Part of my enthusiasm in the kitchen is credited to my loving husband, who not only enjoys (forcibly or not) the food I make & values my selten day-long efforts in our tiny kitchen, but also participates in the somwhat tiresome menu-planning for the week…bringing new & different ideas into the mix. Sometimes, though, I would swear he’s 40-weeks pregnant with twins when he becomes so adamant on his cravings and makes sure the weekend does not go by without getting what he wants! This weekend, therefore, it was established early on that we would be baking baklava: a rich, sweet pastry made of layers of phyllo dough filled with chopped nuts and sweetened & held together with a sweet honey-based syrup.
Finding the phyllo dough was the first step, and since it isn’t your typical German product, I had to do a simple Google search on my phone to locate the nearest Turkish shop – which are abundant around here nowadays! My search led me to the busy Eisenbahnstraße here in Leipzig, a well-known migrant/international “hotspot” with less-than-delightful mentions in the local news and a renowned lively street flair with cheap restaurants and international grocery stores…not to mention the absurd amount of barber shops on every corner; who knew! As we drove over to the East side of town in search for our authentic Turkish phyllo dough, I felt like at some point along the drive, we were definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
One pound of phyllo dough later, we rode back home to our familiar neck of the woods for the nuts. From a choice of walnuts, pecans, almonds, or pistachios, we chose the traditional German favorite Walnüsse, and decided to mix them up with pistachios, which add the green Turkish touch to the baklava. See, baklava is characteristic of the cuisines of the Levant, the Caucasus, Balkans, Maghreb, and Central/West Asia…basically, a whole lot of places. Where exactly baklava came from has always been a blur. Mostly accredited to the imperial kitchens of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, many regional variations exist and there are, of course, lots of tales behind each. In Turkey, for instance, pistachio baklava is most popular and is sometimes topped with ice cream in the summer. In Greece, baklava is supposed to be made with 33 dough layers, referring to the years of Christ’s life. Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran, Lebanon, Morocco…they each have their distinct touch, but in the end nuts, butter, & sugar all come together in layers of phyllo dough for an absolutely decadent square – or rhombus – shaped treat.
For the Baklava
- 3 cups of coarsely chopped nuts (walnuts, pistachios, almonds, and/or pecans), toasted
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of grated lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
- 1 cup of unsalted butter, melted
- 1 pound (450g) of phyllo dough
Begin by preheating the oven to 325°F (160°C). Butter a square 13 x 9-inch baking pan and set aside. Finely chop or coarsely grind the nuts. I decided to finely chop them with a knife, slowly & patiently, but only because I was afraid that grinding would be too much. In the end, I realized that maybe for next time I should grind them for a finer finished product, just my thoughts! I used 2 cups of walnuts, 3/4 cups of pistachios, & 1/4 cup of almonds! It was a fantastic mix!
Stir the sugar, lemon zest, & ground cinnamon together in a small bowl and set aside. Melt the butter in another small bowl and set aside. Unfold the phyllo dough and stack on a work surface, carefully! Any form of dampness will quickly dissolve the phyllo into a paste, but also, if left uncovered it dries out in just a minute & will crack when you try to use it. Phyllo (meaning leaf in Greek) is a tissue-thin pastry used in the countries mentioned above for many different things. The simplest of ingredients: flour & water, are so skillfully kneaded, rested, and stretched as almost to defy amateur production. Store-bought phyllo is easy to work, but it’s essential to keep the thin sheets from drying out. Turn the phyllo into 13 x 9-inch sheets; save what scraps you can for another use, such as phyllo triangles or samosas, and get to work!
Place 2 phyllo sheets in the baking pan and brush the top sheet evenly with the melted butter. Add 2 more sheets and brush with butter, then repeat once more, for a total of 6 sheets. Sprinkle with half of the nuts and then half of the sugar mixture. Cover the filling with 2 phyllo sheets, but the top sheet, and repeat until there are 6 sheets on top of the filling again. Cover with the remaining nuts and sugar mixture. Cover with all of the remaining phyllo sheets (remember, Greeks use a total of 33! I lost count to be honest…), adding them 2 at a time and buttering only the second sheet each time. Brush the top with the remaining butter.
Using a very sharp serrated knife, cut through all of the layers to make 2-inch diamonds, rhombuses , or squares. This is important, because you will not be able to cut the baklava once it’s baked without crushing the pastry; it also allows the syrup to soak in and around each piece. Bake for 30 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 300°F (150°C). Continue to bake until the baklava is golden brown, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the syrup.
For the Syrup
- 1-1/3 cups of sugar
- 1-1/3 cups of water
- 1/3 cup of honey
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- Zest of 1 orange – removed in large strips
Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring the mixture to a gentle boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat & simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes. Remove the baklava from the oven and place on a rack at room temperature. Strain the hot syrup and pour evenly over the baked baklava, I loved the extra sugary sizzle! Let cool completely, at least 4 hours, before serving. I have to admit, I have been writing this post eager to get done so I can go snatch a perfectly-sized square for an early midmorning snack! Yum!