Crisp, delicate phyllo pastry has been embraced by Western bakers for its versatility, but it's valued most in its Levantine homeland. In a swath of territory including Turkey, Greece and the Middle East, the paper-thin sheets are used in several of the most famous sweet and savory dishes. Baklava is one of the best-known, a rich and stunningly sweet confection best savored in very small portions. Although its construction requires some attention to detail, it is easy enough for even inexperienced bakers.
The Phyllo Primer
Phyllo is usually sold frozen in oblong boxes of 20 to 24 sheets per pound. Thaw them overnight in your refrigerator because, at room temperature, they'll stick and tear when you try to separate them. The delicate leaves of pastry dry quickly, so keeping the stack covered as you work is crucial. One common method suggests covering the pastry with a dry kitchen towel, then placing a dampened one over that. You might also cover the stack with a layer of plastic wrap, with a towel on top to hold it down. Either method works to keep the pastry moist and supple as you work.
Begin by preparing your nuts. Walnuts and pistachios are the most canonical, though almonds are also used throughout the Middle East. Pulse them to a coarse meal in your food processor with a small quantity of sugar, then set them aside. You'll need roughly a pound to fill a 9- by 13-inch baking pan. Brush the pan with melted butter, then place a layer of phyllo on the bottom. Repeat the process until you have used half your box of pastry -- 10 to 12 layers -- covering the leaves between each use. The phyllo will overlap your pan slightly, so use scissors or a sharp life to trim it to fit. Spread the nuts over your base of dough, and then cover the top with the remainder of your phyllo in the same fashion.
At this point, you'll need to prepare your syrup. It's a heavy syrup, calling for roughly 3 cups of sugar -- or sugar and honey, mixed -- to half that volume of water. Boil the syrup until it's thick enough to coat a spoon, or until it reaches 220
degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer. You can either make up the syrup in advance and chill it, pouring cold syrup over the hot baklava when it comes out of the oven; or make it up after baking and pour the hot syrup over the cooled baklava. Both techniques are equally traditional, but you need to decide in advance which method you plan to use.
The Finished Pastry
Preheat your oven to 350 F. While it's heating, use a sharp knife to cut the pastry into diamond shapes of approximately 1 1/2 inches' width. Bake the baklava for 30 to 45 minutes until it's deeply golden, turning it midway if you note that it's baking unevenly. Remove it from the oven to a trivet or rack, and carefully re-cut the diamond shapes with your knife. If you're using chilled syrup, pour it evenly over the hot baklava. Otherwise, let the baklava cool to room temperature and pour the hot syrup over it. Either way it should cool to room temperature, or preferably rest overnight, before serving.
There are almost as many variations on baklava as there are families making it, so you'll see a wide range of recipes. Greek versions often alternate layers of nuts and pastry, using two boxes of phyllo rather than one. The nuts can be flavored with cinnamon, cloves, allspice or cardamom, at your discretion. Arabs and Greeks often perfume the syrup with orange-blossom water, while Iranians might opt for rose water. There is no right or wrong, so experiment until you find a combination you especially like.
- A New Book of Middle Eastern Food; Claudia Roden
- Epicurious: Middle Eastern Nut-Filled Multilayered Pastry (Baklava)
- Fine Cooking: Classic Baklava
- Photo Credit olgakr/iStock/Getty Images
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