Baklava; Worth the Adventure

12 Jan

I have become a little bit obsessed with this humble Mediterranean pastry.  There are many reasons to love baklava.  Most importantly, it’s freaking delicious.  This may be related to the fact that it contains enough butter to make even the sturdiest nutritionist break down and weep with desperation.  Second, the critical ingredient is a bit hard to come by and it’s procurement makes a great excuse for an adventure of the culinary variety.  Finally, while it is not an easy dish to make, everyone wants to be your friend once they taste it.

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Pastry
1 lb package fresh phyllo (or filo) dough.  Procuring this ingredient is the most adventurous part of the process.  The best places to look for it are bakeries or specialty groceries like the Mediterranean Imported Foods store in Cleveland’s enchanting West Side Market.  Fresh phyllo’s close cousin frozen phyllo is easier to find, but is much harder to work with.  If you can get your hands on the fresh stuff your efforts will be greatly rewarded.
1 lb unsalted butter, melted.  

Pastry Filling
1 cup Sugar
8 oz raw sliced unsalted almonds
4 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Glaze
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
dash of lemon juice

You will also need a pastry brush and a jelly roll pan for this recipe but don’t use your favorite nonstick pan.   The baklava needs to be cut before baking and this will leave dreadful and unsightly scars on your bakeware. I have an old beat-up pan that I use for baklava.

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When you make baklava you are stacking layers of the phyllo dough and brushing each new layer with a generous smear of butter.  A couple layers of filling will be sandwiched in between these layers.  Once this concoction has chilled you are going to cut it into squares, bake it, and finally drizzle it with a gooey glaze.  Phyllo dries out quickly so have everything ready to go before you unwrap it.

Melt the butter in the microwave or over low heat.  In a separate bowl mix together the sugar, almonds, and cinnamon for the filling.

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Unroll the Phyllo dough.  The phyllo is probably going to be bigger than your pan.  Don’t panic. Lay your pan in a corner on top of the phyllo roll and cut around the edges of the pan with a sharp knife.  This should give you four stacks of phyllo, one that is the size of your pan and three stacks of the leftover “scraps.”  Don’t get rid of these, you’re going to use them.

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Use the pastry brush to “paint” a layer of melted butter onto the bottom of the pan.  You are now going to carefully peel off one layer of the Phyllo from the stack of pan-sized squares and lay it smoothly across the bottom of the pan.  Yes, it will feel a bit like hanging wallpaper.  Grab your pastry brush and paint on another generous layer of butter on top of this sheet then place another layer of phyllo.  Continue layering sheets of butter and phyllo until you have used roughly one-third of the phyllo.

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Handy Tip:  You can use those scrap squares to piece together a layer of phyllo. As long as it isn’t the top layer of the baklava no one will know and you’ll get more bang for your phyllo buck.

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Once you have layered and buttered one-third of your phyllo into the pan spread half of the filling mixture onto the baklava.  Then layer another big sheet of phyllo on top of this mess and paint it with another layer of butter.  Continue layering phyllo and butter until you’ve used two-thirds of the phyllo, then sprinkle with the rest of the filling mixture. Top it off with the last of the phyllo and butter layers.

Cover the pan and let it chill for several hours, until the butter has solidified completely.  Baklava is better off when it is cut into bite-sized servings before baking.  While plain old squares will suffice, if you want to be extra-special-fancy-pants cut it into strips along the length of the pan, then cut equal sized strips at a forty-five degree angle.  This will give you cute little diamond shapes.

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(Confession: I suck at this part.)

You want to bake the baklava in a 350˚ oven for 30 minutes or until slightly brown.  However, this is the tricky part:  You want the glaze to be ready to drizzle on the baklava when it comes out of the oven, but the glaze needs to boil for 5 minutes before it will be ready.  I usually start the glaze when the baklava has been baking for 20 minutes.

In a small sauce pan mix the 2 cups sugar with 3/4 cups water and a squirt of lemon juice.  This may look like too much sugar and too little liquid but with the application of a little heat the sugar will dissolve.  Bring this concoction to a low boil, stirring constantly.  Let it boil for five minutes before drizzling over the baklava as it emerges from the oven.  Cover and let cool.

Arrange artfully and serve.  Do not let all of your new friends confuse baklava with a balaclava or the balalaika.

~Robin

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