three long horizontal cuts first, then the four vertical cuts, then the many diagonals. You must be precise or your pieces will be awkwardly uneven. The goal is to make lovely little triangles. See this older picture below of the first batch I ever made for my husband. Notice the long, awkward shape? I tried to make bigger pieces and paid the price for it with ugliness and slightly uneven cooking.
Bake the baklava in an oven preheated to 350. It should take about an hour, but ovens vary so start checking it after 45 minutes. When it's ready, it will be fragrant and golden brown.
While it's baking, we're going to start the syrup. Mix everything in the second group together in a sauce pan. To get the lemon peel, use a vegetable peeler to remove long strips from your washed lemon. Seriously, always wash your fruits and veggies. Don't be gross and poison your family. Don't press hard and make thick strips, either. You want them to be thin so that there is very little white on the underside. After you get a few strips of the peel, you can cut it open and juice it for your fresh lemon juice.
I use nearly a whole pound of honey. Damn it, I keep typing hiney. Squeeze what you can into the pan and leave the bottle upside down so you can use the last dribbles on something else later. Bring the contents of the sauce pan to a boil over medium heat. Let it boil rapidly for one minute before removing it from the heat. I mean, a full-on rolling boil. I'm talking so many freaking bubbles, you can't see the surface and it looks like it's doubled in volume. Yeah. THAT kind of boiling. I don't mess with candy thermometers when it comes to baklava, but you want some of that water you added to have a chance to evaporate so that it's a thickened syrup. You also don't want it so thickened that it turns goopy, so don't walk away and let it boil for too long. Now, the syrup is going to rest for a while.
When the baklava is golden brown and smells amazing, you want to let it cool on a rack for at least twenty to thirty minutes. What you should absolutely NEVER EVER do is pour the boiling hot syrup over the fresh-from-the-oven baklava. It will hiss, bubble, and steam. It will also splash little drops of hot sugar syrup all over the place. Just be patient, and let them both cool off for a bit, but not cool completely.
Before you pour the syrup, you have to remove the cinnamon sticks and the lemon peel. This can be done with a mesh strainer over a Pyrex measuring cup, or you can fish it out with a fork. I prefer the latter these days. Pour the syrup evenly over the top, making sure you coat every piece. The rest will seep down into your scores and soak into the bottom layers.
Now, I need you to be patient. You can't eat any for 24 hours. I'm not joking. The syrup needs time to soak in or it will drip all over the place while you have crispy, dryness in the center of your pieces. The flavors also need time to meld. Do not refrigerate it. There is enough sugar to act as a preservative. There's also enough sugar to make it hygroscopic. That means that it draws water to it, and if you put it in the fridge, it will become soggy instead of crisp. Once the bottom of the dish is cool to the touch, cover it with foil. Don't cover it while it is still warm, or you'll trap moisture that needs to escape to keep it crispy.
Once it has been out of the oven for a whole day, you can finish cutting it. Just deepen the scores until all of the phyllo is cut through. Fish out a corner piece first. Eat it! Love it! Make your family pay you for a piece because it took you hours to make it!
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