This is one of those desserts that is impressive, but really not all that difficult to make. The first time I ever had it was Christmas in 1989 or 1990. Auntie Ellen brought it to the family get-together. I had never even heard of Baklava - it is sooo good! Auntie Ellen was kind enough to share the recipe. I don't make it very often, because it is rich and expensive, but it would be a great finger food for a New Year's Eve celebration. It's truly decadent, and not something you want to make on January 1 when the whole country is dieting.
Apologies for the somewhat craptacular photography in this post. Apparently, the first thing I did was get a smudge of butter on the lens of the camera. The colors are a little off, and things are blurry. By the time I knew about this, it was too late to re-shoot the photos. I suppose we could start over, but that would mean a second pan of Baklava and another 234,869 calories. So...sorry for the lousy pics.
Here are the ingredients. The complete recipe with measurements and such is at the bottom of this post.
First, chop the nuts so they go from this...
Add the cinnamon to the nuts and stir to combine.
Butter the pan. Auntie Ellen says you can use a 13x9 or a cookie sheet/jelly roll. I like the jelly roll because it's easier later, when you have to cut it. Preheat the oven and open the phyllo. If it's the huge kind, cut the entire pack in half so it'd fit in a 13x9..more or less. Cover the phyllo with a damp towel so it doesn't dry out while you're working.
Put two sheets into your baking pan. Just two. OK, if you get three sometimes, or just one, or whatever, it won't matter a whole lot, but you're going for two layers each time. Once they are in the pan, brush them with butter. Then sprinkle them with the nut/cinnamon mixture.
Don't worry that every single little bit of the phyllo is not covered with nuts. You're going to repeat the phyllo/butter/nuts layers about a zillion times now, so it all works out just fine when you're done. Just keep repeating the two layers of phyllo, the butter, the sprinkling of nuts and cinnamon. Over, and over, and over.
The top layer should actually be 6-ish layers of phyllo all together. This will puff up extra gorgeous and crispy. Plus, by then, you're out of nuts and tired of the whole process. Not to worry, you're almost done! Get out your really big (also sharp) knife and start cutting the whole pile in half. Cut all the way through to the bottom.
Cut those two mini stacks in half.
Then start the other direction, cutting into 8 stacks that way. You'll have 32 pieces when you're done. Some recipes talk about cutting diamond shapes, but then you have a bunch of edge pieces that are weird. This one makes everything more serve-able, plus it's easier. You'll notice that these look a little messy. It's ok, try not to worry if some of the dough moves around some. Reposition it as best you can, and let go of your inner perfectionist. They will taste so good, you won't care. Promise. Oh yeah, if you had any butter left in the pan, drizzle that over the stacks now, right before you put them in the oven.
Your baklava is in the oven now, for close to an hour. While it's baking, make your syrup. Mix together all the other stuff - the sugar, water, honey, lemon juice, vanilla, lemon zest and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes. If you get foam, skim it off. I never got foam until I started using our home-raised honey, so you may not get foam (lucky you!)
When your baklava comes out of the oven, all puffed and brown, drizzle it with the lemony, honey, syrup. Take your time, and get syrup in all the little corners and on all the tops of all the squares. With the flourescent task lighting off, they'll look like this:
You're supposed to let them cool completely before eating them. Good luck with that. Seriously, don't burn yourself with hot syrup and butter, OK? Wait until they're somewhat cooled, then sample one, or two, or nine...just to make sure they are okay. (wink!)
They are nice served in cupcake papers, because that gives you or your guests (if you're going to share them) something non-sticky to pick up. Whatever you do, don't cover them with plastic wrap - you'll lose the top layers when you take it off! If you have a container with a lid that won't touch the tops of the baklava, you can use that, but only after they are completely cooled. That is, if your family hasn't eaten them all by then!
Auntie Ellen's Baklava
1 lb. chopped walnuts
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 16oz. package phyllo dough
1 cup melted butter (2 sticks)
1 cup granulated (white) sugar
1 cup water, minus about a tablespoon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Preheat Oven to 350 degrees and butter cookie sheet or jelly roll pan.
Stir cinnamon into nuts.
Unroll phyllo and cut the entire stack in half (if needed) so it will fit in pan. Cover the stack of phyllo with a damp kitchen towel while assembling baklava, so that it won't dry out.
Place 2 sheets of phyllo in the prepared pan. Brush with melted butter. Sprinkle with 2-3 tablespoons of the nut mixture. Repeat layers until all the ingredients are used. End with the top layer having about 6-8 layers of phyllo.
Use a sharp, big knife to cut all the way through all the layers. Cut the whole thing in half, and keep cutting until you have 4 long rows by 8 short rows. If there was any leftover melted butter, drizzle it over the stacks at this time.
Bake in oven about 50 minutes. It will be crispy and starting to brown. Meanwhile:
combine sugar, water, lemon juice, honey, vanilla and lemon zest in a saucepan. Heat over medium heat to dissolve sugar, and simmer about 20 minutes. Skim foam if needed.
When the baklava comes out of the oven, spoon the syrup over it. Let cool completely before serving, and store uncovered if possible...or in a container where the lid will not touch the top of the baklava.