It’s all Greek to me!

Walnut Baklava

Baklava may look tricky, and if anybody asks you after you’ve made it, definitely say it’s hard, but, in reality, it’s really easy!  Those flaky layers, that golden syrup, and those crunchy nuts come together to make a treat that’s truly fit for the gods, but, I promise, making baklava is no Herculean task.

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Making baklava only requires a few ingredients and some patience.  The most important ingredient is phyllo dough (a.k.a. “filo dough”).  Just in case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced “FEE-lo,” not “FIE-lo” — I asked a real Greek person.  Phyllo dough is one of those things — like Lasik surgery — that you should never try to do yourself.  Just buy it.  The amount of time, space, and physical/mental stamina that you need to make it from scratch just isn’t worth it.  Puff pastry — which many people confuse for phyllo — can be found in the freezer section of the grocery store (right next to the phyllo, actually), but puff pastry is something that anyone who calls themselves a baker should try to make at least once.  There’s something so rewarding about achieving those distinct “lamellations” (that’s, “layers,” in human-speak) after all the effort put in to making puff pastry by hand.  Conversely, there’s absolutely nothing redeeming about making phyllo.  Trust me on this one — Pepperidge Farm does it just fine.  They should just change the name to “buylo dough.”

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Anyway, back to baklava.  This recipe won me my first ever baking competition.  Granted, it was held at the office my mom works at, but still, all entrants were family members of employees, so the nepotism factor was pretty even across the field.  This recipe won me a $50 gift card to Wegmans, the best grocery store in the world.
The most time-consuming part of this recipe is the building of the layers.  Some baklava recipes just have you pile all of the nuts in the middle layer, but I like to disperse the nuts throughout the layers so that the pieces hold together better.  I know it can get tiring alternating two sheets of phyllo with two tablespoons of nuts, repeat, repeat, repeat, but, honestly, it’s so worth it!  That being said, however, Zeus himself will not descend Mount Olympus to kill you if you sneak in an extra sheet of phyllo on a layer or two to speed up the process.
In case you’ve never worked with phyllo before, there are a few things of which you should be aware.  First of all, the roll.  One package of phyllo dough contains two rolls; you will need one roll for this recipe — keep the other roll in the freezer for a future use or to use as a weapon in the event of a home invasion.  Exercise care when unrolling the dough; it isn’t simply a standard rolled-up-from-one-end kind of roll.  They sort of fold over 1/3 of the dough before rolling up the whole thing — I have no idea why, but it does complicate the unrolling process.  Constant vigilance, my friends (RIP Mad-Eye Moody).  Secondly, phyllo dough is purchased in the freezer section, hence, it is frozen when you bring it home (if you need a flow chart for that one, just let me know).  You must thaw the roll completely before handling by placing it in the refrigerator overnight.  Thus, there is no such thing as spontaneous baklava-making, it is purely a premeditated undertaking.  Thirdly, phyllo dries out really quickly.  The sheets are so thin that if you let them dry out, they’ll turn into a crumbly mess, kind of like the Nazi guy at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (that scene always gives me the willies).  But fear not!  You need not possess Apollo-esque  layering speed to prevent your dough from desiccating — just cover the sheets with a slightly-dampened dish towel during your assembly process.   Just run the towel under the sink for ~3 seconds, and wring out the extra moisture — that’s it!  Don’t do what I did and use the sink hose to try to squirt the towel with water whilst it’s stationed on a counter 6 feet away (my hose’s trajectory didn’t quite reach the counter, and I just succeeded in soaking the floor).  Also, phyllo tears very easily, so handle it gently.

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One last word of caution, you MUST cut the baklava diamonds PRIOR TO BAKING.  Baklava is nearly impossible to cut after it has been baked.  Wait, let me amend that statement…baklava is impossible to cut after baking if you want it to look remotely presentable.  The pre-bake cut is analogous to the pre-carve burnish for an amalgam filling — it’s essential!  You’ll notice in my pictures that I made an extra row on both of the long ends — I call these the “Sampling Ends.”  Even if you try very hard to sprinkle the nuts evenly across the top of each dough layer, it’s difficult to ensure that the ends receive as much filling as the central pieces.  So, to avoid giving someone a depressing piece of baklava with only a minimal nut presence, I cut off the long ends (and eat them) so that each diamond is picture-perfect!  P.S. Same goes for the triangles at the ends of each row 🙂

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Walnut Baklava

1 roll phyllo dough, thawed in refrigerator overnight
½ lb. chopped walnuts (~2 cups)
1 stick butter
Heaping ½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup water
½ cup granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon (plus an extra splash) vanilla
¼ c. honey
Preheat oven to 350º. Spray the bottoms and sides of a 9 × 13 inch pan. Brown the butter, as directed here.  [NOTE:  browning the butter is not strictly required; you can just use melted butter if you don’t want to do the extra step] Toss the chopped walnuts with the cinnamon and salt, and set aside — I actually just shook it all together right in the walnut bag to save a dish. Unroll the phyllo dough and cut it in half the short way (see Diagram A).  Cover the dough with a slightly damp cloth to keep it from drying out.
Place 2 sheets of dough in the bottom of the pan, and use a pastry brush to brush the top with a thin layer of butter. Repeat this step three more times — alternating 2 sheets of dough with a smearing of butter –so that there are 8 sheets of dough in the pan. Butter the top sheet as before, and sprinkle approximately 2 tablespoons of the nut mixture evenly across the top. Place 2 sheets of dough on top, lightly press down, and brush with butter. Continue layering 2 sheets of dough, buttering, and nutting. Don’t be stingy with yo’ nuts — use ’em all!  When you have 8 sheets of phyllo remaining, use up the rest of your nuts, then build the final four layers the same way you made your base layers (i.e. no nuts, just butter).  So, the top layer should be 8 sheets deep, with just butter between each set of two sheets.  DO NOT BUTTER THE TOP LAYER YET — this will facilitate the cutting process.  Use a sharp knife — preferably not one you just used to mince garlic — to cut out diamond shapes by cutting four straight rows, then making diagonal cuts (see Diagram B).  Be sure to cut through ALL of the layers.  Pour the remaining melted butter evenly over the top.

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Bake on a middle rack for 45-50 minutes (baklava should be golden and crisp). Start making the syrup when the baklava has approximately 25 minutes of cooking time remaining. Boil sugar and water until sugar has melted. Add vanilla and honey and let simmer until baklava is done cooking (about 20 minutes). [NOTE:  to make measuring honey easier, spray a thin layer of cooking spray into your measuring cup prior to adding the honey; this way, the honey will plop right out]
Remove baklava pan from oven and immediately pour the syrup evenly over the top. Savor those sizzling sounds of success!  Use a teaspoon to scoop up the over-flow and re-drizzle over the top — this syrup forms a gooey bottom layer under the baklava, so you don’t want to waste a drop.  Allow to cool at room temperature, ~4 hours, before removing from pan. Once cooled, use a sharp knife to re-trace your cut marks, and use an offset spatula to carefully extract each diamond.  Place each individual pastry in a foil cupcake wrapper to prevent them from sticking together.Store at room temperature in a tightly sealed container.

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VARIATION:  Pistachio Orange Baklava Sub chopped pistachios for the walnuts, and add the zest of one orange to the syrup.  Drizzle cooled pieces with melted white and dark chocolate.  ❤

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