Ah, baklava. Sweet, sweet baklava. So tempting you are, with your dozens of layers of golden flaky phyllo drowning in a deluge of honey and a landslide of crunchy spice-infused nuts. I have always loved you, though my affection reached its zenith there in the mid-1990s, when I'd order a single perfect diamond-shaped piece of you served without adornment on a clear glass plate following each of my many Pita Inn meals of hummus and falafel. The friendly Pita Inn employee would remove you from a big tray stationed behind the cash register where you'd sit, just waiting to be purchased so that you could yield, simultaneously crunchy and gooey, to the demands of some college student's fork. Whatever you cost back then, dear piece of baklava, as a percentage of my work-study $85-per-week haul, know that you had to have been worth it. Otherwise I would have saved my dollars for the El. Or for $.25 draft night at Sluggers.
As delicious as you were -- and as successfully as you separated me from my hard-earned cash as the supervisor of my dorm's mail room -- I stopped regularly partaking of your delicate goodness after I moved away from the vicinity of the Pita Inn. Which is a sad tale, to be sure, because it turns out you are easy to make at home. But hindsight being 20/20 and all...I was not to learn this until many years later when, inspired by the great Alton Brown, I decided to give home baklava-making a go.
It's simple, people. You won't even believe it. I always considered baklava-making to be outside the purview of the home baker. It was just one of those things, like hot pretzels and graham crackers, which are better left to the pros. Right? Wrong. It's a little bit time consuming, as it always is to work with thin, delicate phyllo. And it requires a specialty ingredient (rose water) and tool (spray bottle) that you might not have on hand. And it involves a few techniques that you might not have tried before (clarifying butter; blanching almonds). And you have to wait at least eight hours, preferably overnight, before you can consume the finished baklava, which will test your eater's patience in ways you surely have yet to experience.
But the time put into brushing each individual sheet of phyllo with clarified butter will be rewarded in spades as you bite into layer after layer of perfect crunchy goodness. And the rose water can be ordered online. And you'll enjoy adding to your cook's repertoire by learning how to clarify butter and blanch almonds -- so much so that you might begin clarifying butter just for the hell of it, to have it on hand to sauté thinly-sliced potatoes. And, well...I can't think of anything redeeming about waiting until the next day to eat your homemade baklava. Maybe it builds character and makes you more appreciative of the finished product. Or maybe it's just a trial at which all home baklava-makers must succeed. You know, like when Indy figures out how only the penitent man shall pass.
I made a batch of baklava last night and rushed home at lunch today to try a piece. I couldn't even wait until after the workday was over. Crispy, gooey, sweet, deeply spiced, buttery, cinnamon-y and oh so beautiful, it fills the room with an amazing fragrance...even the dog was strolling about, neck craned toward the ceiling, sniffing the air. But baklava is not for dogs. I digress.
As you stare at the 13" x 9" pan full of something that you just can't believe you made yourself you will be tempted to utter aloud, Damn. I'm good. Go ahead, say it. You are damn good, and so is the baklava.
Adapted from Alton Brown's recipe
In addition to Amazon, rose water is available at Dean & Deluca. I picked up a bottle when I visited their Georgetown store on a recent business trip to Washington, DC. If you are lucky enough to have a Dean & Deluca near you, definitely go there for the rosewater -- it's about half of what it costs on Amazon. (I suppose you could omit the rose water, but I have yet to try that and therefore can't vouch for the finished taste of the baklava. But I am crazy like that: I will seek out rare ingredients like a hunter stalking prey, for months if necessary, utilizing all means at my disposal including the dot-com and a very patient husband who traipses around Manhattan on my behalf searching for 72% Valrhona fèves and maple flakes.)
For the filling:
1 6" or 7" cinnamon stick, broken into a few pieces or 3 t. ground cinnamon
20 whole allspice berries
6 oz. blanched almonds
6 oz. raw or roasted (but unsalted) walnuts
6 oz. raw or roasted (but unsalted) pistachios
2/3 c. sugar
1/4 c. water
1 t. rose water
1 lb. phyllo dough, thawed
12 oz. (3 sticks) unsalted butter, clarified and melted
For the syrup:
1 1/4 c. honey
1 1/4 c. water
1 1/4 c. sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 4-inch piece fresh orange peel
First, blanch the almonds. Measure 6 oz. of whole raw almonds. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. When boiling, add the almonds and bring the water back up to a boil. When it starts boiling, cook for 20-30 seconds then remove the almonds with a slotted spoon. As the almonds begin to cool, peel each one by holding onto the fatter end of the almond and squeezing, thereby popping the almond out of the skin. Dry in a single layer on a paper towel; set aside.
Then, clarify the butter. In a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. When the butter is completely melted, turn off the heat and skim the surface of the butter to remove most of the solids floating on top. Strain the butter through a fine wire mesh sieve lined with a few pieces of cheesecloth to make sure no solids remain.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the cinnamon stick and allspice berries into a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder. Place the almonds, walnuts, pistachios, sugar and freshly-ground spices into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped, but not pasty or powdery, about 18 quick pulses. Set aside.
Combine the water and rose water in a small spritz bottle and set aside.
The phyllo I use comes in 13" x 9" sheets; if yours doesn't, trim the phyllo to this size to fit a 13" x 9" x 2" metal pan. Brush the bottoms and sides of the pan with the melted clarified butter. Lay down a sheet of phyllo and brush with butter, then repeat this process 9 more times, for a total of 10 sheets of phyllo each separated by a layer of butter.
Top with 1/3 of the nut mixture, then spritz thoroughly with the rose water mixture.
Layer 6 more sheets of phyllo with butter in between each of them, followed by another third of the nuts and a thorough spritzing of the rose water mixture.
Layer 6 more sheets of phyllo with butter in between each of them, followed by the remaining third of the nuts and a thorough spritzing of the rose water mixture.
Top with 8 sheets of phyllo with butter in between each of them. Brush the top generously with butter. Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven and cut into 32 squares. Don't worry if the phyllo starts breaking apart -- the syrup you will add later will "glue" everything together. Return the pan to the oven and bake for another 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, place on a cooling rack and let cool for 2 hours.
Make the syrup during the last 30 minutes of the cooling time. Combine the honey, water, sugar, cinnamon stick and orange peel in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring the mixture a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved. Reduce the heat to low and cook for about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and discard the cinnamon stick and orange peel.
After the baklava has cooled, re-cut the pan following the same "lines" as before. Pour the hot syrup evenly over the baklava, making sure to use all of it. It seems like a lot of syrup, but the layers of phyllo and nuts eventually soak up all the sugary goodness.
Allow the pan to sit, uncovered, until completely cool. Cover and store at room temperature for at least 8 hours, preferably overnight before serving. Store, covered, at room temperature for up to 5 days.
Makes 32 glorious squares of baklava.