Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Deliciously sweet

Deliciously sweet and buttery, baklava is an annual Christmas tradition in our family. My mom used to make it, but this culinary labor of love has since been passed down to me. We both learned to make it from a neighbor, Manya (Manishka), who was Russian and Polish, but married to a gregarious Greek man. Oh the exotic, ethnic creations that came out of Manya's kitchen! Remember, this was back in the late 60s when Swanson's frozen dinners were all the rage. This stuff was utterly foreign to us kids in the 'hood. For this sweet treat, a sugary syrup, infused with a little honey and lemon, is poured over the piping hot baklava. Delicate layers of phyllo dough, ground walnuts and cinnamon soak up the sweetness and the result is sublime. Yes, it's obscenely sweet—but oh so scrumptious! 

Here's a slice of baklava, so you can see all the glorious layers, and here are the diamonds of baklava, all cradled in waxed purple, baking cups ready for the bring to parties. Here's how to make it:

Making the baklava syrup
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup honey
1/2 lemon

I make the syrup a day or even a week ahead. In a saucepan, combine all of the syrup ingredients and bring to a boil. Careful, it will spill over if the pan is too small! Reduce heat to low and barely simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Spoon off any foam that develops, ad strain to remove cinnamon stick, lemon, and any lemon seeds. Chill until ready to use. 

Making the baklava
2 cups finely chopped walnuts
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2-3 sticks of melted butter
1 + 1/2 packages (16 ounces) phyllo dough

Combine walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in food processor, blend to fine. Put in bowl and set aside. Melt 2-3 sticks of melted butter over a double boiler and set aside. You will need a pastry brush so have that ready as well.

Unroll phyllo dough sheets, and cut your stack to exactly fit into your tall sided sheet pan. Keep the dough covered with a slightly damp cloth while assembling. Don't forget to do this because once the dough dries out it will shatter into a million pieces unless it's been covered with butter. 

With your production line all set up, you can start assembling the baklava! Place one sheet of phyllo dough in your pan, and brush every inch with butter. Top with a second sheet, and brush with butter. Repeat this for about 12 layers. Then start sprinkling in about 1 tbsp of the nut mixture on each layer. Repeat this around 18 times—layering with a sheet of dough, brushing with butter and sprinkling with the nut mixture. Keep pressing down each layer with your hands to compress it. For the final top 12 or so layers, stop putting the nuts on—it should just be butter and phyllo dough again, like the first 12 layers. When you're all done layering, cut into 2-inch diamonds with a very sharp knife. 

Bake uncovered in a 350° oven for 45-55 minutes or until golden brown. When baklava is done, remove from oven and pour on the cooled baklava syrup. Wait for several hours for all the syrup to absorb in each layer before cutting and putting into individual cups. 

Baklava will last for several weeks, so you can make it in advance of the holiday madness and it will keep just fine as long as it's properly covered. Write with questions if you have any!

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