Baklava-Making for the Timid

I could have called this “Baklava-making for Dummies” but my wonderful readers aren’t dummies and neither am I. For all of you non-baklava-makers out there, haven’t you ever wanted to make it? I didn’t make it for years because, frankly, I was scared to death of filo dough. Even after I screwed my courage to the sticking place and tackled spanakopita (yummmm….), I thought baklava was beyond me. After all, it is the quintessential Greek dessert! All those generations of yia-yias exercising their supernatural skill in the kitchen…how could I think I could even approach that!?

Well, one day I just decided I’d make it. After all, I did make spanakopita and it turned out ok. How bad could it be? [Note: several times this question has been answered by “pretty bad and quite inedible” so I was actually taking a risk.]

The first thing you have to do is decide you’re not scared of filo. Now, repeat after me: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” If the little engine could, so can you. I am not a natural cook. When I left home I knew how to boil water and that’s about it. Seriously, that’s how I cooked chicken – by putting it in boiling water. That was some pretty bland chicken, I must say. That means if I can do this, anybody can.

Filo is simply dough rolled out veeeeeery thin. It’s found in the freezer section and comes in a package of two rolls of 40 sheets (one pound). Here are the things you need to know about filo:

1. Filo tears fairly easily, but that’s ok.
2. Filo dries out and turns brittle, but not if you don’t take forever and try to smooth out all the wrinkles.
3. Filo turns into a soggy lump if it gets wet.
4. Filo wrinkles. Get over it.
5. There are no short-cuts to defrosting filo. Do it overnight or at least for 8 hours. Just set the box out on the counter. If you try to take short-cuts, your filo will all be stuck together. Ask me how I know this.

So, get it out the night before, don’t take forever while working with it, don’t spill water on it, and don’t sweat the wrinkles and occasional tears. Really, this is not that hard. I promise you. When I first started using filo (and this is hilarious to me now) I covered the stack of filo with a layer of waxed paper, then a slightly damp dish towel. This was in an effort to keep it from drying out. I occasionally got the edges too wet with the dish towel and I had to lift the whole thing off and then replace it every time I used a sheet. I practically doubled the amount of time it took me to construct anything. Time is not your friend when you have filo out. One day I just decided to throw all caution to the wind and just pull the sheets off as I went and let the air have a blast with it.

You know what? It didn’t dry out. True, by the time I reached the bottom of the stack the edges of the last few were getting a bit brittle, but that’s nothing. Seriously.

Ok, so I’ll stop yakking about how easy this is and actually show you how to do it. First, I have to say that I am heavily indebted to The Greek Gourmet by the Philoptochos ladies of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Scranton, PA. (Ordering info below*) Their recipe for baklava taught me how to make baklava. I’ve changed the recipe a bit (there are as many baklava recipes as people who make it) and given some other helpful information, but I urge you to get that book if you’re looking for a good all-around Greek cookbook.

Now, I am going to be teaching you how to do this the easy way. I don’t like doing things the hard way if I don’t have to. I am basically a lazy person and a lazy cook. This doesn’t mean you compromise on quality or taste, you just don’t kill yourself trying to get some good baklava!!

 *  *  *  *  *  *  * 
 
Baklava

You need:

1 pound filo dough
3 sticks of butter, clarified
(optional) whole cloves

filling:
20 ounces of finely chopped walnuts
1 T sugar
cinnamon (this is not a precise amount)
5 fist-full sprinkles of water (Just what it sounds like)

syrup:
3 cups sugar
2 cups water
1/3 of juice of 1 lemon

tools:
baking pans
parchment paper
pastry brush
sharp, non-serrated knife

*  *  *  *  *  *  * 

One principle of baklava is that either the syrup or the baklava needs to be hot when you put them together, but not both. I find it easiest to make the syrup first, let it cool, then make the baklava. Today I made the syrup in the morning and set it aside while I did other things. I make two or three batches at a time so I make the syrup for all of them at once. There is no problem with doubling or tripling this recipe.

To make the syrup put sugar, water and lemon juice in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. As soon as it boils turn the heat down to keep it at a low rolling boil. Boil for 10 minutes then remove from heat. You can leave it in the pot or pour it (carefully) into a large bowl. If you cool it in the refrigerator don’t leave it so long that it is cold.

The filling is exceptionally easy. Put the walnuts in a large bowl, add the sugar and stir. Add enough cinnamon to make the walnuts a little darker. This is very subjective. I didn’t measure, but I’ll guess that I added about a tablespoon of cinnamon. [edited to add: anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon] Add more or less; it’s fairly forgiving. Stir well. This is how I add the water: I put the bowl next to the sink and turn the water on. I hold my hand (not cupping it) under the stream and then move it over the bowl, shaking the drops off. Do this five times. Stir well. Cover until you’re ready to assemble the baklava.

 
To clarify the butter you just put the sticks in a heavy pot and turn up the heat. Once it is simmering just skim off the foam. Keep doing this until there’s barely any foam left (you’ll never get it all). Take it off the heat. You can clarify butter days in advance and just pop it in the fridge. When you’re ready to make the baklava just dump it in a pot and warm it up until it’s liquid again. [Don’t use the microwave! Microwaving sounds like a short-cut but it takes you longer in the end.] Leave it in the pot after you take it off the heat. The pot will stay warm and the butter will stay liquid for the entire time you’re using it. If you microwave it in a bowl you’ll have to keep warming it up. Boo. Then your filo dries out. Double Boo.

 
Now, this is a trick of my own invention. I haven’t seen it anywhere else (although I haven’t exactly looked too hard). The most difficult part of making baklava for me is removing it from the pan! Not that it sticks – it doesn’t, way too much butter – but it’s hard to get a spatula in there to remove the first few pieces without demolishing them. Also, you have to cut it the rest of the way and I don’t like scratching my baking pans. So I decided to try parchment paper. I laid it in the pan such that there were a few inches hanging off either side (I trimmed it to fit the length of the pan) and assembled the baklava on top of it. When you’re ready to cut it and serve it you just lift the parchment paper on either side and carefully transfer it to a cutting board. This completely revolutionized baklava making for me. You can cut without fear and there is no difficulty at all in picking up the pieces with a spatula.

Ready to start? You can do all of the above steps one right after the other but I like to spread it out so it’s not so tiring. Don’t unwrap your filo until you are ready to start.

Get all your things lined up so you’re not reaching over long distances. The filo on the right (left if you’re left-handed), the pan in front of you, the butter as close as you can get. (That’s the covered syrup in the upper left corner. It’s not there for any reason other than I didn’t move it.)

1. Butter the pan (or parchment paper, if you’ve taken my advice).

2. Lay a sheet of filo in the pan. It will not look perfect. Get over it. Using your pastry brush, butter it. Don’t skimp on the butter but don’t leave puddles either. You do want to cover the whole thing. The edges will undoubtedly extend up the sides of the pan.** Good. Using your pastry brush “paint” them onto the sides.

This is what it should look like after a couple sheets:

Keep layering and buttering until you only have three sheets left in that stack. [Note: Even if a sheet tears, use it. If you have two sheets that will not separate, just lay them down as one sheet. If you have completely demolished a sheet, it’s fine to toss it – it will never be missed.]

3. Dump/spoon about half of the walnuts into the pan. Spread them out with the spoon to cover the filo evenly. You may not need exactly half (I rarely do) so start with some and add if you need more.

You don’t want to have a thick layer but you don’t want “bald spots” either. If you look at the photo below you can see the filo through the layer of walnuts in places. Sprinkle some more walnuts over it until all you see are walnuts.

4. Using the pastry brush sprinkle some butter over the nuts.

5. Lay the next sheet of filo down over the nuts and carefully butter it. Lay the last two sheets and butter them.

[Before you open the next roll of filo, take a deep breath, sip your drink, and preheat the oven to 325 F.]

6. Open the second roll of filo. Layer and butter the first three sheets.

7. Repeat steps 3 and 4 with the second half of the walnuts (again, you probably won’t need the rest of the nuts).

8. Layer and butter the rest of the filo. You will have wrinkles and tears here and there through the whole thing. This is not important. I do try to make sure the top sheet is as tear and wrinkle-free as possible.*** 

9. (Optional) You see the filo extending up the side of the pan?** You can use a very sharp knife to trim that down to the level of the surface. Aim for a bit above the surface. 

So this is what it should look like. No, I’m sorry, you’re still not ready to put it in the oven. Soon!

10. Score the top layer or two with a very sharp (non-serrated) knife so you know where you’re going to cut the pieces. You have to do this before you cook it because it’s too brittle to do afterward. You can cut it in whatever shape you want: squares, diamonds, triangles. Again, let me emphasize using a SHARP knife. If it’s at all dull, it will tear the filo and drag it.

11. Once you’re happy, cut deeply into the baklava but don’t try to go all the way to the bottom of the pan. I do try to cut past the bottom layer of nuts. This makes it easier to cut the pieces afterward. I cut it in squares and then triangles. [Optional: you can insert a whole clove into the center of every piece.]

 12. Bake the baklava at 325 F for about 50 minutes. This will depend on your oven temperature. The original recipe calls for 350 F for one hour but I was forever scorching the edges. After making these adjustments I’ve had no problems. You may have to experiment a bit at first. Check it before you think it’s ready so you can catch it if it’s browning too quickly. You want it to be lightly browned.

13. Now the fun part! If you already made the syrup and let it cool (you smart cookie, you!) then you can right now pour the syrup over the baklava. [If you haven’t made the syrup yet, put the pan of baklava on a baking rack to cool and make the syrup then. As soon as the syrup is done you pour it over the cooled baklava.] If you doubled or tripled your recipe, just dip out about three cups from the bowl. Pour it slowly and evenly over the entire pan. It will look like it’s swimming in syrup but the baklava will eventually soak it all up. If you skimp on the syrup, the baklava will be too dry.

Let it cool and then cover it. If you can stand it wait at least 2 hours before diving in. It’s much better if you wait a day or two or more. Baklava gets better as it sits.

Store in a covered container at a cool room temperature for up to 2
weeks. You can also freeze it and then just set it out at room
temperature to thaw. Lift it out onto a cutting board to cut it all the
way through and serve.

(This is from the batch I made on Wednesday…vegan!)

Footnote on how to make the fasting version: Substitute oil for the butter. That’s it. In my mind it’s not as good (you really do miss the butter) but it’s pretty awesome for something that’s fasting.

*”The Greek Gourmet” – two used copies available on Amazon; contact Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Scranton, PA for new copies ($15)

**You can use whatever size pan you like. I’m using a 9×12 inch pan for this post because I am deliberately cutting my pieces in 3 inch squares and it fits neatly. If you use a larger pan (and usually I do) the pan will be probably larger than the sheet of filo. Just put the sheet in, fitting it to one corner then do the next one in a different corner and so on. It will turn out fine. You can even deliberately put them in so they come up the sides a bit if you wish. If you don’t, then you can skip step 9 because there won’t be any edges to trim.

***One more way to do the top which I did not demonstrate: Put all the layers on but the top two. Trim the edges if they need trimming as in step 9. Then, layer the top two but tuck the edges in all around. This gives a very neat look to the edges.

10 thoughts on “Baklava-Making for the Timid

  1. thank you ♥ I have always wanted to try to make baklava! I have made several other recipes, yes, spanikopita and filo wrapped asparagus with cheese…so I'm not afraid of it, but needed instructions like this! If you had to estimate how much cinnamon you use, would you say a teaspoon?

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  2. Martha, I really don't measure the cinnamon and it always seems to come out ok. I am guessing about the amount but just so someone doesn't add 1/4 tsp or half a cup, I'll say it's going to be between a tsp and a tbsp. Good luck! The next time I make it I'll try to remember to spoon in a tsp at a time until it “looks right” so I'll know how much.

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  3. Well, yeah, you're in GREECE!!! (c: There is nowhere in my town to get baklava and the closest place would likely be an hour and a half away. If I were in Greece I'd probably leave the baklava to the bakeries, lol. (c: I need to add a footnote about how to make the fasting version…

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  4. If you are feeling adventurous next time, try adding a teaspoon of orange blossom water (mai zaher) to the syrup you made. That is how my Palestinian grandmother makes baklawa. Also you can use chopped pistachio instead of walnuts (omit the cinnamon if you do). I like to make mine by buttering three sheets of phylo, putting a line of nuts down the side, and rolling it up (think rolling your own cigarette and that's a good approximation.) When I have four or five of these on a baking tray, I cut them into 1 inch slices almost through (like when you cut cookie dough off a log). I find they are easier to eat that way because the filling doesn't cause the top to slide off like with the triangles. Plus they are smaller, good if you are serving them at a potluck. 🙂

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  5. Great job Mat.Anna it looks fantastic and yummy! Your technique would make any Greek mom proud. Lots of variations exist depending on geographical regions and availability of items. I like putting lemon zest in the syrup and add chopped almonds into the mixture. I totally agree about the wax paper wet cloth, I do use that method but only when rolling individual ones.

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