Back in 2009, a friend and I were discussing my 1st Daring Bakers challenge hosting gig, trying to decide what I should challenge everyone with. I was throwing out ideas, and like many first pitches in baseball, they were all over the place. Baklava was one of them, and we both joked how hated I would be if I made it a requirement to make the phyllo dough from scratch. I swear on every pair of jeans with broken zippers, I never thought I’d see the day. Well, that day has come, and Erica, nobody hates you, and in fact, I think they’re loving it.
Erica of Erica’s Edibles was our host for the Daring Baker’s June challenge. Erica challenged us to be truly DARING by making homemade phyllo dough and then to use that homemade dough to make Baklava.
Okay, it’s official..I suck; I really do. I gave it a shot, but not a good one. We had a blast of humidity here, on and off the past month, and I just wasn’t able to muster up the motivation and desire to continue rolling out paper-thin sheets of dough for three hours. I started rolling, but by sheet number 3, I threw in the towel. They ripped, they stuck together, they laughed in my face; tatters of papery smirks.
I sloppily buttered each crumpled mess of my three annihilated phyllo sheets, sprinkled them with some of the sugar nut mixture for the baklava, then rolled them into roses (scrunch and roll, it’s actually quite simple). Then I baked them and plopped them on top of some of my baked baklava, drizzled with a little extra honey syrup.
I feel like a cop-out, but the truth is, I’m a horrible super, stretchy, thin dough roller. The proof is in the pudding; look at that strudel dough from back in ’09. Everyone had gorgeous, stretchy, transparent sheets of dough that they rolled and stretched to kingdom come. They could have been hung as sheer curtains; that’s how strong and perfect they were. In the mean time, I was barely able to roll mine larger than a trash can cover, and it was completely unyielding. It just sat; it wouldn’t budge no matter how long I covered it to let the gluten rest, then tore in half when I tried to lift it with the tops of my hands to stretch it. I just used what I had, and ended up with maybe two flaky layers upon baking. Master FAIL.
I think I just have to accept the fact that I’ll never be part of any champion tablecloth-dough stretching team for strudel or phyllo.
Having said all that, I’d never made baklava before, so this was definitely a challenge for me. Thankfully, I bought 2 lbs of phyllo as backup, almost expecting the above phyllo failure. Well, good news, I am no longer intimidated by the process of putting together a baklava. I always put off making it, thinking there was no way I wouldn’t end up with a mess of crumpled phyllo as I layered it in the pan. Oh, and the cutting/scoring part..I swore it would be impossible, and I would end up pulling and tearing each square or diamond into an inside out mess before baking.
Well..none of the above happened, so I’m spectacularly happy, but at the same time, I’m spectacularly scared because I can’t stop eating it! I can almost feel my organs ready to burst in protest as each morsel of drippy baklava permeates my system with sugar. I don’t think I’ve ever had this much sugar in my body at once, and I don’t think I’ve ever had this little sleep either. I’ve been on a constant sugar high every night for the past week, but it’s just so damn good, I can’t help myself!
I’d like to share a little of my history with baklava and sticky, dripping Greek (actually of Turkish origin, thanks to Emre!) pastries in general, with you all.
When I was in college, there were several pizzerias peppered throughout the streets of our city campus. They each had a purpose, so they were all used, none left out. One pizzeria was the after bar/clubbing pizza place. You always went there after an alcohol-laden evening, even those who were hooking up. It was fun seeing booze-induced couplings scarfing down gooey pizza before the inevitable hook-up/one night stand. Oh, and the pizza was good.
Another place made phenomenal subs. In fact, every time I walked in, the owner knew ‘my sandwich’ and immediately got it started, and it was always absolute perfection. It was a hoagie roll, split, spread with mayo, topped with provolone, toasted, then piled with crab meat salad; the real stuff. I know it sounds gross, but I loved it.
The next one was the ‘after game’ pizzeria, since most went there after football, basketball or hockey games. It was also the ‘after all classes’ pizzeria, for those who liked to supplement their food plan with pizza, always stopping in before dinner was ready in the food halls. Sort of a college version of a first course or appetizer, I guess.
Finally, there was the baklava pizzeria. We called it that because there was always a fresh pan of homemade baklava on the counter next to the cash register. It was a small place, so when it would get really crowded, my roommate, and others, would grab a piece or two from the pan and scurry back to our table with devious looks.
Thievery! Criminals! It was bad, but the baklava was oh.so.good. This is where and when I fell in love with baklava. I craved it immensely, and couldn’t go in that damn place without buying a piece (Yes, I did pay 99% of the time; I was bad just once.). This is also when I knew baklava was a very dangerous little pastry, and it led me to other dangerous Greek pastries and many a Greek festival at Greek churches near every place I lived after college, where I indulged shamelessly.
Well..I managed to break the habit and stay away. In fact, I hadn’t had baklava or any Greek or Turkish pastry for about 8 years prior to this challenge. Now that I know how to make it, I’m SO screwed. What’s even worse is, they make phyllo sheets to fit 13 x 9 pans perfectly, so it makes for quick and easy layering. Once again, I’m SO screwed.
Back to this baklava.
Since I copped out on the homemade phyllo, and had 2 lbs of store-bought phyllo, I didn’t make a small 9 x 9 inch pan of baklava, which was the recipe given to us so we wouldn’t have to roll out 30 to 40 sheets of phyllo. With 2 lbs of phyllo, I made a version of THIS RECIPE for a 13 x 9 pan ( I used the syrup from the challenge, though, with a few changes). I love and curse this man at the same time because his recipe is pretty much a compilation of all the awesome baklava I’ve ever had, from the pizzeria in college to every Greek festival I’ve ever been to.
However, I did make some changes. I used equal amounts of cashews, pistachios and walnuts, but then realized I was a cup short of 6 1/2 cups of nuts and the only nuts I had left were macadamias. I guess you could call this a crazy combo nut baklava, but it’s good crazy, as in, I wish I could stop eating it and trash it ‘good crazy’. I also added a little fresh squeezed orange juice to the syrup, along with cinnamon sticks, orange peel, and split and scraped vanilla beans, to flavor it before straining.
A few quick notes and hints;
- Pour hot syrup on cooled baklava instead of cool syrup on hot baklava. This prevents a soggy bottom.
- Even though I didn’t tear the slices of baklava inside out, I’m a horrid baklava cutter. My rows were not only incredibly uneven, but raggedy. Three sizes of baklava in one pan.
- A super duper sharp knife comes in handy, as does a super sharp ability to draw straight lines.
- Yes, I did attempt to make each slice pretty with phyllo hearts. FAIL However, the roses came out nice.
- I didn’t want diamond shapes, I really wanted squares!
- Baklava can last a month if the water in the syrup evaporates when cooked down, or obviously, if you don’t use water in your syrup.
- Make this, then give it away after one piece. You’ll thank me later.
- I just ate another piece.
To see all the real Daring Bakers, the ones who actually made and rolled out tons of sheets of phyllo, and turned out some gorgeous baklava’s, click on the links to their blogs, HERE. To get the recipe, plus step- by-step photos, for phyllo and the challenge recipe for baklava, click HERE.
Mixed Nut Baklava
- 2 pounds phyllo dough (approx. 40 sheets)*
- 2 cups finely chopped walnuts
- 2 cups finely chopped unsalted cashew nuts
- 1½ cups finely chopped unsalted pistachio nuts
- 1 cup finely chopped macadamia nuts
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- ¾ pound unsalted butter (melted)
- 1¼ cups sugar
- 1¼ cups honey
- 1 cup water
- ¼ cup fresh squeezed orange juice
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 large vanilla bean, split
- 1 long strip of orange peel, pith scraped off
- Grease a 13×9 pan (bottom & sides) and set aside. Mix well the nuts, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl and set aside.
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place a pan of water on the bottom rack.
- Set aside one full-size sheet of phyllo dough. Cover with plastic wrap.
- Cut remaining phyllo sheets into 13×9 sheets. Actually, measure your pan and cut the sheets to match the actual inside dimensions. On my pan it is actually 12″ x 8″, for example. With a big sharp knife you should be able to cut all of the phyllo at the same time. You will most likely have a lot of left over phyllo – consider finding another dish where you could use the smaller pieces of leftover phyllo dough.
- Carefully lay the full-size phyllo sheet into the greased pan, folding over the pan edges. With a pastry brush, liberally apply melted butter.
- Lay a cut sheet of phyllo into the bottom of the pan, and with a pastry brush liberally apply melted butter. Repeat 9 more times, so that you have the one full sheet and 10 smaller sheets as your bottom layer.
- Sprinkle 2 cups of the nut mixture into the pan. Lay 6 more sheets of phyllo on top, making sure to liberally apply the melted butter between each sheet. Repeat this 3 more times, so that you have 4 separate layers of the walnut mixture. For the top layer place as many phyllo sheets on top as you have remaining, again making sure to liberally butter between each sheet. Using a sharp plastic spatula, carefully fold over the large sheet of phyllo that should still be extended over the edge back onto the top, so that you can see down the inside edges of the pan. In effect you now have one big baklava package wrapped with your initial phyllo sheet. Using a very, very sharp serrated knife, carefully score the baklava into whatever shape you want. A diamond pattern is the traditional shape. Try to cut about half-way down into the baklava when you do this.
- Bake for 2½ to 3 hours at 300 degrees until brown.
- Let the baklava cool completely. Strain the syrup, then reheat until hot. Slowly pour over the cooled baklava. Cover with plastic wrap and let the baklava absorb the syrup for at least 4 hours. Can be kept refrigerated for up to a month.
- Combine all ingredients in a medium pot, scraping the vanilla bean into the mixture and throwing in the pods. Heat over medium high heat. Stir occasionally until sugar has dissolved.
- Boil for 10 minutes, stir occasionally. Once boiled for 10 minutes, remove from heat and let cool. Do not strain yet, let the flavors steep in the honey, water and sugar until the baklava has baked and cooled. When baklava is completely cooled, as mentioned above, strain the syrup then pour it all over the baklava, cover it, and let it sit for at least 4 hours before serving.
** Pour hot syrup on cooled baklava instead of cool syrup on hot baklava. This prevents a soggy bottom.