Baklava is a daunting item to make – all those buttery layers to compose, getting the syrup just right, and not drowning your baklava in said syrup so that you have to eat it like soup. I have seen enough batches gone awry that I have stayed away from it for more than 30 years. But, given that my local store had phyllo dough on sale last week, I decided it was time to face my fears and whip out a batch.
I tried to make this once, back before I was even married. In fact, I seem to remember that I made it at my godmother’s home in San Jose, so that puts the date around 1979. It did not turn out well (aforementioned soupy version). My sister-in-law attempted to make some years ago when we were visiting the family in Colorado. While it actually looked very tasty, you could not have cut that baklava with a chain saw. The syrup had hardened the baklava to the point that we could not get the pieces out of the pan. We tried every variation of knife, including an old electric knife, to no avail. It is one of her few failures, and between the two experiences, I consider this a risky dish. But it couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
This time around I found baklava to be very simple to make; I was done preparing the pan in about 10 minutes, and that included grinding the nuts and melting the butter. Baking took another 40 minutes, during which time I made the syrup. No fancy ingredients, save the phyllo dough, which most people do not keep on hand. And the best part of it all was pouring the syrup over the baked baklava. Because you have a hot liquid and a hot pan, when the syrup meets the baklava they do a happy dance, bubbling and boiling. You can just envision that syrup making its way into every sheet of dough, coating every nut. I tried to capture it in a photo, but really, you need to witness this fascinating process.
So within an hour, you can have a gorgeous pan of sweet, sticky, nutty goodness. The trick is the right recipe.
I found quite a variety of recipes available on the web and in my cookbooks. The main variations were the nuts used, how fine to grind them, how to layer the baklava, and the syrup ingredients. I, personally, feel you can use most any kind of nut. Walnuts are the most traditional, but pecans, almonds, or a mixture of nuts are totally acceptable. I happen to have several pounds of beautiful shelled walnuts from my god-brother Scott, who grows them up north in Gerber, California, so that is what I used.
The size or grind of the nuts really depends upon your own preference. Some like them all ground fine, others chunky or chopped, and some like a mixture of both. I took the middle road this time, using my food processor to get the right consistency. The nuts were not too large, with some ground pretty fine, meaning they should stay intact within each piece of baklava once it is cut into pieces. (Larger pieces of nuts have a tendency to fall out as you eat.)
As for the layering, that is also a personal preference. You can use half your phyllo sheets then top with nuts, finishing with the remaining sheets. Or you can make multiple layers of nuts. I believe that multiple layers work well when the nuts are a slightly finer grind, so this is the route I took.
And finally, the syrup, which varied widely among recipes. Most used honey, but some only a sugar/water syrup. Some called for lemon, others called for vanilla. Some used butter, others not. It was a hard call to make, but I ended up choosing the recipe by Ree Drummond of Pioneer Woman. She has not failed me yet, although she had the less traditional syrup that included butter.
It is her base recipe below, which I have adjusted slightly and added comments to the steps to help you out. I hope you will give this Middle Eastern delicacy a try. It’s a great recipe for a potluck or big event, as baklava is very sweet and one is all you need.
Recipe after the jump
1 package phyllo dough
4 cups walnuts, chopped and/or ground
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1-1/2 sticks butter, melted
2 cups honey
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Remove phyllo dough package from freezer and place in the fridge for 24 hours to thaw. Remove from fridge 1 hour before using.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Thoroughly butter a rectangular 13” x 9” baking pan. Toss your nuts with the cinnamon and set aside. Open your phyllo dough and cut in half with a sharp knife to fit the pan. NOTE: When working with the phyllo dough, only remove the sheets you immediately need, keeping the other sheets covered in its original plastic wrap, then covered with a damp cloth.
Lay down one sheet of phyllo dough and brush with melted butter. Top with two more sheets, butter, two more sheets, butter, one more sheet. Make sure you are getting butter on all the edges. No need to skimp here. Sprinkle one-third of your nut mixture over the dough. Top with one sheet, butter, two sheets, butter. Sprinkle another third of the nuts on top. Repeat. Once all the nuts are used, you will want to put on one sheet, butter, two sheets, butter, two sheets, butter, two sheets. End with a last slather of butter. Cut a diagonal diamond pattern in the baklava using a very sharp knife. Make sure you cut all the way through to the bottom.
Bake for 40- 45 minutes, or until the baklava is very golden brown.
While the baklava is baking, combine 1/2 stick of butter, honey, water, sugar, and vanilla in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, then reduce the heat to low. Keep an eye on this so it does not boil over.
When you remove the baklava from the oven, drizzle half the saucepan evenly all over the top. Allow it to sit and absorb for a minute, then drizzle on a little more until you think it's thoroughly moistened. You will, most likely, have syrup remaining.
Allow the baklava to cool, uncovered, for several hours.
Yield: 2 dozen +/- depending on size