Among all the dishes I’ve sampled in my long lifetime of travel and somewhat adventurous eating, the last thing I ever expected to make at home was probably baklava.
For one thing, it’s a baked dessert, and I tend not to ever eat dessert and never to bake anything, considering how precise, time-consuming and unforgiving baking recipes can be. And for another thing, baklava uses phyllo dough, sheet after sheet of the stuff, each so see-through thin that you have to keep your stack under a damp towel so it doesn’t dry out. Even treated with such kid gloves, it can tear and even shred as your fingers try to move it from one place to another.
You can imagine my shock, then, combining delight with awe, when an excellent baker I know, Muriel Von Villas (actually she’s a voice teacher, but also an avid student of the oven), started making the best baklava I’ve ever tasted. Sure, I’d had lots of baklava over the years in Greece, which has the advantage of being home to some of Muriel’s ancestors, as well as in various Arab and other Near Eastern countries. But I’d never tasted baklava as good as this, and after she’d made it a couple times, I asked to try my hand.
Phyllo really is as advertised. If your phyllo pack’s 40 sheets come in two airtight rolls, you’ll be glad, since it’s hard enough to get through 20 sheets before the stuff dries out, much less 40. Get the technique down a few times at the start: lifting each sheet from its siblings and placing it in one fluid motion across the baking pan, then using a brush to coat it with melted butter. Get the technique down – then do it as fast as you can without messing up. Phyllo dries out faster than most of us can work with it.
The other secret to this baklava is the syrup, or honey sauce. Call it whatever you like, it manages to sidestep my biggest complaint about baklavas I’ve known and not loved – they are cloyingly sweet. This baklava is definitely not.
Everybody who ever tries making baklava makes it for the first time once, and the odds are extremely good you’ll get better. You’ll develop expertise in layering and buttering the phyllo, in using your fingers to spread the pecans (my favorites) or the more traditional walnuts, and in cutting the pieces at an angle without dragging the thawed phyllo along behind your knife. There’s nothing easy about making baklava. But there’s also nothing not extraordinary.
BAKLAVA WITH HONEY-LEMON SAUCE
Virtually all baklava recipes have a lot in common, especially the phyllo dough and honey. But some baklavas are better than others, a certainly freshly homemade baklava is better than almost any version bought in a supermarket. Here is the baklava taught to me by Muriel Von Villas, celebrating her father’s Greek roots.
1 cup sugar
½ cup honey
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¾ cup water
1 pound shelled pecans or walnuts
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 (16-ounce) package frozen phyllo sheets, thawed overnight in the refrigerator (about 40 sheets)
2 ½-3 sticks unsalted butter, melted
Make the sauce first, so that it has time to cool completely. In a saucepan, combine all the ingredients and bring to a boil over medium-high heat while stirring. The moment it’s boiling, reduce the heat to low and do not stir again. Cook 4 minutes and then let cool thoroughly.
To make the baklava, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grind the nuts in a mini-chopper, then add the cinnamon and stir until incorporated. Brush a 9 X 13-inch baking pan with melted butter, then add the first of 10 initial phyllo sheets, brushing with butter each time. Cover this base with about 3/4 cup of the chopped nuts. Repeat the process three times with 5 sheets each, brushing each sheet with butter and adding a layer of nuts. Finish the baklava with 10 buttered sheets of phyllo.
Using a sharp knife, cut all the way through the baklava to create 4 equal strips lengthwise. Then, starting at one corner, cut on a diagonal to make angled pieces of the size you prefer, continuing to the other end. Bake in the preheated oven 70-75 minutes, or until tops are golden brown. Remove the pan from the oven and immediately spoon the cooled honey sauce over the top, hearing it sizzle. Be careful to get sauce down along the outer edges and at the corners, so it can soak into the nuts and phyllo. Set the baklava to cool at room temperature for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.