Ages ago I bought phyllo pastry. Seems like a crazy thing to randomly buy, but you have to understand, when you’re lactose-intolerant and you find a product that has no dairy in it that’s traditionally supposed to be made with a lot of dairy, you buy it on sight. Well, only if it’s made with edible ingredients (aka only things I can pronounce, and in my case, no soy). You never know when you’ll have this opportunity again. Think of it as a good investment, as long as it keeps, and phyllo pastry keeps, frozen, for ages. This one, Krinos brand, didn’t even have a million ingredients to replace butter or act as preservatives (phyllo pastry should really only have about 4 ingredients – flour, salt, water and butter) since that’s what the freezer’s for (the preserving, not the buttering). Can you imagine a buttering freezer? What a world…
Anyway, the phyllo pastry sat in my freezer waiting patiently for the day I craved baklava. I’ve made it only once before. Two apartments ago (this is how I think of the history of my life, in terms of apartments) I had sampled all the baklava in the Mile End area of Montreal and decided that to be satisfied I needed to make my own. Since I didn’t have any pistachios or walnuts I did a whole lot of baklava research to find out if I could substitute other nuts in the dessert. It turns out that traditionally baklava is made with a whole lot of other ingredients, like cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, and lots and lots of poppy seeds.
Poppy seeds? Really? It kind of makes sense since it’s a Middle Eastern dessert, and a lot of those types of desserts, especially ones of Jewish origin (even though this is not) involve poppy seeds. I had just hazelnuts and poppyseeds, so that’s what I used for my baklava. The poppy seed is what is used to make opium, and although it would take a whole lot of poppy seeds to get high on baklava (think cups and cups and cups of the stuff – “heaps and heaps” as my French friend would say – to the point where you just couldn’t possibly fit the necessary amount into your body) I used a fair bit. I love poppy seeds. You can crack each seed and get a slightly bitter, metallic flavour. I’m not sure if that means it’s not fresh. I mean, it’s not like I’m out in the poppy fields experiencing the best that Mother Nature has to offer, but like North Americans love kraft dinner, I love what I assume to be the correct flavour of poppy seeds. One of these days I’ll buy a container from Epices de Cru in Jean-Talon and ruin the poppy experience for myself forever by tasting what they’re actually supposed to be like, but until that day, I live in sublime ignorance.
So that was last time, and now my kitchen stocks had changed. I had a grand total of 2 walnuts, 1 pecan and 6 hazelnuts to crack. That’s a far cry from the 1 1/2 cups of nuts called for in the recipe. Fortunately the nuts are always my least favourite part of baklava anyway (the reason I prefer the honey-soaked Greek kind to the Middle Eastern kind). Anyway, in case you want to make your own, you can find the recipe here. Or follow below:
1 1/2 cups mixed nuts or nuts of choice. According to a lovely Turkish baklava maker at Patisserie Efes in Montreal the best choice between the common baklava nuts is walnuts right now, since pistachios are bland and expensive. The good ones come from Turkey, so he knows. You can also use hazelnuts, poppyseeds, pecans, whatever else you feel like experimenting with. As a good friend would say, “The recipe can’t see you”.
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup butter, melted (the original recipe calls for more, but I don’t think it’s necessary, and God forbid you waste good butter)
18 sheets phyllo pastry
3/4 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
Two 2″ cinnamon sticks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4-5 tablespoons honey
Take a really long tray, probably a cookie tray with sides (honey syrup needs to soak in it so it has to have sides. Ideally a whole piece of phyllo will fit in it, but this probably won’t happen, which is fine). You want to use a tray that you don’t care about scratching up, since you’ll have to cut the pieces directly in the tray, and it’s tough, so there’ll be some scraping involved.
Thaw the pastry! Leave it out on the counter for about 2 hours. Fortunately for me (since I forgot to do this in advance) it was over 30 degrees celcius in Montreal when I made this, so it thawed in about an hour…You can also probably thaw it way in advance in the fridge, and it’ll thaw more evenly. You need it to be fully thawed or it’ll crack. Once you take it out of its packaging and it’s exposed to air, make sure you lay a clean cloth or kitchen towel over it so it doesn’t dry out. Again, it’ll crack.
Grease the bottom and the sides of the baking tray.
Mix the nuts, cinnamon and sugar in a bowl.
Taking one sheet of phyllo, lay it in the baking sheet (it can hang over the edges. That’s fine), and use a small kitchen brush (or new paintbrush. There’s nothing quite like seafoam green baklava to match your living room…) to spread a thing layer of the melted butter all over the top of the pastry. You need the butter to touch everywhere or the pastry will crack, but in this recipe since there’s a whole lot more pastry than nuts the butter will soak down through, so a little is more than enough. Now fold the edges over if they’ve gone outside the pan (like colouring within the lines, it’s hard) and brush the folded edges with butter as well.
Repeat with the phyllo until there are five sheets of pastry in the tray.
Spread half the nut/sugar/cinnamon filling evenly over the pastry.
Add three more sheets of phyllo, brushing each layer with melted butter before adding the next one (the original recipe says you brush the pastry on another surface first and then transfer to the tray but as long as you’re careful brushing in the tray nothing bad will happen to the pastry. Besides, who’s going to care?
Spread the remainder of the walnut mixture over the pastry.
Preheat the oven to 375 Fahrenheit.
Finish by adding about 8 or 10 more sheets of phyllo on top, buttering each sheet every time.
If you don’t want to fold the extra pastry in each time you can leave it and then cut it off once you’re done adding more phyllo (now).
With a sharp knife, carefully cut small diamond or square shapes (cut 4 or 5 straight lines length-wise and then cut 8 or so straight lines diagonally), only cutting through the top few layers. This will make it much easier to slice once cooked. This was a good instruction on the part of the original recipe because last time I ended up having a tough time cutting through the baklava and it kind of fell apart a little. My only tip is to make sure you add a little bit of extra butter to the very top layer so it doesn’t crack when baking. I also edited out the bit of the original instructions to leave a little extra pastry around the edges to allow for shrinkage during baking. Funny, I thought that only happened when it was cold. What do I know? I feel like I’ve been tricked.
Take a cup of cold water and using your fingers, sprinkle a little over the top of the baklava. This will help prevent the cut pastry from curling up while cooking, the same way applying extra butter helps.
Place the baking tray in a preheated oven for 25 to 40 minutes, until golden. Really nothing needs to cook (there’s no meat or vegetables involved, not even any egg), so it’s far better to err on the side of under-cooked rather than crispy.
While the pastry bakes, boil all the syrup ingredients except the honey in a saucepan for about 5 minutes. Then add the honey and simmer for another 5 minutes until thickened slightly. Yeah, mine didn’t really thicken, but I also didn’t really care.
Remove the cinnamon sticks.
Once the baklava is golden and you’ve removed it from the oven, cut the slices through to the bottom where you’d already half cut them. The original recipe says to pour the syrup over first and then cut, but you kind of need to use your hands and touch the pastry to cut decently, so it would be a lot stickier process if you’d already poured the syrup over the baklava. Either way the syrup will soak through, so it’s not a big deal.
So, NOW pour the syrup over the cut diamonds.
Leave to cool completely in the tray, soaking in the syrup. Or not. Warm baklava is amazing, even if the honey macerates the pastry (can I say that for pastry? Macerates?) better if you leave it for awhile. If you cut the pieces small you can have one piece now and one later for a comparison. Baklava is very, very high in fat, though, and addictive, so a little goes a long way. Please do not get sick on baklava for the sake of a comparison.
The website recipe says to remove the slices one at a time from the tray, but I don’t understand why you’d want to do this. It’s best stored in the tray. You’d just waste honey syrup by trying to remove it. So as long as you have enough storage space on your counter (or fridge if the baklava lasts more than 3 days) then both you and the baklava in the pan are golden (Note: Just the baklava is in the pan).
So the whole point of this post was that I a had a few small pieces of baklava before going to record the Midnight Poutine podcast this week and was very much on a sugar high, since I’d used real (cane) sugar and a good honey. Really your honey will make this or break this. You want something flavourful that works well with the butter flavour. You could maybe even experiment with flavoured honeys, like blueberry…hmm…
I mean, mmm…