I asked The Boy for requests for this week’s dessert, and as I had a lot of pistachios left over from last week he suggested baklava.
There are dishes that I love but are so fiddly and easily obtained that I don’t really see the point in attempting them myself. This list includes (amongst other things) macarons, banh mi thit, and baklava. In our regular grocery shopping spot there’s a stall selling amazing Middle Eastern treats for a couple of dollars each – since it’s something I indulge in quite rarely and in very small quantities, I don’t have any problem just buying them. But curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to give it a go. I’m not completely sure this was a success and now that I’ve tried it I think I’ll continue to leave the baklava-making to the pros!
Browsing various recipes, I read that clarified butter can give a better taste and more crunch in baklava, and since I needed to make some for a curry anyway I thought I’d give it a go. I followed these directions from David Lebovitz, and was surprised at how easy it is. Clarifying butter removes the milk solids and a lot of the moisture, giving it a higher smoking point more appropriate for things that needed to be cooked at a high heat. In this case the reduced moisture helps to make the layers of filo pastry separated and crisp when baked.
I used some honey generously donated from a colleague’s gift hamper; a very sweet and runny honey with a delicate flavour of spices and orange. To make my baklava slightly less unhealthy (ha!) I decided to omit the sugar and bump up the honey content of the syrup instead. I doubt it really makes much of a difference health-wise really, but I do prefer to avoid the super-processed caster sugar where I can. This honey was brought to a boil with water, lemon juice, cloves, and a stick of cinnamon. This was set aside to cool whilst the rest was prepared.
Lacking a food processor, I decided to chop the nuts I used – pistachios and pecans left over from other projects – into small pieces. Unfortunately I got bored with chopping after a bit and har vokse some parts ended up probably more chunky than they should be, which meant my baklava was quite crumbly!
Making filo/phyllo pastry is way out of my league, so I made do with the frozen stuff. I’ve never really had much luck with filo pastry, although I’ve now realised that’s because I try to use it straight out of the freezer – apparently it should be defrosted for several hours first, otherwise it breaks as you try to unfold it. Making rather a large mess, I layered up sheets of pastry, brushing clarified butter onto every second layer, then added a layer of chopped nuts. After repeating the process and adding some layers on top, the tray was popped into the freezer to make it easy to cut into diamonds, then into the oven. I’m fairly certain I did this part quite badly – see all the offcuts around the sides? – so please don’t take this as the right way to do things!
Straight out of the oven, nice and browned, I poured the cooled honey syrup over the top and let it soak for a few hours.
With some crushed pistachios on the top, I think it sort of looked the part, although when I started taking pieces out it became apparent that there wasn’t enough syrup along the sides, making them a bit too dry. As my tray was quite tiny to begin with, this only really left a few good pieces.
Whilst it’s certainly far from perfect and I’m not sure I’d do it again, the bits that did work out looked pretty good – the pastry stayed nice and crisp, the nut mixture reasonably moist, and sweet enough that you only need a small piece to feel satisfied. If I had to do it again I’d probably use more syrup, less nuts chopped finer, and more layers of filo pastry.
It’s not going to beat your Yia Yia’s baklava, or even the one from the local store even, but for a first go at a tricky dish I think I did alright. If anyone would like to have a go, I used this Taste.com.au recipe with my usual substitutions, guesstimations and variations. Or you can be like me and just leave it as a rare treat to buy.