(Feb. 7, 2020) Years ago, I had the pleasure of befriending Mr. Nick BeLer, who co-owned the Prime Rib restaurant in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
This was a remarkable time in my life and the lessons ascertained far exceeded the boundaries of the kitchen.
We traveled the country extensively and dined in the finest restaurants. This experience changed my life forever, as I fell in love with the art of entertaining.
Nick was of Greek descent and very proud of his heritage.
Spanakopita, dolmades, and pastitsio were just a sampling of the dishes he introduced me to. But if I had to pick a favorite, baklava would take top honors.
For those who are not familiar with baklava, it is a Middle Eastern pastry made of many sheets of phyllo dough that are brushed with butter and given one or two layers of a sweetened nut filling. The entire dessert is soaked with a honey syrup for a fabulous finale.
Many cooks are intimidated by the process of making baklava. But in actuality, this dish is very easy to make.
Following are some tips to facilitate the making of this traditional dessert.
Thawing your phyllo dough properly is key for successful baklava.
Place the phyllo in the refrigerator for 12-14 hours. Do not remove the dough from the package or it will become dry and brittle, making it difficult to work with.
Unless you are able to work quickly, you might want to place the thawed phyllo sheets in between two clean and slightly damp tea towels before assembling the baklava. This step helps the phyllo sheets remain soft and pliable.
Do not skimp on the butter and sugar. This multi-layered dessert needs extra moisture and sweetness to penetrate the many sheets of phyllo dough.
Cinnamon is the preferred spice, but a pinch of cloves, allspice and nutmeg gives the dish more depth of flavor.
Nuts are a key ingredient when addressing the subject of baklava. Most recipes call for walnuts, but the addition of pistachios and hazelnuts makes for a more interesting dish.
While we are on the subject of nuts, the consistency must be taken into consideration.
If nuts are chopped too fine, you will lose the essence of the baklava. If the nuts are too coarse, they will overpower the delicate phyllo dough.
Cooked phyllo dough has a tendency to fall apart and precise cutting edges are more difficult to achieve. Therefore, one should cut the pastry dough into the desired shapes before baking.
Believe it or not, but a pizza wheel is great for cutting baklava. You will also need a sharp knife to cut the edges around the pan.
Prepare the honey syrup ahead of time so that it is ready to pour on the hot, freshly baked baklava. The hot baklava layers will absorb the syrup more readily if the honey syrup has cooled.
There are some baklava “purists” who swear the dessert is better the next day when the flavors have had a chance to come together and completely absorb the honey syrup.
Baklava will keep for several days without being refrigerated. Just remember, once the baklava is refrigerated, the crispy phyllo dough will lose some of its crunchiness.
If you have never worked with phyllo dough, you have no idea what you are missing. Phyllo dough gives one more freedom when it comes to creativity and presentation.
The following recipe may appear to be very detailed, but it does not take long to make. In fact, you will be surprised how quickly you are able to assemble the dish.
In closing, Baklava is rich in tradition and so delicious. Enjoy.
6 ounces shelled pistachios, finely chopped, plus 1/3 cup for garnishing
6 ounces walnuts, finely chopped
6 ounces hazelnuts, finely chopped
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon
few pinches of each (ground cloves, ground allspice and ground nutmeg)
16-ounce package of phyllo dough (thawed)
18 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
¾ cup sugar
1 cup cold water
1 cup honey
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
juice of ½ lemon
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Combine nuts, sugar and spices in a medium bowl.
3. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat.
4. Clear off a large surface area. Make sure you have the bowl of nut filling, melted butter, baking pan, scissors, pastry brush, pizza wheel, sharp knife and space for the phyllo dough.
5. Unwrap the phyllo sheets and carefully unroll onto a dampened tea towel (not too wet). Lay the other dampened tea towel on top of the phyllo sheets.
6. If the phyllo dough extends over your baking dish, trim the phyllo sheets with a pair of scissors to match the dimensions of your pan.
7. Using a pastry brush, brush a thin layer of butter over the bottom of a 13” x 9” x 2” baking pan.
Place one sheet of phyllo dough on the bottom of the pan. Butter lightly, making sure you go to the edges.
Repeat this process for the next 6 sheets, buttering the top of each sheet, one at a time. Make sure you cover the unused phyllo with the tea towel.
8. Sprinkle half of the nuts over the phyllo and gently spread them evenly with your hands. Be sure to spread the nuts to the edges of the dough.
9. Place another 5 sheets of phyllo dough, and butter each layer one at a time.Remember to cover the unused dough with the moistened tea towel.
10. Sprinkle the remaining nuts over the phyllo. Again, spread them all the way to the edges.
11. Place 7 more phyllo sheets, buttering each layer one at a time.
12. Using a pizza wheel, cut the baklava into 2-inch strips on a diagonal.
Turn the pan at a 90-degree angle and again cut into 2-inch strips on a diagonal. This will form a diamond shape, which is more pleasing to the eye than a square. This step is optional.
13. Bake for approximately 35 minutes or until golden brown.
14. While the baklava is baking, make the honey syrup. This will only take a few minutes. Remove from the stove and place on a cooling rack so it can start the cooling process.
15. As soon as the baklava comes out of the oven, pour room temperature honey syrup on it and allow to rest for at least 3 hours. Serve immediately.
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