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Celebrating with Baklava

While the entire rest of the food blogosphere posts nice diet recipes for at least the first week of the new year, I'm going to go radical and tempt your tummy with step-by-step photos of how to make the sublime, baklava, my favorite densely rich, sweet, and decadent treat that's a pastry I can only describe to the unititiated as a cross between a bar cookie and candy. Or as simply "the most yum in a bite I know of!" It's created from layers of paper thin pastry dough brushed with butter and filled with pistachios, walnuts, and almonds, along with warm spices and soaked in honeyed syrup. Baklava can be traced back to the "cradle of civilization", Mesopotamia (the modern Iraq area), in the thousands B.C. but its most commonly associated with the Ottoman

Turkish Empire of the 15th and 16th centuries whose capitol was Constantinople (modern day Instanbul, Turkey). I'm pretty confident you can consider that a dessert must be good if it's been around for 5,000 years, don't you? I'll admit that I assumed baklava would be difficult, or at least complicated. to make but the truth is delightfully that it really isn't. There a lot of steps, but most of them are all about the layering of pastry and filling. For anyone experienced in working with phyllo dough I would consider this easy to make, and even for those who've never worked with phyllo before, I would still say it's only a low medium in difficulty. The key to the recipe is in the steps and preparing the work space. Some baklava makers create the pastry first and then make the syrup while baking so that it remains hot. I make the syrup first and set it aside while I make the pastry so that even though the syrup is close to room temp when poured as the final step, the baklava is so hot it quickly soaks in. Having a little counter space is the only clincher to working with phyllo dough because it's easier to lay it out, then move it in towards you to butter and stack. You'll see what I mean as you read through the recipe and see the photos.

Baklava
Recipe by Glenna Anderson Muse Makes 28 pieces. Ingredients: Pastry Layers:

1 box Phyllo dough, thawed (will need approx 28 sheets total)

1 cup butter, melted

Filling:

1 cup Pistachios 1 cup English Walnuts 1 cup sliced Almonds 1 cup brown sugar 1 tsp Cardamom, ground 1 tsp Cinnamon, ground 1 tsp Allspice, ground

Simple Syrup:

1 cup honey 1/2 cup brown sugar 1 tsp orange zest 1 cup water 1 tsp vanilla

Directions: 1) Make syrup first and set aside to cool. In medium saucepan, combine honey, sugar, water and orange zest over medium high heat.

Using candy thermometer, allow mixture to come just barely to boiling (205-212 degrees F), about five minutes. Turn heat down to medium-low and continue to cook approx 5 more minutes. Bubbles will pop up onto the surface but do not let mixture go to a full roiling boil. (You want the temperature to stay near boiling but not higher or it will turn into candy.) Take off heat and stir in vanilla. Set aside. Syrup will thicken as cools.

2) Make filling: Process nuts 1/2-1 cup at a time in food processor, each nut type separately. Each nut has a different density so it's easier to buzz them individually rather than dumping them all in together. (The almonds take approx. 12-15 pulses, the others a few more pulses.) Nut should be minced but not processed down to a paste. A few bigger pieces are okay. Mix nuts, spices, and sugar together in a medium bowl and set aside. (This picture is with the nuts, sugar, and spices mixed together so it looks like the nuts are ground much finer than they actually are--that's the brown sugar.)

3) Melt butter in microwave safe dish. 4) Prepare work area: generously butter 9"x13"x2" baking pan with pastry brush, set up area to lay out phyllo dough that will be covered with kitchen towel when not being used, and another area for buttering/stacking the pastry dough.

5) Some notes about phyllo pastry, also known as filo pastry or dough: Phyllo dough can be found in the grocer's freezer section, usually next to the pie crust pasries. Move

the pastry from freezer to the fridge overnight the day before using and then lay out on the counter for at least one hour prior to using. The box usually contains two individually wrapped rolls of dough, each of 20 sheets, approx 9"x13". You will use 28 sheets of dough for this dessert. The reminder can go back in the fridge to be used for another purpose (makes wonderful appetizers or Chicken in Phyllo stuffed with Spinach) for up to a month or so (re-wrap tightly and seal tightly in a ziploc bag, removing as much air as possible so dough won't dry out. Also keep a no-lint kitchen towel over the pastry not being used to keep from drying out. And most importantly, do not freak out if the pastry sheets form a few cracks or tear a bit. It will happen and.it won't make a difference. Simply keep stacking and buttering. It will all "come out in the wash" as my Nannie used to say. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F Assembly: Do not skimp on the butter. This dessert needs that moisture to work right. Pull one or two sheets forward you on the counter and brush with butter. Add another sheet on top and brush with butter. Continue this process until a stack of 10 sheets are stacked and buttered. Place into the bottom of the buttered 9"x12"x2" baking pan.

Don't worry if the pastry sheets curl up a little around the outer edges. It will shrink as it bakes and fit perfectly inside the pan.

6) Spread 1/3 of nut/spice/sugar mixture onto the phyllo layers.

7) Butter and stack another 4 sheets of phyllo. Layer into the baking pan. 8) Spread another 1/3 of nut mixture on top of new phyllo layer. 9) Butter and stack another 4 sheets of phyllo. Layer into the baking pan. 10) Spread remaining nut mixture ont op of new phyllo layer.

11) Butter and stack another 10 sheets of phllo. Layer into baking pan. Brush butter generously over top of finall pastry layer. 12) Pre-cut baklava into small squares, rectangles, triangles, or on the diagonal as diamond shapes using a very thinly-bladed, extremely sharp knife (and your fingers to hold the pastry down). A good quality filleting knife like this one my brother, Kenneth, gave me is perfectly suited for the job. If not available, use the most appropriately shaped and sharp knife you own.

Pre-cutting the shapes may well be the hardest part of the recipe. I found that sinking the knife into the pastry at a 45 degree angle, placing my index finger and thumb on each side of the knife, and slightly jogging the knife up and down as I moved it through the pastry, allowed for a nice, clean cut that didn't tear or drag the pastry. After making each cut, I then went over it a second time with a smooth motion, keeping the knife blade firmly against the bottom of the pan to make sure the very bottom pastry layers were cleanly cut all the way through.

Because baklava is so rich, keep the individual pieces relatively small, approximately 2" x 1 1/2" works nicely.

13) Bake pastry at 350 degrees for 55-60 minutes until nicely browned. Remove and place pan on cooling rack. With same knife, re-cut through previous lines to guarantee pieces have been separated.

14) Without delay, pour honeyed syrup over the pastry, concentrating on filling the syrup into the cracks and along the outer edges. Use ALL of the syrup.

Allow to cool on rack and then store, tightly covered, for several hours minimum before serving to allow syrup time to soak into the pastry.or up to several days.