February 17, 2010

Baklava: The Greek God of Desserts

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I find that the people who live in the countries bordering the Mediterranean created a lot of my favorite foods. Most of these, including hummus, pita and yogurt, are super-easy to make and incredibly delicious. A few, like tiramisu, are a bit more intense, but still can be successfully attempted by a novice. Baklava, on the other hand, was something that I was really leery about making. It looked genuinely hard.

For those who are unfamiliar with the dessert, baklava is a dessert consisting of light, flaky layered phyllo dough (the wrapping for spanakopita, among other things) and ground nuts baked until deliciously golden and crispy, and then doused in a sweet syrup. Among desserts, it sticks out as one of the messiest: with so many flakes, finely ground filling and sticky honey, it is nearly impossible to eat without committing to a few minutes at the sink. But baklava is totally worth it when properly made — rich and sweet, with so many amazing textures and flavors layered into one triangle — the experience of eating it borders on transcendent.

So I’ve decided to make it. This was going to be fun. But not easy.

There are a lot of places for baklava to go wrong. To start with, the phyllo dough is fiddly and tricky to work with — it is extremely thin and has a tendency to tear when too wet and crack when too dry, and falls apart at a distressingly large range of humidities. The proper way to assemble it is one sheet at a time, brushing each layer with melted butter in between; getting frustrated and stacking several at a time results in dense, soft dough instead of light and crackly dough. You can skimp and use cheap ingredients, which just makes for a waste of your time — trust me. This is the time to break out the good cinnamon, the Finger Lakes honey and the hazelnuts.

Oh, and one more thing: my recipe calls for rose water and orange blossom water, which are made via some magical distillation process about which I am very uncertain. These are hard to find (I located both at Ludgate Farms, but not at Wegman’s. Greenstar may have them) and not totally necessary, per se, but if you can get your hands on some, they will make your baklava better. If you can’t, don’t fret. I tried the recipe without them, and it was still much better than the sad piece of baklava that I got in a dining hall on West Campus.

I got my recipe from the New York Times, and they got it from a bakery in Paris, and since Parisians tend to be pretty discerning about food, I will assume that it is a good recipe. Having tried it out on a crowd of discerning Cornell students and received a chorus of moans (not bedroom sounds), I can base this assumption on at least some data. Since the recipe itself is quite long and convoluted, you will have to make a couple of clicks and check it out on the cornellsun.com website.

This requires planning. You’ll want to get your ingredients together the day before you make the baklava. The frozen phyllo needs to be set in the refrigerator overnight to thaw. Assembling the pastry takes some time. After it bakes, you are supposed to let it cool at room temperature for several hours, though I find that partially cooling it in the refrigerator for 20 minutes or so works just as fine.

Yes, this desert is like a relationship. It requires some commitment. It requires cooking syrup. It requires slopping three quarters of a pound of butter between the layers of a pound of dough. If you’re into that sort of thing, give this a try and you will be transportedly pleased. If not, just make some ginger chews. Or talk your more culinarily adventurous friends into making a pan and then mooch some. Oh, and have some napkins on hand.

Recipe: Hazelnut Baklava — adapted from the New York Times, 3/29/2006


10 oz. skinned hazelnuts

6 oz. slivered almonds

2 oz. walnuts

1.5 tbps. sugar

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

One-fourth tsp. ground cloves

One-eighth tsp. salt

Original Author: Kevin Boyd