I love baklawa. I remember the first time I ate baklawa very clearly. I had just scarfed down a huge Arabic meal of grape leaves, rice, salad, bread, olives, peppers and yogurt, when my boyfriend's mother brought out a tray of it. Moments later, I was in ecstasy.... the buttery, lemony goodness of baklawa cannot be found in similar pastries from other parts of the Middle East. Here in the US, most people are familiar with the Greek-style baklava redolent with honey, cloves and allspice. I know I had only had that version before I met Jerry - and loved it - don't get me wrong! But once I tasted the buttery goodness of Lebanese baklawa, I was hooked for life. In fact, I married the guy! What I didn't know at the time was that very first bite had been made by a master - the very best baklawa I've ever eaten is made by my sister-in-law Maddie, with Barbara Pedersen's coming a close second. This recipe is a little bit of both.
Don't be afraid of the multiple steps in this recipe. First of all, they are all very easy, especially if you have a food processor and microwave, and secondly, they are SO WORTH IT!
Make the syrup first
2 1/2 C sugar
1 1/4 C water
juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste
1 tsp orange flower water (optional)
Boil the sugar and water to make a thin syrup, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Take off heat and stir in the lemon juice and orange flower water. Refrigerate while preparing the rest of the pastry. The syrup has to be very, very cold.
Prepare the clarified butter next:
Place 1 1/4 lbs butter in a large saucepan and melt over low heat. Do not stir. Simmer the melted butter until it begins to boil and becomes foamy. Skim off the foam as it rises to the top. Let it boil for one minute, then take off the heat and skim the foam off the top. Let it cool for about 15 minutes. As it cools, the butter solids will sink to the bottom of the pan - these contain the salt as well as dairy solids. Pour off the clarified butter oil, leaving the solids in the bottom. You can also easily do this in the microwave in a really large pyrex bowl with a handle and a lip for pouring - I use my 8 cup pyrex measuring cup to clarify butter.
Next, make the filling:
1 lb walnut meats (NOT black walnuts!)
1/2 C sugar
1 tsp orange flower water (optional)
1 1/2 tsp allspice, or 1 Tbs Arabic spices mixed
Combine nut meats, sugar and spices in a food processor and pulse until the texture is like tiny pebbles - don't make it too fine, like sand, because the syrup will have a hard time soaking all the way through later. At the last moment of processing, pour in the orange flower water if you are using it, just to mix it throughout the nuts.
Put the pastry together:
You will need a pastry brush, a damp dish towel, plastic wrap, a VERY sharp knife, a 9 x 13 or 10 x 14 pan, and one pound of phyllo dough.
Unwrap the phyllo dough and place it on directly on the table or counter where you are working. Immediately cover it with a layer of plastic wrap and a very slightly damp dish towel. Using the brush, brush a thin layer of butter on the bottom and sides of the pan. Quickly place a few pastry sheets on the bottom of the pan, fitting to the edges of then pan. Make sure that you always cover the pile of dough with the plastic wrap and the towel as soon as you take some layers off because it will dry up and become brittle in just a few seconds. Brush the dough that you have placed in the pan with some clarified butter. Repeat this layering and buttering until you have used 1/3 of the dough. Spread the nut mixture evenly in the pan, then begin the buttering and layering again. Continue until you have used all the dough. Make sure that the top layer of dough is attractive. There will be leftover butter - brush the very top layer as well and reserve the rest. Using the knife, cut the pastry into diamonds, triangles or squares. Cut all the way through to the bottom. Once you have cut it into pieces, pour the remainder of the butter over.
Bake at 325F for one hour. Check at the half hour mark to make sure it is not getting too brown too fast. If so, cover with foil to keep from burning or getting too toasty looking. You are looking for a light golden brown color.
When the baklawa is done, remove from oven and pour the cold syrup over. Let it cool before serving. As it cools, it will soak up the yummy syrup.
Notes: The secret to good baklawa is the high proportion of butter to syrup - good Lebanese baklawa is always primarily buttery, and the secondarily sweet. Barbara has been known to use 1 1/2 lbs butter to 1 lb of dough and 1 lb of nuts. The second tip is to taste the syrup and make sure it has a little bit of a lemon flavor. This cuts the buttery goodness and makes Lebanese baklawa very yummy. I usually taste the syrup and keep adding lemon juice until it almost tastes like a lemon drop candy, but I really love lemon. You may prefer less lemon flavor to your syrup.
You will find variations on this theme throughout the Middle East: any nut can be used, but almonds and pistachios are favorites. Some syrups are part sugar and part honey, some laced with liqueurs like arak. The spices can vary, but cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cardamom are most common. The shapes vary too - my sister-in-law Maddie makes nut-filled tubes of phyllo dough, which she coils in a large round cake pan and cuts into 2 inch pieces. I love that the best.
Are you pressed for time? Are you scared of handling phyllo dough? Never fear -- the down and dirty quick tip is to not brush butter on each sheet. Simply unwrap the dough. Put half in the pan, spread the nut filling over, then top with the other half of the dough. Cut into squares, triangles or diamonds as usual, then pour the entire pound of clarified butter all over and bake as usual. No one will know the difference!