It’s been a little bit different every time you’ve had it—whether it was served at a Lebanese restaurant, a kosher deli, your favorite Left Bank patisserie, or whenever your girlfriend’s Armenian grandmother or Greek sister-in-law brought some to Thanksgiving dinner. And just when you thought you’d recognize the sweet in any guise, one day you got off your cruise ship in Istanbul and went to a shop that served a chocolate-pistachio version…
One thing is certain: If anyone ever tries to proclaim a definitive baklava, the other squabbles of the Aegean and Mideast will pale in comparison.
Here is one recipe for baklava that is surprisingly light and even a little crispy. With no short-cuts beyond the purchase of the pastry leaves, it is simple enough for a novice to make.
The most important thing is to buy your filo (phyllo ,fila, yufka*, streudel) pastry sheets from a place that has a good turnover of the product. If you can buy a package soon after delivery,you’ll find that fresh, unfrozen leaves are easy to handle. But most American shops freeze their filo packages (whose contents are sealed in plastic). Even sealed, the dough eventually dries out and flakes, which makes it harder to handle. Try to purchase leaves that have not been frozen for ages. The dough is sold in long, one-pound cardboard boxes that contain two 8-oz packages of filo.
4 Ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
4 Tablespoons mild olive oil
8 Ounces filo dough (1/2 package) If purchased frozen, thaw first.
(About 20 paper-thin leaves, usually 9″ x 14″ each)
1 pound unsalted walnuts, almonds, or hazel-nuts (filberts).
Taste first for freshness!OK to leave skins on.
No need to blanch them.
3/4 Cup unseasoned bread crumbs, finely ground
(Commercial crumbs are fine or you can simply grind 3-4 slices of
dry, white toast).
1 1/2 Cups white granulated sugar
1 orange, at room temperature. You’ll need rind & juice.
2-3 dozen whole cloves
A baking dish 8-9″ x 13-14″ and at least 1 1/2″ deep
A pastry brush
A thin, clean cloth at least 10″ x 15″
A small, sharp knife
1) Add the butter and oil to a small saucepan and melt the butter over medium-low heat; keep on low heat until you have everything else ready.
2) Use a food processor to chop nuts in 3 or 4 batches, pulsing until the pieces are about 1/8 to 1/16th inch. Do not over-process; you want them to stay loose and dry. If making your own breadcrumbs, process them after chopping the nuts.
3) In a 1 1/2 quart bowl, stir the ground nuts and crumbs together.
4) Wet and wring out a clean dishcloth (you’ll drape this over the filo to keep it from drying out as you work).
5) On a large, clean work surface, open the pastry package. Keep the leaves stacked and covered by the plastic and the damp cloth each time you remove one.
6) Remove the butter-oil pan from the heat. Position the pan & pastry brush; they are part of your counter-top assembly-line.
Using the pastry brush, paint the inside of the baking dish sides and bottom with butter. Carefully lay one sheet of filo on the bottom of the dish. (Don’t worry if it crumples a bit at the edges.) Brush the sheet with butter. Repeat with 2 more sheets, brushing each with butter. Each time you remove a sheet of filo, cover the remaining stack with the damp cloth.
Next, evenly sprinkle 3 large spoonfuls of the nut-crumb mixture across the entire, buttered sheet. Place a fresh sheet atop and brush it with butter. Sprinkle more nuts. Repeat with a fresh sheet, buttering before sprinkling the nuts. When you are nearing the end of the dough leaves, you can use up the nuts and reserve 2-3 sheets (with only butter, no nuts) for the top. Spread the rest of the butter across the top.
Pre-heat the over to 350° F.
With the tip of a very sharp knife, score the top few layers (about 1/4 inch deep) into small lozenges (about 1 1/2 inches wide). Carefully pierce each lozenge with the tip of a clove; this will secure the top layers. (See photo)
When the oven is ready, place the pan, uncovered, on a rack in the middle. Bake for 15 minutes and then turn the pan around. Bake for another 15 minutes. Pastry will be a light golden color. Turn heat down to 300 F and bake for 15 minutes longer, watching to be sure it does not burn. When it is a deep golden tone, remove from the oven.
While the pastry bakes, make the syrup. (You can reuse the pan that held the butter; no need to wash first.)
Wash and dry the orange. With a fine grater, grate at least 1/2 the rind into a small saucepan; for a stronger flavor, use it all. Squeeze in the juice from the orange and add all the sugar. Add 1/4 cup of water. Over medium-low heat, melt and dissolve the sugar. Scrape down any crystals that form on the sides of the pan. Remove pan from heat when you have a clear, thick syrup—usually within 10 minutes. Carefully pour in another 1/4 cup of cool water and stir to incorporate. Set aside to cool further.
Remove the baklava from the oven. Allow pan to cool for 10 minutes. Using your sharp knife again, follow all the scored lines and cut all the way to the bottom of the dish. Spoon the cooled syrup along all the cuts and then drizzle evenly across the top until you have used it all. Cool pastry thoroughly (at least 2 hours) before serving.
Store any leftovers, loosely covered, at room temperature. Refrigeration can make it soggy
If you’d like to try your hand at different recipes using this Eastern Mediterranean dough, you’ll find many in the cookbooks we include in our reading lists. Whether you are planning to go to the Aegean or are someone who travels only from armchair to kitchen table, we encourage your to let a well-written cookbook open a window to our favorite part of the world.