Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The exotic treat that is... Baklava


  I gotta admit, I was never a huge fan of Baklava (was being the key word here). I mean don't get me wrong, there are some amazing pastry shops in Greece that make a mean Baklava but when it came to desserts, I don't think I ever told myself "Hey, you know what I REALLY want right now? Some damn baklava". Yeah, no...that sentence was usually applied to cheesecake. MMmmmm, cheesecake.....

   Ok back to the topic at hand here! The history of baklava is a somewhat foggy one. Some say it's Greek, some say it's Turkish, some say it's Persian....who the hell really knows? What we do know for sure is that it's a popular dessert in many countries in much of central and southwest Asia as well as Greece and although its recipes changes from region to region, it is usually some variation of chopped nuts, filo dough, spices and syrup or honey.  Besides, screw it's history- what's important is that its here, it's easy to make and it's *SO* worth making it at home instead of buying it.

   What's so great about it is that it's one of those desserts that don't need exact measurements. There's no baking powders or sodas to deal with so it's very forgiving in the measurements department. I had never made baklava before from scratch and so my father decided to show me some moons ago. In a nutshell you literally line a pan with filo dough and butter and sprinkle a little of the nut mixture after each filo sheet.

   More specifically, you start out with about a pack of butter and you clarify it. Clarifying butter is easy, you get a pot and fill it about 1/4 of the way with water, set it to simmer. Then get a bowl that will rest comfortably on the top of the pot and put the butter in it. The heat from the simmering water will melt the butter. Make sure to not disturb the bowl, let the butter melt completely. In the process, you will see the water solids sinking to the bottom of the bowl. Once all the butter is melted, carefully take the bowl and slowly pour out the now clarified butter. Be careful not to incorporate any water solids into the new container where you are pouring your butter in. It is important that the filo is brushed with pure butter in order for it to become nice and crispy while baking.
Take your choice of nuts and ground them up well. Which nuts you want to use...well it's all about personal preference in this department. Some use almonds, some use walnuts, some use pistachios...some use a mixture of 2 or all 3! We used almonds because it's what we had at that moment. So, ground them up and mix in some cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar.

       Note that you can make your simple syrup ahead of time. It's best for the syrup to be cold when your baklava is ready and hot from the oven. It's a 2:1 sugar to water ratio and for a medium sized pan you'll probably need about 4 cups sugar to 2 cups water. Put you sugar water mix on medium high heat. You can also get a bit creative and add a piece or two of clove, a cinnamon stick and/or some lemon or orange zest ( and just a bit of lemon juice, helps prevent crystallization of the sugar). Let it simmer until its a light syrup consistency. You don't want it too thick because it'll be hard for the syrup to reach every little nook and cranny of the baklava. Once it's ready, set it aside and let it cool.
    Now the fun starts! Take the pan you have chosen to use and butter it generously with a pastry brush. Then start layering the filo dough in it, making sure to butter every single filo layer before adding the next one. Add a good 6-7 sheets of filo dough before you start spreading the nut mixture, you want a nice firm base for your pastry. Once you have those sheets in the pan and buttered, start lightly dispersing the nut mix between each filo layers, literally just enough to cover the filo. It might look like a small amount but trust me, it adds up when adding the mix on top of each filo layer. 

    Filo, butter, nuts, filo, butter nuts....and so it goes. Make sure, again that the last 6 or so layers of filo are just butter and filo. Now, with baklava, you MUST cut this pastry into pieces before putting it in the oven. If you attempt to cut it after it is baked, you will end up with a shattered mess. The baklava needs to me ready cut so when its ready from the oven, you can immediately pour the syrup in it. Now cutting the baklava beforehand is easy as long as you follow this one easy step. Once you're done layering and you baklava is ready, place it in the fridge for a good 10 minutes or so. This will harden the butter and chill the filo dough making it a whole lot easier to cut than if you tried cutting it at room temperature.  

   Once you've cut your baklava into the desirable pieces, place it in a preheated 175C/350F, no fan. You don't want too high of a heat for this because you don't want the top and round of the dessert to get too dark before the inside does. Your baklava will be baking for about an hour and a half but make sure to keep an eye on it after about 45-50 minutes. If at any point you notice the top getting golden brown before the inside is cooked, just cover it with some aluminum foil and continue to bake. Once your baklava is ready, take it out of the oven and let it rest for about 5 minutes and then proceed to adding the cooled syrup.  Evenly pour all over the pastry in a few doses. Once you're finished, let the baklava sit, I suggest you devour it the next day, if you can wait that long. These desserts are always best when they have cooled off completely and all the ingredients have had their time to really enhance each other.  \\

                                 Good luck and ENJOY!