phyllo, butter, nuts, and sugar: timeless ::::
Shuffling through my mother’s recipe box on occasion as a child, I often remember stopping at the Baklava recipe. It seemed so exotic with its thin, flaky phyllo dough and the hint of rosewater. The amount of butter also floored me: how could one bake with a pound of melted butter? After some teenage badgering, I finally convinced my mom to help me make the baklava. The special purchase of phyllo was the most difficult part. I’m not sure how she hunted down the pastry dough, but she found it somewhere in our somewhat provincial town.
My friend Janine, not an enthusiastic cook at the time, helped. I don’t remember how I coaxed her into baking with me, some Saturday morning. I was excited, Baklava! Finally! I remember she didn’t exactly understand what the fuss was about. All we were essentially doing was painting butter on a phyllo leaf, sprinkling ground walnuts and sugar on top, then repeating the process over and over again. Why was I all riled up about this? I remember holding each delicate, diaphenous phyllo leaf up, touching it like an ancient page in a weathered book, amazed at its translucency and thinness. She was kind of bored.
Since my first baklava experience, I’ve had numerous other desserts and pastries to compare it to. There is the impetuous pavlova and the girl-next-door apple cobbler. There is the demure but regal Napoleon pastry and American favorite chocolate-chip cookie. The rotund, loveable baklava, like a stereotypical Turkic grandmother, settles herself comfortably in my kitchen, sweetening and warming the air with the scent of sugar, butter, and roses. It still remains one of my favorite comfort desserts.
Some recipes put down half of the buttered phyllo, then all of the filling, then top with the remaining buttered phyllo leaves. When I have tried this, my baklava falls apart. I find with the meticulous buttering and filling sprinkles on each (or every other) phyllo leaf helps the pastry stay together better. I’m unsure if the method of sprinkling the walnut mixture throughout the phyllo leaves is authentic, but it’s seemed to work for me over the years as I have made this many times. I can imagine there is a yia yia somewhere, tut-tutting my technique. Oh, dolly-mou, she would say. Yia yia does it much better. Other recipes also use honey for the syrup, such as Greek versions rather than Syrian.
There are numerous other countries and ethnic groups who embrace baklava as dessert: Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey, Armenia, and Afghanistan are included. While the layers of nuts are dough are similar, there are many variations on how baklava is made. There are ‘dry’ versions (with less sugar syrup). A variety of nuts may be used such as the glowing green pistachio, the bitter walnut, or the sweet almond. Even the accessory flavors may vary from cinnamon to cloves to cardamom to a drop of rosewater.
This recipe I’ve posted is a Syrian version, walnuts and rosewater going hand-in-hand amongst the phyllo leaves, creating an impressive, but humble, dessert. I had many taste-testers this time around, to my benefit. The winning feedback was that despite the pool of sugar syrup in which my baklava seemed to swim, the pastry was not cloyingly sweet, as is often the complaint. For me, the rosewater and walnuts were the perfect odd couple: the delicate rosy flavor and scent goading the walnuts into enjoying an all-encompassing sugar bath.
- 1 pound frozen phyllo (thaw at least 5 hours before using)*
- 1 pound unsalted butter, melted
- 1 pound walnuts, ground
- 1½ cups sugar
- dash cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon rosewater
- For the Syrup:_
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups water
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- Special equipment: pastry brush
- Thaw phyllo leaves and cut to fit pan (see note below).
- Make the filling with the walnuts, sugar, cinnamon, and rosewater.
- Butter the pan, then place two phyllo leaves onto the bottom. Butter these. Sprinkle with thin layer of walnut mixture. Place another phyllo leaf down, butter, and sprinkle with walnut mixture again. Continue this pattern with 1 or 2 phyllo leaves, butter, walnuts until you end up with 2-3 phyllo leaves. Place remaining walnut mixture on top, and cover with remaining phyllo, buttering each layer.**
- Cut into 24 squares and bake at 325 degrees for 30-45 minutes (mine took 37 minutes), until lightly browned.
- Make syrup while pastry is baking. Boil syrup ingredients for up to 45 minutes, watching carefully to prevent browning or burning. This can happen fast, so be careful. I boiled mine for 35 minutes. Out of curiosity, I checked the temperature with a candy thermometer -- it was 210 degrees F.***
- When pastry is done baking, remove and immediately cover with syrup. Allow to cool completely (about 2 hours) and to allow the syrup to absorb into the pastry.****
- To store: Wrap baklava in foil to store in fridge for months.