Fear of Phyllo Be Gone! Bring on the Baklava

Washington, D.C.: I know this sounds silly but I love baklava and have always wanted to try making it, but I have a terrible fear of failure mania that has prevented me from trying. I think I'm afraid of working with the phyllo that keeps drying out and breaking, even when covered with moist towel. Please help.

Funny, I've long avoided baklava myself, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's always been too sweet? Or maybe I'm overwhelmed by phyllo dough as well.

So we're going to do this together, Washington. This weekend, I'm taking the phyllo plunge, and I'm embarking on a maiden baklava voyage. Consider this a virtual holding of the hand, and I hope you'll join me in solidarity this weekend in your own kitchen.

But first, a bit of baklava background is important. Picking a recipe, it seems, is like deciding on a favorite pair of shoes. How to choose from the Jordanian versus the Lebanese versus the Persian versus the Azerbaijani versions ? I haven't even gotten to the Turks, who are largely responsible for the proliferation of this sweet treat in the first place.

Surrounding me as I type are three cookbooks ("Lebanese Cooking" by Madelain Farah; "The World of Jewish Desserts" by Gil Marks; and "The Arab Table" by May Bsisu) and the enchanting food memoir, "The Language of Baklava" by Diana Abu-Jaber. The bugger is that each recipe has its own twist for various cultural and geographical reasons, and all of them sound intriguing!

Differences aside, here's what all four authors agree upon:

Baklava is a pastry with a sweetened nut filling that's sandwiched between many layers of phyllo dough.

Butter, the medium that's used to lubricate phyllo layers, is melted and clarified -- which means the milk solids that rise to the top are skimmed.

In order to minimize tearing and breaking, the persnickety phyllo dough must be thawed and then kept covered during assembly to avoid drying out.

To give the baklava its trademark goopy, sticky result, a simple syrup is poured over the baklava as it comes out of the oven, but it must be cool or even cold or the baklava will turn into a sugar syrup river.
A small amount of lemon juice is added to the sugar syrup.

Now, for the variations, as well as a few intriguing kitchen tricks worth a conversation.

Gil Marks suggests replacing the melted butter for 1 cup of vegetable oil; rather than brushing each layer, pour the oil over the entire unbaked, assembled phyllo package and allow oil to seep in for at least 10 minutes before baking.

And for the sugar syrup, Marks says it's okay to use a combination of sugar and honey, if that's of interest.

Farah, Bsisu and Abu-Jaber all suggest the addition of a small amount of orange blossom or rose water to the sugar syrup, an idea worth pursuing if you've experienced the wonderful whiff of these distilled flower petal waters.

Bsisu suggests wrapping the phyllo-in-waiting in plastic, then cover with a damp towel, while Abu-Jaber suggests a piece of wax paper.

The choice of nuts reflects a variety of religious and cultural differences. Almonds seem to be the choice for both Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah instead of the traditional walnut filling, and because pistachios have a historic association as an aphrodisiac, it's likely they would be omitted during these holidays. (Apparently this is why baklava was the pastry of choice for the Turkish sultans in the Ottoman empire between the 16th and 19th centuries. )

There are also variations on spice -- some recipes call for clove and cinnamon, others cardamom, saffron or none at all.

With these thoughts to chew on, I leave you for the Middle East market to acquire my baklava provisions.

Have a delicious weekend! I'll have a full baklava report in Monday's blog space.

By Kim ODonnel |  September 21, 2007; 10:36 AM ET Desserts
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Any connection between Phyllo-phobia and Philadelphia?

Posted by: Mr. MA | September 21, 2007 1:23 PM

Definitely, thaw for at least 8 hours.

Plastic wrap covered by the towel works very well.

My trick is to use a paintbrush instead of a pastry brush and to do the necessary number of layers, cover those layers with plastic wrap, then do the next set and so on until you're finished.

The plastic wrap lifts the layers apart easily, and you can handle it to press the buttered phyllo in the pan. Add the fillings, layer, then precut the diamonds before baking.

Posted by: Philadelphia | September 21, 2007 4:46 PM

HI Kim,
Thanks for posting my question. It's very cool that you tried to make baklava yourself. It is extremely neat that you put in your mistakes. This gives me some encouragement.

When it says keep in plastic wrap and then cover with wet towel, you're not wrapping the baklava in the plastic wrap?

Also, am I supposed to butter each individual sheet, and then layer them together in the pan? Or put one sheet in pan, butter, add a new sheet and butter?

Posted by: Washington | September 25, 2007 2:47 PM

butter two sheets at a time until you have used half of the amount of phyllo sheets total. then pour in the filling; continue buttering the remaining sheets, two sheets at a time. Buttering each sheet will create a very heavy buttery version.
Kims qater (syrup) recipe has too much sugar involved. I would only use 2 cups of sugar for 1.5 cups water.

Posted by: arl_baklawa | September 27, 2007 3:29 PM

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