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Baklava - a request

"Portions should be very small" Claudia Roden

Baklava is always made in this house for get togethers with the neighbours. Why? Because years ago when the first one happened, I made one, because it's easy to make, looks spectacular, tastes really good if very sweet, and feeds a crowd. They liked it so much that whenever it's David's turn to host the wine night I have to make it. It's expected. It has become a local tradition.

So last night was wine night night and this is what is left of a rather larger pastry which looked like the one below.

Anyway they all drooled and David said I had to write about it, so that the recipe could be passed on (again). I demurred at first because I knew that I had done this before, way, way back on my old website. But he was insistent and so here I go again, although I don't quite know what I am going to say.

Let's get the recipe out of the way first I guess. My version is from a long ago acquired book called The Complete Middle East Cookbook written by Tess Mallos - see below:

Tess Mallos’ version

20 sheets filo pastry, 3/4 cup melted, unsalted butter, 2 cups finely chopped walnuts, 1 cup finely chopped almonds, 1/4 cup caster sugar, 2 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/8 tsp ground cloves.

Syrup - 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1 1/2 cups water, 1/4 cup honey, thinly peeled strip of lemon rind, small piece cinnamon bark, 3 cloves, 2 tsps lemon juice.

Butter base and sides of dish and place nine sheets of fillo separately into the dish, brushing each with melted butter. Mix nuts, sugar and spices and spread half of this mixture over filo. Top with another two sheets of filo, brushing each with butter. Spread remaining nuts on top and finish with remaining filo, brushing each sheet as before. Trim edges and brush top with butter. Cut baklava with a sharp knife into diamond shapes. Sprinkle lightly with water to prevent top layers curling upwards. Bake on centre shelf of a moderately slow oven (160oC) for 30 mins. Move up one shelf and cook for further 30 mins. Cover with greased brown paper or foil if top colours too quickly. Pastry must be allowed to cook thoroughly.

When baklava goes into the oven, make the syrup. Place sugar, water and honey in a heavy pan and stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Add remaining syrup ingredients, bring to the boil and boil for 15 mins. Strain and cool.

Spoon syrup evenly over hot baklava. Leave for several hours before cutting again into serving portions.

My variation

My version is basically Tess Mallos’. The only thing I do differently is to layer the nuts more. I put in about 2 sheets of filo, sprinkle lightly with the nuts, cover with another 2 sheets, sprinkle with nuts, cover with another 2 sheets, sprinkle with nuts and so on until I’ve used all the nuts. I find it makes for a more even spread of nuts and pastry. I also pour the syrup over the finished baklava from a jug into which it was strained.

Nearly all the other recipes that I have looked at both back then and now have a thickish layer - of filo at the top and bottom with the nut mixture in between. However, as I said I decided it would be better to alternate nuts and pastry throughout. Mind you looking at my finished result in profile, I'm not sure this makes any difference. Maybe fewer different layers and more nuts on the fewer layers. I also note that there is more pastry at the edges, because the dish I make it in is round, and so I have pastry hanging over the side that gets folded in, but as Felicity Cloake points out

"It’s important to brush every layer with melted butter – and make sure you trim the edges, rather than folding them in, so you don’t end up with wodges of dry filo around the sides." Felicity Cloake

So maybe that's what I'll do next time. You could make a layer with the offcuts of pastry after all, so nothing need be wasted. And yes she is right about brushing every layer lavishly with butter. This is not a dessert that is good for you.

Another tip from Felicity Cloake's article is about when you add the syrup - quoting Claudia Roden. I add mine as soon as it comes out of the oven and I just love the hissing and popping that occurs as you pour the cooled syrup over the very hot pastry.

"Most recipes add the syrup as soon as or shortly after the pastries come out of the oven, so it can be absorbed as they cool, but Roden shares a highly “unorthodox secret trick” of her aunt Latifa’s – she returns the syrupy baklava to the oven for five minutes, explaining that “the pastry made this way is among the best I have eaten”. And when Roden says that, you know she’s right." Felicity Cloake

There is not a lot of variation in baklava recipes really. Fundamentally it's layered nuts and filo. The nuts vary a tiny bit but not much. Mostly walnuts and almonds, but sometimes pistachio enter the mix. I have seen others mentioned - macadamias, cashews, but there is not much variation. As to flavourings - as well as those in Tess Mallos' recipe I have seen things like grated orange peel, and cardamom in the filling and rosewater and orange flower water in the syrup.

I did look for variations that were a bit out there, but honestly couldn't find many. The addition of chocolate was fairly common I suppose and Ottolenghi did have a version with halloumi, but really, mostly people did not mess with it. Interestingly though George Calombaris - I suppose our top Greek chef - only brushed the top of his baklava with syrup. No drenching for him. A mistake I think. It has to ooze syrup. Without it I think it would be rather dry. He used almond meal as well not almonds. Another black mark to George I think.

Originally a Turkish thing they think, but found all over the Middle East, and here in Australia mostly a Greek thing - because of our large Greek population. Greek Australians - even of, now, third and fourth generation Australian still refer to themselves as Greek Australians - introduced this sweet - and a host of others - to Australia and we fell in love with them. You can get them everywhere from the artisan specialist Greek pastry shops to your local supermarket.

Yum - try it some time. It's super, super easy - if a little bit time-consuming. You just need a packet of filo pastry, butter - lots of it, nuts, and sugar. Probably honey and lemon juice too. The most difficult thing I find is cutting that diamond pattern into the pastry. The first line of cuts are easy enough, but when you come to cut across those, the top layer of pastry has a tendency to curl up and away. Tricky and a tiny bit irritating sometimes. I'm not a patient cook.

Damn - it's Bastille Day and I meant to go French - but I'll leave it until after our French birthday party dinner on Sunday.


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