I do not love overly sweet things. I will scrape off most of the frosting on my slices of cake and I don’t usually care for sugary candy. Chocolate is exempt, of course, and I will readily eat anything with chocolate (unless it’s frosting). And I also like my coffee creamy and with extra sugar; I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I can appreciate it black but I will forgo the sugar before the milk. Yet, for all that sugar makes my teeth ache, I love, with an unhealthy passion, baklava. In my mind, it is somehow different from other desserts.
Maybe it’s the nuts and their crunchy-then-smooth texture in your mouth. Or the phyllo dough with its ability to be airy and light yet crisp at the same time. Or the honey, scented with cinnamon and orange to balance the natural saltiness of the walnuts and almonds. Or maybe it’s all of these perfect components layered together into an even more perfect whole.
This recipe is surprisingly easy, though perhaps a bit laborious. The ingredients are straightforward but the assembly takes some time. If you’ve never seen phyllo dough before, imagine something along the lines of tissue paper, delicate and almost transparent. Each layer, and I mean each individual sheet of phyllo dough, is hand-laid into the pan and brushed with clarified butter. The nice thing, though, is if the dough tears, you can’t tell because it is all kept together by the heavenly syrup. I admit, the hardest part of this recipe is letting the baklava sit overnight undisturbed and uneaten!
Baklava, from Alton Brown
For the filling:
1 (5-inch piece) cinnamon stick, broken into 2 to 3 pieces or 2 teaspoons ground
15 to 20 whole allspice berries
6 ounces blanched almonds
6 ounces raw or roasted walnuts
6 ounces raw or roasted pistachio
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon rose water
1 pound phyllo dough, thawed
8 ounces clarified unsalted butter, melted
For the syrup:
1 1/4 cups honey
1 1/4 cups water
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 (2-inch) piece fresh orange peel
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the cinnamon stick and whole allspice into a spice grinder and grind.
2. Place the almonds, walnuts, pistachios, sugar and freshly ground spices into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped, but not pasty or powdery, approximately 15 quick pulses. Set aside. Combine the water and rose water in a small spritz bottle and set aside.
3. Trim the sheets of phyllo to fit the bottom of a 13 by 9 by 2-inch metal pan. Brush the bottom and sides of the pan with butter; lay down a sheet of phyllo and brush with butter. Repeat this step 9 more times for a total of 10 sheets of phyllo. Top with 1/3 of the nut mixture and spread thinly. Spritz thoroughly with the rose water. Layer 6 more sheets of phyllo with butter in between each of them, followed by another third of the nuts and spritz with rose water. Repeat with another 6 sheets of phyllo, butter, remaining nuts, and rose water. Top with 8 sheets of phyllo brushing with butter in between each sheet. Brush the top generously with butter. Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and cut into 28 squares. Return pan to the oven and continue to bake for another 30 minutes. Remove pan from the oven, place on a cooling rack, and cool for 2 hours before adding the syrup.
4. Make the syrup during the last 30 minutes of cooling. Combine the honey, water, sugar, cinnamon stick and orange peel in a 4-quart saucepan and set over high heat. Stir occasionally until the sugar has dissolved. Once boiling, boil for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and discard the orange peel and cinnamon stick.
5. After the baklava has cooled for 2 hours, re-cut the entire pan following the same lines as before. Pour the hot syrup evenly over the top of the baklava, allowing it to run into the cuts and around the edges of the pan. Allow the pan to sit, uncovered until completely cool. Cover and store at room temperature for at least 8 hours and up to overnight before serving. Store, covered, at room temperature for up to 5 days.
I did not have rose water or a spritzer bottle so I didn’t bother to spray each nut layer. For the filling, I used only walnuts and almonds, 1 pound walnuts and just about a 1/2 cup of almonds. I did not have any cinnamon sticks or whole all-spice berries so instead I used ground; the suggested amount of cinnamon and about 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoon of ground all-spice. I did garnish each baklava piece with a whole clove in the center.
I had some problems with cutting the baklava after the first bake in the oven. The phyllo dough was extremely delicate and flaky and did not cut well. It might help to wait until the syrup is added to cut the baklava but I don’t know how this would affect the cook time and the syrup’s ability to soak into each layer if it is poured on top before there are cuts. Either way, just use a really sharp knife and be very careful. I made this the day before I served it and let it sit overnight at room temperature. It is now three full days later and still delicious!