Depending on where you hang your hat, baklava might mean different things to you–a Greek baklava is not a Turkish baklava is not an Arab baklava, and so on and so forth. The core idea is the same across all variants though: an absolutely delicious treat composed of layers of paper-thin, flaky phyllo dough, sweet, spiced, crunchy nuts, and a sticky, sweet syrup to bring it all together.
As exotic as baklava might be to some (to think, some have never had it before! If you haven’t, this goes on your dessert to-do list. Really!), making baklava is easy, albeit a bit tedious. Of course, if I didn’t use store-bought premade phyllo dough, it might not have been quite so easy ;-). At a high level, it really amounts to layering several sheets of the delicate, paper thin phyllo dough with a light brushing of butter between each with a thicker mid-section composed of sweetened nuts. Once this is baked, the phyllo in combination with the butter becomes a delicate, flaky, elegant looking pastry, at which point, you add a sweet syrup that will be absorbed into the cooked baklava for something really special.
I wanted to employ a lot of exciting aromatics in this rendition of baklava. The nut filling (a mix of walnuts and pistachio) has a touch of cinnamon and cardamom for that curious, sweet spice while the syrup also carries the same flavors as well as the sharper notes of clove and the sweet, round floral tones of honey and roses. The final touch? The topmost layers of the phyllo dough were brushed with a saffron-infused butter, both for its delicate and sweet taste as well as that seductive, blushing color it adds to the baklava. Given all of these flavors, I’m not really sure where you could say this baklava is rooted (e.g. Greek, Jewish, etc), but whatever the case, it was incredible and I wish I had more right now (it disappeared very quickly)…
- ~1 lb phyllo dough (I used premade)
- 1/2 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- good pinch of saffron
- 4 cups nuts (I used 2 cups walnuts, 2 cups pistachios)
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground cardamom
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 cups honey
- 1.25 cup water
- 1/4 cup rosewater
- 2 cardamom pods
- 4 cloves
- 1 cinnamon stick
Begin by coarsely chopping/crushing the nuts. Toss them with sugar, ground cinnamon, and ground cardamom in a bowl. Set this aside.
Now, work on the syrup so that it will have ample time to cool. Slit the cardamom pods open, and in a saucepan, add the whole spices, water, sugar, and honey. Warm this up over low heat until the sugar melts down and everything mixes together. Keep a close eye on this and don’t use medium or high heat or you run the risk of very sudden spatter or overflow of shockingly hot syrup, which will be followed by either fun burns and/or a candied stovetop. I only enjoyed the latter, but you shouldn’t have to enjoy either. So again: low/medium-low heat.
You should warm this up for about 10 minutes or so (potentially longer depending on how low the heat is) until thickened to a nice syrup consistency. Once you’re happy with the consistency, turn off the heat but let the saucepan remain where it is to slowly cool down. Fish out the whole spices, and after several minutes, mix in the rosewater.
Finally, on to the dough. In a saucepan, melt down the butter and skim off the solids (so clarify the butter). Set aside 3 tablespoons of this clarified butter in a separate bowl and stir in the crushed saffron. Set the saffron butter aside for later, giving it time to take on the characteristics of the saffron.
With the butter melted, grease your baking pan and carefully lay down a sheet of phyllo, immediately covering your unused sheets with a slightly damp towel (or else they’ll dry out and become hard and impossible to work with). Lightly brush this sheet all over with butter and then lay another phyllo sheet on top of this, repeating until 8 layers deep.
Now, evenly spread roughly half of the nut mixture on your phyllo stack. Start layering phyllo again on top of this, brushing with butter as before. Make this stack anywhere between 4 and 8 layers deep, after which, you should spread out the remainder of the nut mixture. Finish this off with another 8 sheets of phyllo, but since this is the topmost layer, now use the saffron-infused butter for brushing so that the top layer can have a sexy color. Somewhere during all of this, preheat your oven to 350°F.
Now that its all put together, with a sharp knife, cut into long columns roughly 1-2 inches apart, and then cut at an angle across so that you have diamond-shaped pieces. Transfer this to the oven for 20 minutes, after which, you should drop the temperature to 300°F and let cook for an additional 15 or so minutes.
Once removed from the oven, recut the areas you previously cut as well as the borders as things might have started sticking together during cooking. Evenly pour on the syrup you prepared earlier and let this cool off for a few hours before you dig in so that the baklava and the syrup have some time to get to know one another.
When you can’t wait any longer, grab a plate and a napkin and dig in! Also, don’t go storing the leftovers in the fridge–there’s no need to and you won’t be doing yourself any favors. Enjoy!