Humbled by Phyllo Dough
It's Friday night, and I'm thinking I've got everything under control for my baklava experiment on Sunday, buying the ingredients in advance, thawing my dough in the fridge as strongly recommended in several cookbooks, making my qater (simple syrup with a perfume-y twist) early enough to get it nice and cool. I was in good shape, no?
Sunday afternoon, and I'm making the nut filling in the food processor, an earthy mix of walnuts, sugar, cinnamon and cardamom. I've got melted fat on standby, the pan is greased and I'm ready to go.
I open the fridge, pull out the package of dough, open the container, pull away the plastic. Wait. Something's not right. Where are all the tissued layers? I look for the packaging. Smarty pants here bought "Puff Pastry." Unlike the whisper-thin, easily torn sheets (phyllo literally means "leaf"), "puff" (aka pate feuilletee) is a much denser dough that gets its layered, flaky quality from chilled fat (usually butter) that's placed in between layers that get rolled out. The process of layering fat between layers is repeated several times; when the dough bakes, the moisture in the butter creates steam and causes the dough to puff up. The most classic example of a puff treat is a croissant.
Although I was looking for layers in my baklava, the goal was not to make it puffy but stacked. I had to act fast.
It's nearly six, and Mediterranean Bakery, my first choice to procure phyllo, is about to close, the woman on the phone tells me. Lebanese Taverna Market is already shuttered for the night. I call My Organic Market (MOMs) and sure enough, they've got some in stock.
I dash over, buy two rolls, and as I'm standing in line, I'm thinking, so it's 80 degrees outside. What if I put the dough outside to thaw? (MISTAKE NUMBER TWO.) I get home, let it thaw for a few hours, and around 8:45, I check the dough for readiness. As I carefully begin to unravel the roll, the dough budges only a wee bit before it begins to tear. Okay, I'll wait another hour, I decide.
9:45 comes, and although the dough moves a bit easier, it's still not ready to be completely unrolled. At 10:15, I made an executive decision and apply force on the phyllo sheets (MISTAKE NUMBER THREE), causing many of them to tear, rendering themselves useless.
But I press on, my damp towel and plastic atop the sheets in reserve, while I patchwork the first layer into the pan and apply the melted fat. After the seventh layer, I spread the nut filling and continue with the balance of the phyllo sheets until there are no more. I could kick myself for being such a dolt, but I decided that negativity was not an ingredient for baklava and needed to be tossed into the trash.
I trim the edges, top the baklava with the rest of the nutty filling, mist with water to prevent drying and score the dough into the classic diamond shapes seen in Middle Eastern groceries. In spite of the dough debacle, the baklava is looking good and you'd never know of my earlier travails.
As instructed, I pour the cool syrup on top of the hot pastry, which yields an exciting sizzling noise. But it's late, and I want the evening to end, and I'm careless, pouring more syrup than would be necessary. (MISTAKE NUMBER FOUR)
I seal the entire tray in foil and go to bed, exhausted by the errors of my ways. This morning, after my first cup of coffee, I slice into my baklava, and I can see there is indeed a bit too much syrup for my taste. The saving grace, however, is that the aromatic, flowery qater is deliciously exotic, and the filling is wonderful, with just the right amount of cinnamon and cardamom.
So the morals of my story are:
Thaw your phyllo dough for several hours or overnight in the fridge, like all the cookbooks tell you, and don't try to be a hotshot and save time;
Less is more when it comes to the syrup: You need much less syrup than you think you do, only about half to get good coverage, plus you'll prevent one of those sugary teeth-chattering episodes that only were fun when we were kids.
In spite of my many gaffs, DO try this at home! Learn from my mistakes, and go buy some phyllo dough (checking for no references of Puff Pastry, of course); it's fun and the results are impressive. Just go easy on that syrup, ya hear?
Baklava tips and tricks are most welcomed in the comments area below.
Recipe below the jump.
With help from "The World of Jewish Desserts" by Gil Marks and "The Arab Table" by May Bsisu
Syrup (also known as qater in the Arab world)
3 cups sugar
1 Â½ cups water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon orange blossom and/or rose water
4 cups nuts - blanched almonds, pistachios, walnuts or a combination
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Â¼ teaspoon cardamom (cloves another option)
1 pound (about 24 sheets) phyllo dough, thawed in refrigerated for about 8 hours and brought up to room temperature
About 1 cup (2 sticks melted, clarified butter or Earth Balance shortening)
To make syrup, combine sugar, water and lemon juice in a small saucepan and stir until sugar is dissolved over low heat. Increase temperature and cook syrup until it arrives at a temperature of 220 degrees, slightly syrupy. Add scented water, take off heat and completely cool. Place in refrigerator until ready to use.
Make filling: Place nuts, sugar and spices in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until nuts are ground, like fine crumbs.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Grease a 12x9 baking pan or 15x10 jelly roll pan.
Place a phyllo sheet in the pan and lightly brush with melted fat, and press into corners of pan. Work with one phyllo sheet at a time; cover the rest with plastic wrap and then with a damp towel.
Repeat with 7 more sheets, then spread filling, so that it thoroughly covers the surface. You will probably use about 2/3 of the filling at this point. Continue adding phyllo sheets, one at a time, brushing with fat with each addition, until you have used up the remaining sheets. For the top layer, sprinkle remaining filling and melted fat. Trim edges with scissors or paring knife.
Using a sharp knife, score the dough into six even strips, then into diamond shapes about 1-inch wide. Spritz top layer and edges with water to keep edges from curling.
Place tray in oven and bake for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 300 degrees and bake for an additional 15 minutes, until golden brown.
Remove from oven, and drizzle cooled syrup on top of baklava until evenly distributed. Allow to cool for at least 4 hours. Cut through scored lines, and serve at room temperature.
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