May it Please the Palate- Hot Baklava

The summer after I graduated from college, I persuaded a local business owner to rent me a patch of sidewalk so that I could sell Greek pastries during the Ann Arbor Art Fairs. I made a few pans of baklava, the traditional Greek layered nut pastry, and galactoboureko (a sweet egg custard and farina dish made with phyllo dough and plenty of butter). Gleefully I calculated my profits, before I had even sold a piece. I believe I had hoped to make something like $80.

The reality was a bit different. I stood in the heat, selling a few pieces here and there, a bit dispirited. And then a woman approached, speaking Greek. I smiled, preparing to be complimented for trying my hand at making Greek confectionaries. Then I realized what she was saying. Roughly translated, "Get that galactoboureko in a cooler, you addle-brained fool. It has eggs in it."

Weakly, I offered her a piece of baklava. She huffed away.

Her loss. I make some damned fine baklava. This has come about with a lot of recipe experimentation. Greek baklavas can be cloyingly sweet. Essentially they are ground nuts with sugar and cinnamon, layered with buttered phyllo, and topped with a honey syrup. I have cut the sugar in half, punched up the taste of the nuts, and gave a little citrus taste to the syrup. In a nod to the recipe's Middle Eastern origins, I included some pistachio nuts.

Ingredients

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 cup chopped pistachio nuts

1 cup chopped blanched almonds (toasted)

1 cup chopped cashews

1/4 cup superfine sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

1 lb. or more sweet butter (Plugra brand) melted

1 package phyllo pastry sheets (I found some unbleached white flour ones at Hiller's, you can also find organic at Plum). Important: thaw them in the refrigerator overnight before starting the recipe.

Directions

Combine nuts, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Brush a 13 x 9 x 2 baking pan well with butter. Separate 25 phyllo sheets from package. Place under a smooth (not terrycloth) damp kitchen towel to prevent drying. Work quickly so the phyllo doesn't dry out. Place one phyllo sheet in the pan, trim to fit, brush generously with melted butter. Repeat until there are 5 layers of buttered phyllo in the pan. Sprinkle 1/4 of the nut mixture over the buttered sheets. Butter and layer 5 more phyllo sheets, sprinkle with 1/4 of the nut mixture. Repeat this two more times until you have placed the last 5 phyllo sheets over the last layer of nut mixture. Drizzle any remaining butter over top.

Score the baklava about halfway down with long vertical cuts about 3" apart, then make diagonal cuts across these lines about 1" apart. Do this before you bake it, otherwise it will crumble if you cut the top afterwards. (Here my mother placed a clove in the center of each piece before baking. While this makes me smile, I don't think it is necessary.)

Bake in a 300 degree oven 1 1/2 hours until a light golden brown. While it is baking, make the syrup.

1 cup sugar

1 3/4 cups water

finely grated zest of one orange

finely grated zest of one lemon

5 whole cloves

1 cinnamon stick

1 cup honey (get some good locally harvested stuff--it makes a great difference)

Combine sugar, water, orange and lemon zest, cloves and cinnamon stick into saucepan (not the honey at this point). Bring to boil. Simmer, uncovered, about 5 minutes to thicken syrup slightly. Remove from heat. Discard spices. Stir in honey. Cool at room temperature. Pour cooled syrup over the hot baklava, fresh from the oven. Allow to stand before serving, as long as you can stand waiting.

Serve hot--no refrigeration necessary. Now as for the galactoboureko, that's another matter entirely. Listen to those Greek women--they know whereof they speak.

Published: Thu, Oct 4, 2012

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