Yes, stickiness is this week’s concept. In the immediate sense, baklava is exuberantly messy, leaving even the most careful eater feeling like Winnie the Pooh after getting his head stuck in the honey jar. Not only does the syrup infuse the entire pastry, holding fast every morsel and keeping in place about a billion layers of paper-thin dough, but it sticks to everything – forks, plates, fingers, passers-by and such. Gloriously troublesome.
As those of you who have made baklava know, it requires the creator to stick to it as well, figuratively speaking. The confection must be constructed with excruciating care, a layer at a time. Each pastry sheet is thin, nearly to the point of transparency. Every single one must be set in place exactly and buttered. Over and over again. The whole process seems to take hours.
The final result is entirely worth it, though, both for the beleaguered baker as well as for the sticky eater. Crispy yet moist, baklava exudes a nutty, floral sweetness that warms the soul like, well, honey. Think of nut brittle in pastry form – softer, flakier and so much more satisfying.
Today’s entry is Persia’s version of the familiar classic:
Unlike the more familiar Greek take, Persia’s baklava is laced with chopped pistachios, not walnuts. Both are mixed with sugar, but Persians also add crushed cardamom seeds. This contributes a slightly sweet and almost flowery note that’s difficult to describe to the uninitiated but is unforgettable thereafter. Finally, in Persia, baklava is drenched in a thick aromatic syrup, not in honey.
In the original recipe, listed in From Persia to Napa: Wine at the Persian Table, and featured in Food & Wine, rose water gives the syrup its character. However, I find rose water to be a bit too cloying and more than a little overpowering, so I substituted orange-blossom water. It’s subtler, more intriguing and, most important, it’s delicious!
Once again, those readers who also are colleagues will judge for themselves, because I’m bringing this week’s entry to the office Christmas party on Wednesday. Fear not – it’s tightly wrapped and sealed in an airtight container until then. Besides, the flavors take more than a day to develop fully anyhow.
Honestly, do you think I’d have gone to all this trouble to offer something that wasn’t top shelf?
Oh, as we’re as close as this journal will venture to a Christmas-related entry, below is the miniature tree I bring into the office each season. Consider this to be a holiday card to all of you, this blog’s readers. As for the gifts, yours is the baklava in today’s entry, which turned out quite well. Surprisingly so.
For the Syrup:
- 1 and 3/4 cups granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice (*1)
- 10 black peppercorns
- 1/8 teaspoon salt (*2)
- 1 tablespoon rose water (*3)
For the Nut Filling:
- 12 ounces shelled pistachios, raw
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom (*4)
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon salt (*5)
For the Pastry:
- 1 and 1/2 cups unsalted butter, meted and cooled slightly
- 1 pound frozen phyllo dough, thawed
For the syrup, combine all ingredients but the rosewater in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves. Set aside to cool while making the rest of the baklava. When mixture is cool, extract the peppercorns (*6) and add the rosewater.
Meanwhile pulse the pistachios in a food processor until chopped finely, and transfer to a bowl. Measure out 1 tablespoon of the nuts (*7) and set aside to garnish the pastry after the syrup is poured. To the rest, add the ground cardamom, sugar and salt, and toss well to combine.
To assemble the pastry, brush a 13-inch by 9-inch pan with melted butter. Adjust the oven baking rack to the lower-middle position and preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Unwrap and unfold the phyllo dough, carefully smoothing it with your hands. Using baking pan as a guide, cut the sheets crosswise with a chef’s knife, yielding two roughly even stacks of dough, though one probably will be a bit wider than the other. Cover with plastic wrap, then a damp kitchen towel, to prevent drying.
Place one phyllo sheet from the wider stack in the bottom of the baking pan and brush with butter until completely coated. Repeat with seven more phyllo sheets from the wider stack, brushing each layer with butter.
Evenly distribute one cup of the nuts over the phyllo. Cover the nuts with a phyllo sheet from the narrower stack and dab with butter (phyllo will slip if you brush it, so daubing is the only option). Stagger the sheets to cover the pan’s length, buttering each layer. Set six narrow sheets in total.
Spread on another cup of the nuts. then lay on another six of the narrow phyllo sheets, buttering each layer. Repeat this process until you run out of nuts. When you’ve poured on the last of the nuts, top with eight sheets from wider stack, buttering between each layer except the last (top) one. Once the top layer is in place, smooth it gently with your hands to press out any air bubbles in the pastry, then “paint” it with melted butter too.
Using a pointed serrated bread knife in a gentle sawing motion, cut the baklava into desired serving pieces. It’s important to do this now, as the cuts will give syrup a route to infuse the pastry later. Bake until golden and crisped, about 90 minutes.
Immediately after removing the baklava from the oven, pour most of the syrup into the cuts you made earlier. Drizzle the remaining syrup over the top and dust with the chopped nuts you reserved. The baklava can be served when cooled, but it’s best if the flavors have a day to develop. Until served, baklava should be tightly wrapped and kept at room temperature.
1 – I used lime juice, as it better complements the flavor.
2 – If you use salted pistachios (which seems to be the only variety available already shelled), omit the salt.
3 – As mentioned in the text, I used orange-blossom water instead of the rose water. Both are available in markets specializing in Near Eastern food, or online. In a pinch, you could substitute an equal mixture of water and orange juice.
4 – Like the blossom waters, cardamom is available online or in Near Eastern grocers. If you can’t find it, substitute cinnamon, although it won’t be the same.
5 – Again, if you used salted pistachios skip the extra salt.
6 – Before adding the peppercorns to the syrup I wrapped them in a cheesecloth tied tightly with string (i.e., a bouquet garni). This makes it much easier to extract the peppercorns later.
7 – Double it. That is, set aside two tablespoons of the nuts.