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.

Baklava, at long last. (Kim O'Donnel)

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 ½ 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
¼ 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.

By Kim ODonnel |  September 24, 2007; 11:08 AM ET Desserts , Discoveries
Previous: Fear of Phyllo Be Gone! Bring on the Baklava | Next: Chewing Gum As Eye Candy


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This sounds like fun (and a challenge) -- where does one find orange blossom or rose water?

Posted by: Troylet | September 24, 2007 12:19 PM

Troylet, Best place is a Middle Eastern grocery. Oh, and the brand of phyllo dough I used is "The Fillo Factory," which has a certified organic label on the packaging, plus claims of being vegan friendly, fyi.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | September 24, 2007 1:01 PM

One of the best things that I like reading about your culinary adventures is that you're not afraid to admit it when things don't go quite the way you wanted. It keeps me encouraged because it happens to me all the time! Thanks!

Posted by: rmh | September 24, 2007 2:07 PM

My favourite phyllo preparation isn't baklava, which I find waaay too sweet, but rather cheese boerek. Ny favourite thing to order in Turkish restaurants.

I found the baklava in Istanbul too sweet for my palate, even the version served at the smart bakery halfway down Istiklal in Beyoglu (just past the Covered Market)when I was in Istanbul a few years ago. But their lemon ice and cherry ice cream were super.

If you come to terms with cheese boerek, let me know, and invite me over to try it out! (I'm too lazy to do so myself.)

Posted by: David Lewiston | September 24, 2007 2:17 PM

orange water and rose water are both available at Mediterranean Bakery on S. PIckett in Alexandria. MOMs also has had some orange water a few times.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 24, 2007 3:45 PM

I once made baklava, and the directions said to 'cook the syrup until done'. Helpful. So I cooked until it looked like honey, and poured it over the pastry, and let it cool. Turns out I cooked it to hard-crack stage, and I had created . . . Brick-lava. You could only eat it by breaking into small pieces with a hammer, and then sucking like a lollipop.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | September 24, 2007 4:56 PM

Croissant is not made from puff pastry, which is an unyeasted dough, but rather is made from a laminated, yeasted viennoiserie dough.

Posted by: The Baker | September 24, 2007 7:14 PM

Kim did not say a croissant was made from puff pastry; she used it as an example of the process of layering butter between layers of pastry in order to create steam which "puffs" the pastry, similar to how butter or shortening can create a flaky biscuit. The croissant is clearly the quintessential example of this phenomenon.

Posted by: Hart | September 25, 2007 11:14 AM

I'd left a comment on your previous baklava column with some tips.

It's much easier to brush the filo with butter *before* you put in in the pan. Lay out plastic wrap, place filo on top, butter, repeat for that series of layers. Then lift the wrap, flip it filo side down, place in pan.

Posted by: Philadelphia | September 25, 2007 11:34 AM

For Rose or Orange water, try the Punjab Market in Langley (PG county/Montgomery Cty line), Shemali's on NM Ave (near AU), or Lebanese Taverna markets.

I think Whole Foods carries it as well.

Posted by: Melissa | September 25, 2007 2:39 PM

This is great, thanks!
I don't suppose you did a video of this so we can see how you did your layers, and how you kept your phyllo moist and manageable?

Posted by: Washington | September 25, 2007 2:48 PM

Orange blossom (and maybe rose!) water available from my favorite old standby: Shoppers Food Warehouse on Rt. 1 in Alexandria. Check the huge international aisle in the middle - should be right above the canned chickpeas.

Posted by: Maritza | September 25, 2007 3:42 PM

Torn phyllo dough is hardly the end of the world. Just butter up the halves (mine tend to break in half) and lay them next to each other. Phyllo is actually VERY forgiving that way. I've also never had a problem with the phyllo drying out terribly over the twenty or so minutes that you'll actually spend assembling the baklava (or salmon en croute, or teropita, or...)

Do not be afraid of phyllo! It's really not as scary as it seems!

Posted by: librarylady | September 26, 2007 1:25 PM

Amazing! I just made five batches of baklava. You're right on thawing and my syrup recipe is different. I use equal parts honey, sugar and water.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | September 26, 2007 2:15 PM

I had this amazing mini-baklava treat last month when I was in Greece: it was like a little ball of baklava, dipped in chocolate and dripping honey. YUM. I need to track down a recipe.

Posted by: nicole | September 26, 2007 5:39 PM

a nice variation is to stuff with sweet cheese (also can use farmers cheese) mixed with some sugar. Roll up the stuffed baklawa like very thin long cigars. Easier to bake. Just cut up the long cigars into minis.
Can I ask, why did you add cardomon? Kind of makes the nut mix too sweet and a little bit liquoricey.
One can also find phyllo dough at giant, harris teeter and safeway. I do happen to prefer the no brand name that sells at Lebanese Butcher-pefect measurement for one tray of baklawa.

Posted by: arl_Baklawa | September 27, 2007 3:21 PM

My Baklava recipe is a little simpler than yours. Don't worry about torn sheets. You can't see patches when it's finished. It used to take me a very long time to make Baklava. After making it for years, I zip right through the process now. I like to give Baklava to the neighbors at Christmas time.

I enjoyed sharing your adventure.


1 16 oz. pkg. frozen phyllo (sometimes spelled Filo) dough
1 pound walnuts
½ cup sugar
1 ½ tsp. cinnamon
½ pound butter

Thaw phyllo dough overnight in the refrigerator in its original container.

Chop walnuts fine. Some recipes call for ground walnuts, but they get a little tough to bite through after the Baklava is baked. I like chopped better.

Mix chopped walnuts, sugar, and cinnamon together in bowl.

Melt butter. It will be spread with either a pastry brush or with a pump pressure sprayer (like they sell to spray cooking oil with). I use the pump sprayer and set it in a container of hot water when I'm not using it. Spraying is much easier than using a brush. I have also used a little plastic spray bottle, too, and it worked but it's harder to keep it from clogging up.

Phyllo dough is extremely thin and dries out quickly. After you open the package, keeping the phyllo dough covered with a damp towel while you are working with the other sheets helps.

Place one sheet of phyllo in the bottom of a 13 x 9 baking dish. Spray or brush with melted butter. Place another layer of phyllo on top of the first one and spray or brush with melted butter. Continue until you have 5 layers, each one sprayed or brushed with melted butter. Spread one cup of the walnut/sugar/cinnamon mixture on the phyllo. Place another sheet of phyllo on top of the mixture and continue placing 5 sheets of dough, then one cup of walnut mixture, then 5 sheets, etc.

End with 5 sheets of dough on the top. Cut halfway through the baklava in a diagonal pattern with a sharp knife.

Bake in a 300 degree oven for approx. 1 hour, or until golden brown.

Heat 1 cup of honey in the microwave just until very warm. When the baklava comes out of the oven, pour the honey over the top of the baklava while the baklava is still hot.

To serve, finish cutting through the layers with a knife.

You can cut the phyllo dough in half to fit smaller baking dishes or change the number of layers, etc. It's a pretty flexible recipe.

Posted by: Linda | September 28, 2007 5:01 PM

Good site! I'll stay reading! Keep improving!

Posted by: Nika | November 10, 2007 8:29 AM

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