baklava

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For the past two Christmases, my family friend, Lisa, and I have tied back our hair, rolled up our sleeves, and painted our faces like Braveheart to make all-consuming, dangerously divine baklava. To make baklava, you have to be committed. You have to be mentally tough. You have to be able to push aside the thought that you’ve just slathered an entire pound of clarified butter in between I-don’t-know-how-many sheets of phyllo dough. You have to be patient because after hours of bending over, neck aching, you have to wait until the next day to even try it.

I’m only kidding. Baklava is not your enemy, and if you decide to make this dessert, you’re not entering a war zone.

Baklava is an ancient dessert; it is said to have originated in the Ottoman Empire, but many cultures claim it as their own invention. Today, it is  a celebrated dessert in many Middle Eastern countries and Greece.  Baklava is made of layers upon layers of phyllo dough, topped with spiced nuts and a sweet honey syrup.

It has become tradition for Lisa and I to make baklava the week before Christmas. Our families spend Christmas Eve together, and baklava is the evening’s dessert.  Christmas Eve with Lisa’s family is simple and casual; we attend Christmas Eve Mass at the Newman Center, then return to Lisa’s house for chili, oyster stew, and baklava. I’d choose to spend Christmas Eve no other way: sitting at the kitchen table, eating a warm bowl of chili, finally indulging in a sweet piece of baklava, and enjoying the company of friends and family.

Baklava recipe from Cook’s Illustrated

For the pastry:

  • 1 pound phyllo dough

1. Unwrap phyllo dough and place between sheets of wax paper to prevent the dough from drying-out. (Do this step only when ready to assemble baklava.)

For the butter:

  • 3 sticks unsalted, clarified butter (I usually end up having to use more butter because during the clarifying process some “useable” butter is lost; I would recommend being equipped with 4 sticks.)

1. Melt butter in saucepan.

2. Once butter has melted, remove white film from the top and discard (a spoon works best).

3. Spoon the yellow, “useable” butter into a bowl. DO NOT use the white bits that are at the bottom of the saucepan. A few of the white bits may make it into the clarified butter bowl, but this is okay; just try to have as few as possible.

4. Reserve 4 Tablespoons of the clarified butter.

For the nuts:

  • 8 ounces slivered almonds
  • 4 ounces walnuts
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 Tablespoons white sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

1. Pulse almonds and walnuts in food processor until finely ground, or finely chop by hand. Place in bowl.

2. Mix spices, sugar, and salt into nuts and set aside, reserving roughly 1 Tablespoon in a separate bowl.

For the sugar syrup:

  • 1 1/4 cups white sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 3 strips lemon peel
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 1/8 tsp salt

1. Combine all ingredients in large saucepan.

2. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to make sure all of the sugar has dissolved.

3. Remove from heat. Allow to cool completely in a large bowl or glass measuring cup.

Assembling the baklava:

Beginning the assembly process...here we go!

 

 

First part:

  • Put one sheet of phyllo dough on the bottom of a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. Brush this piece of dough evenly with clarified butter.
  • Add 7 more sheets of phyllo dough (8 in total) on top of the first piece. Brush each piece with clarified butter before putting on the next sheet of dough. (Think phyllo, butter, phyllo, butter, etc.)
  • When layer 8 is finished, evenly spread 1 cup of the nut mixture on top.

Second part:

  • Place one sheet of phyllo dough on top of the nut mixture. Dot this piece of phyllo carefully with butter.
  • Add 5 more sheets of phyllo dough (6 in total), brushing each piece with clarified butter before adding the next sheet.
  • When layer 6 is finished, evenly spread 1 cup of the nut mixture on top.

Third part:

  • Repeat steps from second part.
  • Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees.

Fourth part:

  • Place one sheet of phyllo dough on top of the nut mixture. Dot this piece of phyllo carefully with butter.
  • Add 7-9 more sheets of phyllo dough (8-1o total), brushing each piece with clarified butter before adding the next sheet.
  • On the last layer, whether that be 8, 9, or 10, do not brush with butter. Instead, firmly press down on the dough, getting out all air pockets.
  • Pour the reserved 4 Tablespoons of butter on top and spread evenly.

To cut:

  • Using a short serrated knife, carefully cut the baklava into small, 1-inch or so pieces. You may cut the baklava vertically and horizontally (like you would slice brownies or bars), or you may cut the baklava diagonally into diamond-shaped pieces.

Lisa and I cut our baklavas diagonally.

Bake:

  • Bake the baklava for 90 minutes at 300 degrees.

Finish:

  • Evenly pour the cooled honey syrup over the baklava immediately after it comes out of the oven. Make sure to get the syrup in the cracks and on top. It should sizzle!
  • Sprinkle with reserved 1 Tablespoon of nut mixture for garnish.
  • Allow the baklava to cool completely before eating (about 3 hours or overnight).
  • Store covered at room temperature.

Baklava finished! Lisa's on the left, Abby's on the right.

Baklava is certainly an endeavor, but the crispy, nutty, sweet layers dripping with sticky syrup are well worth the effort.

Have a wonderful, safe, warm Christmas!

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