Walnut Baklava

One of the first, if not the first things I ever remember baking was baklava.  My father taught my sister and I how to make it when we were young.  So young in fact, it feels like I’ve been making it for as long as I can remember.

For those of you who don’t know what it is, baklava is a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern pastry that is made from layers of thin, crispy phyllo (or filo) dough , chopped nuts and sweetened with a honey syrup.  Baklava isn’t very difficult to make, but it can be tedious at times.  Actually, thinking back on it now I think I can pretty much figure out why my dad taught us how to make it…  (read:  slave labor)

Baklava

Through the years, she and I had become quite famous for our baklava getting requests to make it for holidays or to bring some to work.  In fact my reason for posting the recipe this week was that a co-worker asked me to bake him and his team a tray to celebrate the end of Ramadan.  For years people have been asking us for our recipe, but we never obliged.  Not because it’s some secret family recipe passed down for decades; until about a few days ago we never actually had a recipe.  Up until then we just had a list of ingredients and eyeballed it from there.  We knew how it should look or taste so it was always threw in a bit of this, a handful of that, etc.  Thankfully baklava is a lot more forgiving than cake baking.

Since I started this blog as a means to share recipes I finally made the effort to actually like, measure stuff and write it all down. It wasn’t too hard; I basically added ingredients incrementally until it looked/tasted right and then scribbled it all down on a notepad.  So to all our family and friends…QUIT ASKING AND MAKE IT YOURSELF DAMMIT!!  🙂

Regarding this recipe specifically, here are few things to note. Baklava recipes vary depending on region.  In Turkey and other areas it is traditionally made with pistachios, but we have always made ours with walnuts. I even had a friend here in the states make it with pecans and he said it turned out pretty well.  Often times you find some recipes that call for either rose water or orange blossom water be added to the syrup.  If you want my opinion, DON’T DO IT!!  I think for some regions it’s the traditional way to make it, but unless you like the taste of your grandmother’s perfume stay far, far away from floral extracts. Instead I add lemon juice and a little bit of lemon rind, which gives it a slight acidity that helps cut through all of that sweetness.  Lastly, the is the “sog factor”.  I hate hate hate soggy baklava, which is how you find most baklavas out there.  They are absolutely drenched in syrup which not only makes them way to sweet…it also gives them the consistency of a wet daiper.  Gross.  The trick with ours is that we cook down the syrup for a long time, until it is almost as thick as honey.  You still get all that good gooey sweetness, but the phyllo dough stays perfectly crisp and flakey.

Walnut Baklava

Makes one 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

Ingredients:

For the Syrup:
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup honey
1 freshly squeezed lemon + lemon rind

For the Pastry:
1 pound box phyllo (or filo) dough – comes frozen and must be thawed (as per the box) before using
2 sticks unsalted butter
16 ounces chopped walnuts
1 1/3 granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions:

For the Syrup:
The syrup takes a few hours to cook and cool, so feel free to make this in advance and keep in the fridge.  However before using, heat it back up to room temperature or a bit warmer.

1. In a small saucepan and over high heat combine the water, sugar and honey.  Stir to dissolve the sugar.

2. Take your lemon (prior to juicing) and with a pairing knife cut off a few super thin slices of the rind being sure to only have the yellow part.  The white pith is bitter, so make sure to carefully remove any with your knife or by scraping it off with a spoon.  Take your lemon, cut it in half and squeeze the juice out into the saucepan making sure that no seeds get into the pan.  Stir to combine.

3.  Leave it on high heat until it begins to boil.  Keep a close watch on it!  Once it starts to boil, it will boil over very quickly and you do not want to clean up scalding hot sugar.  Once it boils, lower the heat to medium/low and let it simmer…for a long time.  It can simmer gently for up to two hours.  When it’s done cooking, it should have reduced by about half and should be about the color and consistency of honey (any darker and it’s burned, and you’ll have to start from scratch).  Because the syrup is so hot, it will be difficult to tell how thick or thin it is.  In that case you can put some on a spoon and leave it to cool for a few minutes and check how thick it is.

4.  Once it’s done simmering, remove the lemon peel and let it come to room temperature.  If once the syrup is at room temperature you still find it on the runny side, put it back on low heat and let it reduce further.  Make sure it doesn’t get too dark and burn.

For the Baklava:
1. Preheat your oven to 350°F.

2. Put the walnuts in your food processor and pulse until the nuts are finely chopped.  You can chop them more coarsely if you prefer, but I like the finer texture.

3. In a large bowl combine the chopped walnuts, granulated sugar and cinnamon.  Set aside for later.

4. Cut the butter up into tablespoon size pieces and place in a microwave safe bowl.  Nuke in 30 second increments until the butter is completely melted.

5. Next you want to set up your counter space.  Place your 9 x 13 inch cake pan on your counter top.  On one side you want to place the bowl of melted butter with a pastry brush, while on the other side you lay out your thawed phyllo dough.  The size of your dough might vary depending on what your local supermarket carries.  The one I typically use is a 1 pound box that contains two individually wrapped rolls that each contain many thin sheets of dough that would be about the same size as your cake pan.  However if your box contains one large roll, you’ll have to cut it in half.  Lastly, keep a clean and lightly dampened kitchen towel close by. Phyllo dough can dry out really quickly, so you need to work fast.  But if you need to step away for a few minutes you’ll want to cover the dough with the damp towel to keep it from drying out and cracking.

6.  Now that your work space is set up, it’s time for the fun tedious part.  Start by dipping your pastry brush into the melted butter and then brushing all along the bottom and sides of your cake pan.  Make sure to coat it evenly so your finished product doesn’t stick.  Next you want to take one sheet of phyllo dough and lay it flat in the pan. Take your pastry brushed, dipped in butter, and gently brush a thin layer of melted butter on the sheet of dough.  Repeat this process until you have gone through half of your phyllo dough (either one of the two rolls that came in the box, or half of a box that contained a single 1 pound roll of dough).   Don’t worry if the sheets rip or tear; you’ll be layering them on top of each other.  If the sheets are slightly bigger than your pan you can fold over the edges so they fit.

7.  We’re at the halfway point, which means it’s time for the nuts!  Take the walnut/sugar/cinnamon mixture you set aside earlier and dump the entire thing on top of your layers of phyllo dough.  Spread them around into an even layer.

8.  Next you want to repeat step 5 with the second half of dough, layering the sheets on top of the walnuts and brushing each layer with melted butter.

9.  Once you’re done with the dough, you want to brush a good amount of butter all over the top.  Next, cut into 2 inch sized squares.  This part can get a bit tricky, but if you try cutting slices after it’s baked the dough will crack and fall apart.  The key is to use a sharp knife with a point, and gently saw your way through making sure you get all the way through to the bottom.

10. Bake for approximately 40 – 45 minutes, or until golden brown.

11. When finished baking, remove from the oven and let it cool for 5 minutes.  Once it’s cooled (but is still warm), spoon the cooled (but also slightly warm) syrup over evenly the top. You want to let the baklava rest for at least 20 minutes before serving to let it soak up the syrup.  Again, because this syrup is thicker than what traditional recipes call for, it should stay crispy even after sitting in the syrup for hours.

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