I had a craving for Greek food the other day. Ironic, no?

Visions of dolmades danced before my eyes, stuffed to the brim full of rice and meat. I could practically smell the roast lamb. Feel the heat and the alcohol rising from the saganaki. My mouth began to water contemplating a slice of freshly baked pastitsio. And to top it all off? A sliver of baklava; crunchy-sweet, flaky, dripping with honey. Pure sticky heaven.

I managed to shrug off the worst of my urges. When your level of cooking finesse extends to cover both Ramen and hotdogs, flaming dairy dishes are something best left to the experts. I promised myself a culinary indulgence should I ever reach civilization again. But for some strange reason I couldn’t get the baklava off my mind.

There are about as many different stories as to the origins of this dessert as there are countries that make it—with each one claiming full responsibility for its creation, of course. Some sources claim that what we now know as baklava was invented by the Assyrians in the eighth century before Christ, then passed on by the spread of trade through the Middle East to the Greeks, (1) who substituted thin sheets of phyllo (“leaf”) dough for the thicker, more-breadlike mass originally used. (2) Other sources claim that the origins of both pastry and dough can be found in medieval Turkey-- “…If this is so, baklava actually pre-dated filo, and the paper-thin pastry we know today was probably an innovation of the Ottoman sultan's kitchens at Topkapi palace in Istanbul.” (3)

No matter where they may be from, all types of baklava share three main ingredients: phyllo leaves, a mixture of nuts, and sugar. The rest, though... let’s just say that there's room for variation. Quite a bit of it, in fact. Some cultures bake their baklava in flat sheets, with layer after layer of delicate phyllo sandwiched by walnuts, almonds, or pistachios. These sheets are usually cut into either diamond or triangle-shaped wedges when served. (2) Others favor rolling the dough into pinwheels and circular (obviously) slices. A common dispute is whether or not honey belongs in the syrup that is drizzled over the finished sweet. Personally, I have trouble imagining the dish without it.

  1. http://www.habeeb.com/history.of.baklava.html
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baklava
  3. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodpies.html#baklava

And now for a recipe.

Andro's quick and dirty baklava.

First, grab

  • 2 cups (450-500 g) of nuts. Walnuts, preferably. If you're a little short, almonds and pistachios are also an option. (I wound up using a fifty-fifty split of almonds and walnuts, myself.)
  • a little less than 1/2 a cup (100 g) of granulated sugar.
  • 1/2 a teaspoon of freshly-ground cloves
  • and a teaspoon of ground cinnamon.
Crush the nuts until they're somewhere between small pieces and breadcrumbs, size-wise, using a mortar and pestle; you don't want to chip a tooth, but you also don't want to be eating nut purée. Carefully stir in the sugar and spices. The oil released from the nuts should bind everything together into a mélange with the consistency of trail mix.

Next, set aside

Place all of this into a smallish pot sans lid. This is basically the syrup that will go over the finished baklava once it's done cooling. It's best not to actually start heating the mix until said flaky, tasty treat is in the oven, though. As it has an, um, tendency to boil over and coat the stovetop with nigh-impossible-to-remove sugary goodness if you, say, step out of the kitchen to play with the cat for five minutes. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Now might be a good time to preheat the oven to about 375 F (190 C).

Next, melt about

  • 2 (US) sticks, or 125 g of butter
(nuke it on "high" for about two minutes and make sure you have some sort of lid on the bowl to prevent buttery, Mt. Vesuvius-like eruptions)
and break out
  • a pound (240ish -50ish g) of refrigerator-defrosted phyllo dough.

(I would like to state, for the record, that phyllo dough is the freaking devil himself in pastry form. The tricky thing about making baklava isn't the ingredients, the sauce, or the cooking time. It's keeping the damn phyllo sheets from sticking together, ripping, drying out, or being otherwise uncooperative. Keeping the sheets separate with waxed paper, moist (but not too moist *rolls eyes*) with a damp towel and/or plant mister, and generally not touching the damn things help, but they are by no means a guarantee of success when dealing with the blasted stuff.)

Once you have your phyllo dough in some semblance of order, get out a 10 inch square pan (or thereabouts) and apply a thin layer of butter to the sides and bottom. Carefully lay your first sheet of phyllo down and apply another coat of butter to the top. Apply two or three more sheets in the same way, always following each one up with a decent amount of butter. Once you have a base that will probably not tear away the moment you try and get it out of the pan (say, four or five sheets), spread a thin coating of the nut mixture on top. It should coat the pan evenly and shouldn't "pile up", height-wise. Look to use up about a third of your filling.
(You might want to skip the butter this time. Just an idea.)

Add another sheet or two of buttered phyllo dough on top, being careful not to, say, accidentally press down too hard with the brush and tear the sheet on a sharp-cornered walnut. grumblegrumblestupidwalnut. Apply another thin layer of nuts, followed by another few sheets of phyllo.

At this point you may or may not become slightly frustrated. This is only natural.
Pour the last third of the filling on and place the remainder of the phyllo dough (buttered, please) on top. You may want to score the top with a sharp knife in a diamond pattern. Or square. Triangle? Whatever. Trim off the excess dough (everything that's more than a centimeter from the edge of the actual pastry), check the sides of the pan for butter drips, and slide the damn thing into the oven. Keep the temperature at about 375 F for 15 minutes. The crust should start puffing up slightly.

Once fifteen minutes have passed, turn the temperature down to about 350 F. Now might also be a good time to set the syrup mix to boil on the stove. Remember to stir it occasionally, since we're not trying to caramelize the sugar, just melt it. And please, please don't leave it unattended. Trust me on this one.

Both the syrup and the baklava should be ready in about 20 minutes, the syrup smooth, clear, and yellowish, and the pastry flaky and golden. Set everything aside to cool for another 10 minutes, then pour the syrup over the baklava. It should absorb it like a... the phrase "nutty sponge" comes to mind.
... Or maybe not.

Anyway, once the syrup has properly soaked in and the pastry has cooled down, just cut and serve. Voilà.

This makes about ten to fifteen servings, depending on how much you really love baklava.