A number of years ago, I was visiting my Chief Culinary Consultant for the weekend in DC when we decided to do some outlet shopping in Virginia. We took a scenic route back, and happened upon fields of white tents and cars parked in the grass. We figured it was some type of festival and we were hungry, so we spontaneously pulled in. Turns out, it was a massive beer festival… the Northern Virginia Summer BrewFest, to be exact. After getting our tasting glasses and sampling brews such as watermelon beer, we hit the food tents. On our way out, we walked past a little Greek food tent manned by an older couple. They were charming and the pastries looked unbelievable; we loaded up on some baklava and headed home. Later that night, we dug in and I suddenly remembered how absolutely phenomenal baklava is. Layers of buttery, flaky phyllo dough are piled high between sections of spiced, ground walnuts. Once baked and golden brown, the entire pan is drowned in a spiced honey syrup, which is left to soak in for hours. If you’ve never had it, you can’t even imagine how crazy good it is. You owe it to yourself to eat some, immediately!
A few months after that beer festival, I remembered the baklava and wanted to make it for Thanksgiving. I turned to who I consider the queen of Greek food – Elly. At the time, she still didn’t have her family’s baklava recipe on her blog, but was nice enough to email it to me. Shame on me because it’s been at least three years since I first made this and I’m just now sharing it with you! While there is nothing inherently difficult about assembling this pastry, it is fairly time-consuming. As long as you have a little bit of patience, you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic treat once this is finished. It’s sweet, a little sticky, a little spicy, and fabulously nutty. I think that description could apply to many of us (myself included), don’t you think?! 🙂
The simplicity of this recipe allows for a good bit of customization and adaptation. You could certainly use a different type of nut if you prefer, or a mixture. I was actually a little short on walnuts this time around, so I threw in pistachios to round out the pound of nuts that I needed. I prefer to use orange peel in my syrup because I love the flavor, but you could absolutely use lemon if you prefer. Changing up the nuts and flavor of the syrup can create totally new versions! No matter what you end up using, be prepared for eating the baklava in mass quantities because one piece is definitely never enough.
For the Syrup:
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup honey
1 cinnamon stick
1 strip orange peel
For the Pastry:
1 pound walnuts, toasted
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 (16-ounce) package phyllo dough, thawed
1½ cups unsalted butter
1. First, make the baklava syrup. Combine the water, sugar, honey, cinnamon stick and orange peel in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
3. Place the walnuts, cinnamon and cloves in a food processor and process until the walnuts are finely ground.
4. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over very low heat, keeping it warm throughout the process so it doesn't start to solidify.
5. Brush a 9×13-inch pan with melted butter and place one layer of phyllo at the bottom. Brush the phyllo with the melted butter, and then add another layer of phyllo, and brush with more butter. Continue this process until you have layered 7 sheets of phyllo.
6. Gently spread one-quarter of the nut mixture evenly over the top of the phyllo. Repeat the process of layering phyllo sheets and brushing with melted butter, but this time use only 5 sheets of phyllo. Gently spread another one-quarter of the nut mixture over the top of the phyllo. Repeat this twice more, layering and buttering 5 sheets of phyllo and topping with one-quarter of the nut mixture. Finish off with 7 layers of buttered phyllo. Brush the top sheet with melted butter, as well.
7. Using a sharp knife, trim any ragged pieces of phyllo dough that has crept up the sides of the pan. Cut the baklava into 12 even squares, and then cut into triangles (you should have 24 triangles). Place the pan in the oven and bake for about 50 minutes, or until golden brown.
8. As soon as the baklava comes out of the oven, remove the cinnamon stick and orange peel from the syrup and slowly pour it over the hot baklava, making sure to get it into all of the cracks and crevices, as well as on the top surface. Allow the baklava to sit for at least 4 hours before serving so the syrup has a chance to soak in. (The baklava is actually best when left to sit overnight before serving.) Leftover baklava can be stored at room temperature, covered with foil.