Yesterday was Orthodox Easter. Although I am not Orthodox and don’t celebrate Easter, I enjoyed the holiday this year because my friends Jeannie and Peter invited me to help make baklava for their traditional Easter dinner. IMHO (in my humble opinion), holiday preparations are sometimes as much fun as the events themselves, and baking is the most fun of all.
Baklava is a Greek pastry made with sheets of paper-thin dough called “phyllo”, chopped nuts, and a honey and cinnamon-based syrup. Each sheet of phyllo is individually (and lightly) spread with melted butter before the nuts and honey syrup are added. The resulting pastry is amazingly delicate and delicious.
Here are my top 3 reasons to make baklava yourself: you’ll save a bundle of money (store-bought is very expensive), made fresh with good ingredients (excellent quality nuts and butter and real phyllo dough) it is unbelievable, and mastering the baklava-making process is an accomplishment that you can use to impress friends and family – much cheaper and more impressive than a fancy diploma or a new car.
Jeannie’s husband, Peter, is from a Greek Orthodox family and his father ran a busy Greek restaurant in New York City. Their baklava recipe comes from a church cookbook Peter’s sister gave them years ago. The cookbook is bi-lingual, with Greek/English side-by-side translations for the recipes. I found the Greek entrancing, and I wished that I had the time to puzzle out a few of the Greek words. As we consulted the cookbook and continued their family tradition, the baklava-making felt more exotic than my usual baking adventure.
Jeannie and I chatted as we worked, with help occasionally from Peter, who worked on his laptop at one end of the dining room table, while we made baklava at the other end. Most of the conversation centered on family, our parents and kids mostly, except at moments when the baker-in-chief needed to concentrate. Then Peter and I kept the room reverentially silent for her benefit.
Jeannie definitely knows how to concentrate – an academic (professor of English, Women’s Studies and Asian Studies), she teaches, researches, and writes with what I can only term “ferocious single-mindedness.” Allow me a proud friend moment – her book, Driven Out! the Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, is testament to her gifts as a writer and chronicler of times we should all know more about. Anyway, watching her reminded me that the ability to focus is a great benefit to cooking or baking success.
Baklava isn’t difficult to make once you get the hang of it, but it requires a delicate touch, so as not to tear the thin sheets of phyllo dough, organization (to prepare the chopped nut and syrup ahead of time, laying out everything before you begin making the pastry itself)
and quick work so that each sheet of dough is buttered (using a pastry brush and melted butter) and laid out before it dries to a brittle state.
The as-yet unused sheets of dough are kept supple by keeping a clean, damp cloth on them.
There are at least two ways to make baklava – rolled and “straight.” I’ve made the straight version before, in which half the phyllo dough sheets are laid out flat and the nuts are spread out, then the second half of the the phyllo sheets are added on top. Jeannie and Peter’s version is rolled; 4 sheets of dough are laid out, then nuts placed in a line and the dough is rolled, with the process repeated until all the nuts are used up. They add a whole clove to each piece after the baklava is cut. The cloves (left on until removed by the person to whom the baklava is served) are a nice touch, adding a pleasant spicy flavor.
Whether flat or rolled, the sweet syrup is simmered, cooled, and poured over the baked baklava. The finished baklava soaks up the syrup and then it is ready to serve.
I find the rolled type easier to eat and the straight version a bit crispier. Either way, you can’t go wrong!