Southern Inspired Baklava
Baklava is one of my favorite parts of having a Greek family. My husband's family is extremely Greek - think My Big Fat Greek Wedding IRL. His yiayia Tasia made the most WONDERFUL Baklava, it was everything I love about the dessert: nutty, syrupy, crunchy, buttery. I have been under some not-so-subtle pressure to be the legacy of her cooking, so I decided to take on the challenge of making baklava.
I was given this cookbook by my Theia Christina at my bridal shower. It is their Greek Orthodox Church cookbook where Mike's (other) yiayia was on the committee for years. I knew her for a short time when we first started dating and she was very sick, so I didn't get to witness her phenomenal baking and cooking skills. Her recipes are well documented and live on in this cookbook though!! I am so grateful for recipes and how they pass on the very best of a person, what they made for their family and friends to eat and enjoy together. The recipe I used was titled "Baklava 1" (because inevitably there were about 4 different baklava recipes, as most other traditionally greek recipes had copies).
This was the first baklava I made, and I went ahead and took some editorial rights over the recipe based on what I had in my fridge (aka: Bourbon washed brown butter). Mike had decided to make some ridiculous hot toddies using brown butter washed Makers, so I used the leftover brown butter to melt down and spread across the sheets of phyllo. (Word to the wise: *IT WAS AN AMAZING ADDITION*).
I was inspired by my family's Christmas morning cinnamon rolls, where we slather fresh made dough with butter, cinnamon, brown sugar, and pecans. I decided to use all these ingredients instead of the traditional white sugar, walnuts, and clarified butter. The Greeks typically only use walnuts, but I am a sucker for the sweet nuttiness of a roasted pecan.
These are designated "Southern Baklava" for my cinnamon roll and bourbon influence. Maybe not truly southern, but it certainly was something I learned living in Southwestern VA for 15 years.
So the baklava. I have always been in awe of my mother-in-law's baklava. They are cut in the most beautiful, precise diamonds, wrapped meticulously in mini cupcake foil wrappers, and placed in the most recently used Nordstrom's shirt box and tied up with a bow, just because. Mine were...not so pretty. But time will maybe get me to the pristine level that can only come with years and years of making this dessert. That does mean I might have to not go into the pan with a spoon all the time and actually package them up.. future Erin's problem.
The phyllo was the most interesting ingredient. I imagined it would be horrendous based on the warnings all the food network stars give on keeping it moist and making sure it's warm but not too warm, etc. It sounded like too much work, and I might not have taken it seriously enough because the sweet Greek ladies who wrote the cookbook GAVE NO GUIDANCE. So I just went for it and didn't even use a warm tea towel over the sheets to keep them moist. What I found: it was fine, I worked quickly so it wasn't too dry. The sheets would become slightly stiff but once they were in the pan and buttered, they regained their moisture. One word of advice I did receive was to not over butter the sheets. Do a light swipe along each sheet but do not oversaturate. A lot of times your soggy baklava can be blamed on too much syrup when it is often too much butter (blasphemy, I know).
I started with my stoneware baking dish. This is my go-to for bar-like desserts because of how evenly it bakes with the heavy stone. I would NOT do this with baklava again. Even with the generous lathering of butter at the bottom, the phyllo is so delicate that it was quite difficult to get out of the pan nicely. I would go with a glass 9x13 next time.
So, layer layer layer with phyllo and butter. I lost count but it's supposed to be about 10 sheets at the bottom, then 1/3 of the nuts, 5 sheets, 1/3 of the nuts, then the recipe gets vauge and says "layer until you have about 8-10 sheets left". WHO CAN COUNT PHYLLO SHEETS?? They are impossible to estimate if you aren't the phyllo whisperer. I ended up with about 6 sheets when I layered the last 1/3 of the nuts because I underestimated the thickness of the dough. Oh well - it was fine. There were torn sheets, there were accidental folded over doubled sheets, it was all fine. Just layer and layer and brush and brush.
Scoring. I cut only 3/4 of the way down the baklava when I scored. This is so when I pour the syrup, it doesn't all pool at the bottom. This is also where I experienced a *normal* baklava thing where the top couple sheets of phyllo are unstable. I ended up cutting the other diagonal while holding the diamonds in place with my other hand so they didn't go all over the place.
Before baking, I popped it in the fridge for about 30 minutes (per the recipe). When I told my mother in law about this she seriously questioned me. So, maybe not necessary. The recipe didn't really go into why it was needed, so I will maybe cut out this step in the future.
While it was chilling I made the syrup. This is another place I diverged from tradition, mostly out of necessity. I only had about a half cup of honey, where the recipe called for 1c. I replaced with the true southern staple, blackstrap molasses. This gave the baklava a rich subtle spice that can't come from simple syrup and honey. I also added some (probably stale) vanilla beans and homemade vanilla extract (bourbon, ~3 split vanilla beans in a jar forevermore). Other than that, it was just simple syrup, a slice of lemon that I deseeded, a cinnamon stick, and the honey/molasses mix. Boiled for like 20 minutes. (NOTE: THIS MADE WAY TOO MUCH SYRUP. Will cut in half next time.)
The syrup **needs to cool** before pouring over hot baklava. I cheated and put the syrup into a heat proof pyrex and then put it in the freezer for about 20 minutes and that did the trick. You could make it the night before if patience is your virtue.
THE BEST PART
Pour that scrumtious syrup over the baklava. It will give off the most satisfying sizzle. The hard part is knowing how much is too much, because you don't want too little syrup so there is no moisture and you are eating butter nut paper, but not so much moisture that you lose the crunchiness of the phyllo and nuts. What I did was pour over every piece, wait about 30 seconds, tip the dish a little to see if any syrup was falling through the edges, and then pour a little more. This continued until I had used a little less than 2 cups of the syrup.
The Reason You're Here
10 oz walnuts
6 oz pecans
5 Tb brown sugar
1 Tb cinnamon
1 lb phyllo (frozen)
2 sticks unsalted butter
3 c sugar
3.5 c water
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup molasses
Take the phyllo out of the freezer and let it thaw for about 30 minutes. There should be 2 plastic packages of phyllo in the box. Take them out of the box while they thaw.
While thawing...Brown the butter! Melt butter in heavy bottomed sauce pan over medium heat. This will start to bubble and foam, this should keep going until it is golden brown (like that color that graham crackers freshly soaked in butter when making cheesecake crust..mm). There should also be very dark brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Take it immediately off the heat and put into a heat proof bowl along with all the brown bits. Let this cool off a bit.
Combine walnuts, pecans, brown sugar, and cinnamon in a food processor and pulse until it is roughly chopped.
Now..when the first phyllo is warm enough to carefully unroll without tearing, you are ready to assemble.
Brush butter on the bottom and edges of the 9x13 pan. Layer phyllo sheets with light brushed brown butter. 10 sheets at the bottom. Pour 1/3 of the nuts over the phyllo, then continue layering 5 more sheets with brown butter between the layers. Pour another 1/3rd of the nut mixture over the phyllo. Layer another 15 sheets of phyllo and butter, then finish with the final third of the nuts, and the remaining phyllo sheets.
Brush the top of the baklava with more butter. Score the baklava in diamonds by cutting parallel diagonal lines all the way across both ways.
Optionally, refrigerate for about 30 minutes to an hour. Do this if you are going to make the syrup now. If you make it the night before you can put it right in the oven.
Preheat the oven to 350 deg.
Bake the baklava for 30 minutes, then lower the temperature to 275 deg and bake for another hour.
While baking, put all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Let this simmer and reduce for 20 minutes.
Move to a heat proof bowl and let fully cool.
Take the baklava out of the oven, and immediately pour the cool syrup over the hot baklava. You will likely hear sizzling! I used about 2 cups of the syrup.
You could let this cool, I didn't have the restraint. it is easier to cut and eat cleanly when fully cooled.