The role baklawa plays in the repertoire of the Lebanese home cook is formidable. Most every Lebanese woman of my parents’ generation makes her baklawa for special occasions, especially Christmas. We swoon over baklawa to such a degree that it’s like our little pet, our little coosa. We call it our baklawi (bit-LAY-wee), just like you might call me Maureenie, or my sister Pegsie, or your mother Mommy.
The pastry must have become so endearing not only because of its crisp, buttery layers that incite near-delirium when eaten warm from the oven, but also because of the labor required to make baklawi. There are several steps involved—clarifying butter, making and cooling orange blossom simple syrup, chopping and sugaring nuts—and these no doubt would pale in comparison to the work that once was the burden of Middle Eastern women the world over: the making of the phyllo. Seems they had to stretch the dough as thinly as possible by pulling it across the kitchen table in one huge sheet. I imagine these little ladies danced a jig in their house dresses on that same tabletop when they discovered commercially-made phyllo. It’s a wonder that certain tasks like stretching phyllo didn’t just fall by the wayside, but they did it as though there was no option, and their success in their labor no doubt pushed them full steam ahead.
Aunt Hilda made huge platters of baklawa all wrapped up like the present that they were, each piece encased in its own pleated foil cup and the whole thing wrapped up with pink Saran and topped with a bow. This baklawi-gift was personally delivered to the homes of Hilda’s brothers every Christmas. It didn’t matter to her, or to us, that we had our own huge tray of baklawa that my mother made (“your mom browns hers much more than I do, and there’s nothing wrong with that…”). The more baklawa, the better.
Hilda labored over the baklawi in her kitchen, over the phone, out for lunch or dinner or anywhere good conversation was had. She felt hers was truly the best. Her pastry looked like the traditional diamond-shaped pieces but it was actually made with long logs of phyllo and nuts that had been rolled up and placed snugly next to one another on the tray, and then cut into diamonds. She learned this method from Aunt Louise, and now many of the cousins, having learned from Aunt Hilda, make theirs this way too. The pieces hold together nicely.
Aunt Rita has baked enough baklawi to earn her a place in the baklawa hall of fame. No doubt she too feels hers is truly the best. For years, her kitchen would turn into a bakery at Christmastime as she made tray after tray, some 50 of them every December. The effort required 20 pounds of clarified butter and 50 pounds of phyllo from wholesalers. Whenever she saw butter or sugar on sale, she bought it. She sold the trays for $25 each. Today, she says, she wouldn’t do it for less than $50. But carpel tunnel has gotten to her hands and it just doesn’t work anymore. How did this happen, she says with a sigh.
You can imagine that anyone who makes that much baklawa comes up with some tricks of the trade. The practice of buttering each layer of phyllo can be Zen-like and all peaceful and everything if you are making one. But get up to 50 trays, and mind is going to prevail over matter. Rita’s mind went to what might happen if she didn’t butter each layer, if in fact she just laid the 20 leaves of phyllo right into the pan, scattered the nuts over that, laid 20 more leaves on top—then cut it into diamonds and poured all of the butter over the whole kit’n kaboodle, letting it seep down through all of the layers and nuts. What happened was this: the baklawa was just as delicious as if she had buttered every layer.
My mom took up this practice, which means I took up this practice too. I’ve taken to bragging about how you don’t have to butter every layer and even taught my classmates at Tante Marie’s Cooking School how to do it. They were shocked; I took a bow.
Then I went to make the baklawa for you the other day. I whipped it out fast. Mom helped and we were pleased with ourselves for making a beautiful baklawi for the blog. Then we tasted it. Wet. Soggy. And so floral with orange blossom water that one bite was about all any of us could take. But I KNOW this method works!, I said. It does, she said. We just made six trays this way for Aunt Hilda’s funeral luncheon not six months ago which were, we thought, worthy of the occasion. So we made the baklawi again and used less of everything—clarified butter, nuts, syrup, and especially mazaher. I called Aunt Rita to chat it up about her baklawa. She talked about how much she misses Aunt Hilda, and that you don’t have to panic if it looks like you have too much liquid. Just stay calm, and pour it off.
All of this fuss over the baklawi is worth it; you will understand this if and when you make or have some of the good stuff. Commercially-made baklawa tastes as though it’s made not with butter, but with oil, and it simply can’t compare. The homemade pleasure starts when the pan has been in the oven for about 15 minutes, and the intoxicating scent of butter and pastry begins to swirl about the kitchen and throughout the house. There is Gloria in Excelsis Deo when the cool orange blossom syrup is poured over the hot pastry, giving you the most satisfying sizzling sound effect. Once the baklawa is cool enough to handle, cut off one of the ends that aren’t pretty and eat it. It might be too hot still and you’ll burn your mouth, like I did yesterday. But that won’t phase you. You’ll keep eating the crispy, toasty morsel with your eyes closed.
The baklawi isn’t so different from all our little coosas: you’ll produce something special with a little TLC, a lot of parent-pride, and the faith that your baklawi will go out into the world bringing goodness and light.
1 lb. box phyllo dough, 9″ x 14″, room temperature
6 oz. (¾ cup) clarified butter, melted (measure after butter is clarified)
1 ½ cups sugar
¾ cup water
1 T lemon juice
2 t mazaher (orange blossom water)
3 cups walnuts, toasted
1/3 cup sugar
Thaw the phyllo:
Refrigerate the frozen phyllo overnight, then bring to room temperature. Do not cut open the packages of phyllo until just before you are ready to assemble the baklawa.
Clarify the butter:
Melt the butter over low heat and pour it, along with the solids, into a bowl. Chill the bowl in the refrigerator (or jump-start it in the freezer if there is a rush). Once the butter is solid again, run the bowl under warm water to loosen the disk of butter, then rinse the disk off with warm water. All of the milky solids will be washed away. Melt the clarified butter when you’re ready to make the baklawa.
Make the orange blossom simple syrup:
In a small saucepan, combine sugar, water and lemon juice and bring to a boil over medium high heat. The lemon juice helps prevent crystallization. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the mazaher, pour into another, heatproof, container and cool completely. It is essential to pour cool/room temperature syrup over the hot pastry when it comes out of the oven.
Make the sugared nuts:
The nuts can be coarsely chopped in the food processor using pulses, but be careful not to go too far. Some nut-dust is unavoidable, but it is better to have a few nuts that need to be broken by hand than to process too much, which will produce nuts that are too finely chopped.
Combine the toasted chopped walnuts and sugar stirring until all of the nuts are coated and appear damp.
Assemble the baklawa:
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Open the phyllo and unroll it on top of the plastic it is packaged in. Keep the phyllo covered with a towel.
The size of the pan you use does not matter, but the pan should be metal (ideally not dark). For a 9”x13”x2” pan, trim the phyllo to fit. If you have the smaller box of phyllo, the two packages inside will need one inch trimmed off of the long side. If you have the larger box of phyllo, the one package of phyllo will need to be cut in half and trimmed to fit the pan. It’s better to leave the phyllo a little larger than the pan because it will shrink when it bakes.
Brush the bottom of the pan with clarified butter. Lay one stack of 20 phyllo leaves in the pan. Spread the nuts over the phyllo in one even layer. Lay the second stack of 20 leaves over the nuts, taking care that the top layer is a sheet that is not torn. Take a layer from the center of the leaves for the top layer if necessary.
Brush the top layer with clarified butter. Using the tip of a very sharp chef’s knife, cut the baklawa into diamonds by cutting six rows (5 cuts) lengthwise and ten rows (9 cuts) crosswise on the diagonal. Lightly score the top with your knife so you can see where the cuts will be.
Use your dominant hand to cut and the other hand to hold the top layers of phyllo down while cutting, and be sure to cut all the way through to the bottom of the pan. This is essential so that the butter will seep through all layers. The knife is held almost perpendicular to the pastry, cutting straight down into the phyllo and nuts. The top layer will lift and in general make you want to curse as you cut, but just lay the phyllo back down where it belongs and move on. The sharper your knife, the easier the cutting will be.
Pour the melted clarified butter over the baklawa evenly. Allow the butter to settle in, about 5 minutes. Bake on the oven shelf second from the top until deep golden brown, 50-60 minutes. Rotate the baklawa halfway through baking.
Remove from the oven and immediately pour the 1 cup of the cooled syrup evenly over the baklawa. When cool enough to handle, cut away a few morsels to eat warm. Let the rest sit, uncovered, for several hours or overnight to allow the syrup to absorb. Cut and serve from the pan as needed, keeping the baklawa lightly, not tightly, covered with plastic wrap or waxed paper. The baklawa will keep, in the pan, for two weeks.
Find a PDF of this recipe here.