I will not delve into the debate of where baklava originated because it is a common dessert across the Middle East. However, I will let you know that I play favourites: I like Turkish baklava the most.
Before I visited Turkey, I did not like the oftentimes sickeningly sweet walnut and phyllo dough pastry drenched in honey. When I went to Turkey, though, I was hooked after our first bite the night we arrived. We sampled baklava at nearly every restaurant we encountered it on the dessert menu. I wanted to try a variety of Turkish desserts, but my dad only wanted baklava (I never would have discovered kunefe if I only stuck to baklava!). It was never tooth-aching sweet. It was nice and light, usually with a pistachio filling. There was a sweet syrup but it complemented the pastry as opposed to clashing and overpowering the dish. It wasn’t like anything I have had in Canada.
One of the greatest things about baking yourself is that you can recreate these dishes at home. No longer are you a victim to honey baklava, which reigns in Greek and Persian stores. And while it may seem difficult, baklava is easy to make at home. It is time consuming, but very straightforward. The bad news is that most recipes make a lot of baklava, so you will have to share this treat with family and friends. If they weren’t your friends before, they will be now! Is that such a bad thing after all?
I made sure to get a baklava recipe from a Turkish cookbook and the recipe in The Sultan’s Kitchen by Ozcan Ozan fit the bill well. It was exactly how I remembered the best baklava in Turkey, except the filling was with walnuts. I remember pistachios being a phenomenal filling for baklava so I will try that next time (update- I have made it multiple times, and pistachios are hands-down my favourite filling!). Ozan specifically mentions to use clarified butter which is simple to make at home. It is an important step to make sure your pastry layers are nice, light and fluffy and to reduce any sogginess that can come with the milk solids. It also allows your baklava to have a longer life at room temperature. Personally, they were gobbled up so fast, I didn’t have to worry about that. ;)
2-1/2 cups cold water
3-1/2 cups sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice
3 cups pistachios, plus extra for sprinkling (pistachios are my preferred filling but walnuts can be used, too)
2 tbsp sugar
1-1/2 cups unsalted clarified butter ** it is easy to clarify your own butter!
2 packages of phyllo dough, each containing 20-22 sheets of dough, thawed
Finely chopped pistachio nuts (optional)
1. If clarifying your own butter, start with 1 lb of unsalted butter. In a saucepan over low heat, melt butter. It will separate into 3 layers: a foamy froth on top, a clear liquid in the middle and a white solid at the bottom. When the butter is heated through and no more foam is developing, remove from heat. Remove the foam with a spoon. You want to keep the yellow liquid. You can save it by decanting it from the saucepan without disturbing the milk solids, or strain it through a cheesecloth-lined strainer.
2. Preheat the oven to 375F.
3. To make the syrup, combine the cold water with the sugar in a medium-size saucepan. Boil the mixture for 5 minutes, then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 15-30 minutes. The syrup is ready when it is light yellow, and when a small spoonful dropped onto a wooden surface is tacky when cooled. Once ready, stir in the lemon juice into the syrup and set it aside to cool.
4. Place the nuts and sugar in a food processor and process until medium to finely ground (but not too fine!). Set aside.
5. Brush the inside of a 14 x 18 x 1 inch baking pan (if your phyllo dough is bigger than your pan, let it hang over and trim it off at the end to fit) with a little bit of the clarified butter. Place 1 sheet of phyllo dough in the pan. With a wide pastry brush or paper towel, lightly brush the dough with the clarified butter. Continue layering the dough and brushing with butter until one package of dough is used.
6. Spread the nuts over the dough and lightly sprinkle it with water – a plant mister is best- to help the dough adhere to the nuts where the next layer is added. Using the second package of phyllo dough, layer the dough over the nuts, brushing each sheet with clarified butter. Trim the pastry edges to fit neatly within the baking pan. Brush the top layer and the edges with clarified butter.
7. Using a sharp knife dipped in hot water, cut through the dough halfway down the height of the pan to make 48 pieces (4 lengthwise and 12 cross-wise).
8. Bake the baklava in the centre of the oven for 30 minutes. Lower the heat to 325F and bake for an additional 30 minutes until the top is lightly golden. Remove the baklava from the oven and let it sit at room temperature for 10 minutes. Recut the pastries along the lines, all the way to the bottom of the baking pan. Pour the cold syrup evenly over the cut lines (I generally use around 2/3rd of the syrup solution). Sprinkle the baklava with chopped walnuts or pistachios, if so desired, and let it cool completely. Serve at room temperature.
Baklava keeps for 1 week in a cool, dry place. It will evaporate quickly, if my family is any indication!
Makes 48 pieces.