I have become such close friends with butter over the last year that this post makes me feel right at home in butter’s lovin’ arms. I didn’t used to be so free and easy about butter. In fact, I shunned it for a good couple of years, replacing it wherever possible with a healthier fat, or no fat at all. Then I went to culinary school, and all bets were off. It didn’t take but one lesson in buttercream, or another in finishing sauces to their silkiest, to get me to embrace butter perhaps more than one should. It has been said that an embrace lasting 30 seconds or longer makes a difference in our well-being, so I’ll go ahead and count my butter-embrace among those.
There is indeed a fair amount of butter used in Lebanese baklawa. The phyllo dough wants and needs the butter in order to brown and crisp and taste heavenly. Imagine though that you are only going to eat a few pieces, right, and the rest give away or serve them on your holiday cookie platter, so in the end any one person isn’t consuming all that much butter. And also in the end, the feeling it’s going to give you to have eaten those few pieces, especially if you ate them warm, will provide great clarity of heart and mind as you enter the New Year.
That clarity is going to come at a bit of a cost, because the butter used in baklawa must be clarified. Clarified butter is simply clear butterfat from which the milk solids have been removed. The solids burn quickly, which is delicious when you want the richness of a nutty brown butter (beurre noisette) or even black butter (beurre noir). But for baklawa, the butter is completely absorbed into the phyllo and nuts, and if the milk solids were still there, they would produce black specks all over your golden brown pastry.
To clarify butter, there are as many methods as there are bakers of baklawa. Always start with unsalted butter; high quality butter is a good thing, but I’ve known many a Lebanese lady to purchase and like Land-o-Lakes butter, especially when it goes on sale.
Melt the butter over low heat. The melted butter can be poured through cheesecloth and a sieve, but I find that leaves behind too much of the solids. Or as the butter melts, skim the solids that form on the surface, then set the butter aside to cool for a couple of hours and allow the remaining solids to drop to the bottom of the pan so you can pour the clear butter off. Aunt Rita throws a handful of flour into the melted butter and lets that sit for a few hours; she says the flour and solids combine and hold tight to the bottom of the pan when you pour off the clarified butter.
I like my mother’s method because, well, like mother like daughter. And of all of the methods I have attempted, this one works best for me and leaves behind no solids at all. She melts the butter over low heat and pours 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.
Yes, you do lose a little good clarified butter in the rinse. But all of the clarifying methods come at a cost to the butter one way or another, and it’s only a small amount that is lost in the end.
Melt the disk of clarified butter over low heat, and it’s ready to go. If you prepare clarified butter in advance and keep it on hand in the freezer (it will last as long as regular butter would, several months), that’s one step for baklawa preparation that is all finished.
Oh, and I should mention that one can purchase clarified butter. I gasped in excitement at my Treasure Island grocery store in Chicago when I saw the little tub there several years ago. Such a treasure! I gasped again when I saw the price, something like $11 for 8 oz. I confess I bought a few and that year made the most expensive baklawa of my career. This is not something I like to tell my family because the Lebanese ladies of Lansing have always been so careful about finding good prices on all ingredients, and would no doubt consider that kind of a short cut, at that expense, to be indulgent. They are right about that.
Join me tomorrow for a story, photos, and a unique, super-fast way to make your baklawa dreams come true.