I gave someone baklava at a party once. He had never tried it before. I explained what was in it and watched him take a bite, grimace, and say, “It’s sweet.” Well...yeah, we’re talking about sugar-drenched pastry here, right? What exactly were you expecting?
Baklava is the happy marriage of layered phyllo and chopped nuts baked and bound in syrup upon syrup. It’s crispy and sticky and, yes, sweet. The jury is out on where this dessert originated, but it’s a beloved feature of some of my favorite cuisines, including Turkish, Greek, and Persian. From Armenian holiday dinners since I was a kid to our apartment life two shakes of a lamb's tail from every Greek bakery in Astoria, baklava has pretty much always been there for me.
So Malvina and I went on a quest to try making it from scratch. We made plans with our favorite dandeegeen Nairi to have a Cinco de Mayo baklava baking date. She found a recipe online and we all got some tips from our moms. Turns out it’s a lot easier than you might expect, and I’m proud to say we totally nailed it on our first try!
Just a few weeks later, I had the pleasure of taking a class on the Essentials of Middle Eastern Cooking at the Institute of Culinary Education, a perfect birthday gift from Jon. The menu we produced included za’atar, hummus, tabbouleh, falafel, baba ghanoush, muhammara, fresh pita bread and lavash, fattoush, Israeli couscous, kibbeh, lamb shawarma, halvah, and of course, baklava. Each team was assigned a few of these items, with enough doubles that the class could enjoy a full meal together at the end. Now, with so many recipes to undertake in just a few hours, the baklava was presented to us as something of a bonus assignment. If we were doing well for time, one team could take it on; otherwise, the instructor Chef Alex would take care of it for us. Shameless overachiever that I am, I of course smelled a challenge. That job had to be mine!
After turning out falafel, muhammara, fattoush, and halvah, my partner Rebecca and I set our sights on that baklava. Chef Alex demonstrated the first steps to the class and we took it from there. It was pretty different from the first batch I’d made, with the notable addition of rose water to the syrup, but I enjoyed it just as much and felt just as proud as I was with our Cinco de Mayo baklava.
This is one recipe that will live forever in my arsenal of foolproof desserts. When we were making secret plans for my darling Megan’s bridal shower and decided all the bridesmaids would bake a dessert, my mind went nowhere but here. On this third go, I took elements of both recipes I’d used before and improvised a little, and I think it came out better than ever. You really can’t screw this up unless you burn it, which fortunately, hasn’t happened to me yet!
Third Time’s a Charm Baklava
Really, every time has been a charm so far, but this version really sang to me.
- 2 1-lb boxes #4 Apollo fillo pastry dough (12” x 17” sheets) - The box recommends taking it out of the freezer and thawing it in the refrigerator overnight.
- 1 lb unsalted butter
- 4 cups (about 400g) pistachios - You can substitute blanched almonds or walnuts or try a combination, but I liked it best with all pistachios. (They ain’t cheap, though!) Both recipes I’d used before involved tossing the nuts with sugar, but I omitted this step on the third go and preferred it that way. You could toss in some cinnamon or cardamom, though.
For the syrup:
- 3 cups white sugar - My in-class recipe used a combination of sugar, honey, and light corn syrup, but I kept this syrup simple (no pun intended).
- 1-½ cups water
- ⅛ cup rose water - I loved this addition from class, but dialed it back from ¼ cup which was a little strong for my taste.
- 1 TBSP lemon juice
- Remove the phyllo from the refrigerator and bring it to room temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan.
- In the meantime, coarsely grind the pistachios in a food processor. (Nairi, Malvina, and I also had fun smashing them with my big marble rolling pin, if that’s more your style.)
- Set up your layering station! Grease a 12” x 17” baking tray and carefully unroll your phyllo. Keep it covered with a dish towel any time you’re not touching it, to prevent the sheets from drying out while you work.
- Gently place 2 sheets of phyllo in the pan and use a pastry brush to coat them with the melted butter. Repeat, with 1 sheet of dough at a time. After about 8 sheets, stop to spread on a thin layer of the ground pistachios.
- Layer, layer, layer! 1 sheet, brush with butter, 1 sheet, brush with butter, after about 8 (I stopped counting after a while), layer of nuts. (If someone ever comes to you with a tray of low fat baklava, laugh and run in the other direction. They’re nuts.) Speaking of nuts, repeat this until you’ve spread on your last layer of them.
- Top it off with 2 last sheets of phyllo and brush with butter one last time.
- With a large sharp knife, carefully cut through all the layers to create small square or diamond-shaped pieces.
- Just before baking, lightly sprinkle the top of the pastry with cold water to prevent the dough from shrinking and curling in the oven.
- Bake at 350 degrees.
- Make the syrup: Stir the sugar, water, and rose water in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves, bring to a boil, then add the lemon juice. Let the syrup cool while the baklava bakes.
- Start checking the baklava for doneness at 25 or 30 minutes. In my experience it took closer to 45, maybe even more. In all honesty, I didn’t keep track. Bad baker! Basically, you want to some golden brown color but don’t want to burn it. Trust yourself, and get ready for your home to smell incredible.
- When it’s done, take it out of the oven and pour the cool syrup over the hot baklava to ensure it gets nice and crispy. I started with a light drizzle to make sure I got some on every piece, then had enough to give a more generous pour all over and fill the edges of the tray. Sprinkle with cinnamon if you like it.
- If you have the time and patience, let it cool for a couple of hours. I most definitely did not.
I ran out of filling before finishing the second box of dough, so I used up the extra sheets and some syrup to throw together some turnovers filled with sour cherry preserves and apple butter. And for a total epiphany, when we ran out of simply syrup for our iced coffee the next weekend, I used some of the leftover baklava syrup I’d kept in the fridge instead. Jon was blown away and wants us to set up a coffee stand at the Queens International Night Market immediately. Truly, how is rose-flavored iced coffee not a thing yet?
What favorite flavor combinations have you discovered by using up what’s around? I’d love to try your happy accidents!