A Piece of Nutty, Buttery, Flaky Heaven – Greek Baklava

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Sweet, chopped nuts nestled between buttery layers of delicate, crisp phyllo dough all held together by a sticky, honey-sugar syrup infused with fragrant lemon and cinnamon.

Baklava. Nutty, sweet, flaky, buttery goodness. That just about sums this decadent dessert up. Really, it’s quite heavenly.

Interestingly, no one really knows where baklava truly originated, so of course almost every country in the Middle East want to claim this incredible pastry as their own. Many argue that baklava has Greek roots while others claim it has Turkish ones*. Back in the day, creating baklava was considered a mastery due to the simple fact that each sheet of dough had to be perfectly rolled out into a leaf-thin sheet. Baklava became a symbol of wealth and sophistication.

Today, many more people enjoy the greatness of baklava, but because it requires lots of time and effort to make, baklava is generally saved for special occasions or holidays. In Greece, the baklava is often created with 33 sheets of phyllo dough (for 33 years of Christ’s life) or 40 sheets (for 40 days of Lent).

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Fun fact, the first time I made baklava was in 6th grade, and it was the first dessert I baked on my own. It started when I was at a Mediterranean restaurant my friend’s family owned. They had some amazing baklava, and I wanted to attempt to recreate it at home. In hindsight, I definitely could’ve started my baking career out with an easier dessert, but hey, 6th grade Szu-In was a go-big-or-go-home kinda gal. Still am today.

With that being said, baklava isn’t really hard to make. It’s just uses phyllo dough which can be intimidating at first, and it tends to be time consuming. I follow a couple rules when working with phyllo dough. 1) Always buy a fresh box of phyllo dough the day before making baklava so it can defrost in the fridge overnight. One time, I used a box of phyllo dough that had been in my freezer for a few weeks and when I opened the package, the dough shattered in a bunch of pieces because it was dried out. The dough works out perfectly when I just buy it and stick it in the fridge for the next day. 2) Keep the unused half of phyllo dough in the fridge. Most boxes phyllo dough contain two rolls of dough each wrapped in plastic. Open one at a time while keeping the other in the fridge. 3) Work quickly and/or use a very slightly damp towel to cover the dough. This will help prevent the dough from drying out and becoming hard. However, be warned!! If the towel is too wet, it makes the sheets of phyllo stick together, making it impossible to peel apart without tearing gaping holes in it. Because I’ve made baklava enough times, I can assemble the baklava fast enough where I don’t need to use a damp cloth.

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A note on the nut mixture. I prefer to make sure that when I chop the nuts in the food processor, I keep decent size chunks of nuts. Not only does this provide texture, but it also ensures that the baklava has a bit of body. Avoid grinding the nuts till they become dust.

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Baklava needs to be cut before it is baked. It becomes almost impossible to cut the baklava after it is baked because the phyllo dough will just end up crumbling, and then the pieces won’t look nice. I get the best shaped pieces when I use a sharp knife. Additionally, I don’t cut all the way through the baklava. By leaving the bottom of the baklava intact, it prevents the honey-sugar syrup from seeping right through to the bottom of the pan. After I let the syrup sit and infuse in the baklava, I take the same knife and cut all the way to the bottom.

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When it comes to the syrup, I was a little skeptical using all of it because it looked extremely thin, and I thought it might cause my baklava to turn soggy and lose its texture. However, I realized that as long as I let the baklava sit overnight in the syrup, it will get soaked up and turn sticky. The sticky syrup helps hold all the layers of nut and phyllo together without making the baklava go limp and mushy.

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While I made this baklava with walnuts, I personally prefer using all pistachios over walnuts or almonds. The pistachios not only bring their distinctive flavor and sweetness, but also provide the baklava a pop of green, perfect for spring time. The only down side I’ve found when using pistachios is that it can be hard to get a hold of deshelled pistachios and even when I can find them, they tend to be pretty pricy. I have opted to deshell a bunch of pistachios by hand before, but I would not recommend this method because it is time consuming and boring. When I bring out a pan of pistachio baklava, it means things are getting VERY fancy.

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This recipe is adapted from the Green Divas.

*Just to clarify, I am not saying that baklava did or did not originate from Greece. I am simply saying that baklava is an iconic dessert of Greece as it is in many other countries.

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. of chopped almonds, walnuts, or pistachios (or use a combination of them)
  • 1 lb. (1 box) phyllo dough, thawed (see notes above)
  • Melted butter (about 1 cup)
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves

Syrup

  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup honey
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 cinnamon stick

 Directions

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Put the nuts of choice in the food processor with the sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. Pulse the nut mixture until obtain the desired texture. Place in a bowl and set aside.

Grease a _x_ pan with some melted butter and lay one leaf of phyllo dough on the bottom of the pan. Use a pastry brush to brush the top of the phyllo dough with more melted butter. Continue layering the phyllo dough and brushing with melted butter until a solid base is formed (usually about 15 sheets of phyllo dough).

Sprinkle a thin layer of the nut mixture over the base of phyllo dough. Cover with 4 sheets of phyllo dough, brushing each one with butter. Repeat this process until all the nut mixture runs out.

Finish off the baklava with a layer of 8-15 sheets of individually buttered phyllo dough.

With a sharp knife, score the baklava being careful not to cut all the way through.

Bake at 350°F for 30 minutes or until golden brown and the tops look crisp.

While the baklava is baking, create the honey-sugar syrup by combining the cinnamon stick, sugar, lemon juice, honey and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 7 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and let the syrup cool.

Once the baklava is out of the oven, pour the cooled syrup evenly over the hot baklava. The syrup should start to bubble when it hits the hot pan.

Let the baklava set overnight so the syrup can harden and the flavors can infuse together.

The next day, use a sharp knife to cut all the way through the baklava. Garnish with ground nuts and serve.

Serves 20-25.

 

One Massive Greek Easter

Michael stretched, basking in the warmth of the bright sun. Since arriving in Athens, Greece two days ago, he was beginning to realize that the sun was constantly shining. Not that he was complaining or anything. It was for sure a nice break from the brisk wind of Chicago.

“Move your butt, Michael, we gotta go.”

Michael stumbled under a not-so-gentle shove and whipped his head around to give a half-hearted glare at Joseph, his good friend and roommate from UChicago. “Chill, dude, I’m going.”

Joseph snorted, running his hand through his dark, short cropped hair. “Not fast enough. Seriously, YiaYia, my grandma, is going to kill me if we don’t come back in time. She doesn’t mess around when it comes to Easter dinner.” Michael stared at Joseph with a slightly baffled look to which Joseph rolled his eyes. “You thought Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were bad? Just wait for Easter Sunday. No one celebrates Easter like us Eastern Orthodox.”

Joseph took off out the bright blue gates of his family’s house and down the white concrete steps that lead to the road.  Michael had to jog to keep up with Joseph’s quick pace.

“Where are we going again?” Michael asked when he finally fell in stride with his friend.

“The market,” Joseph replied. “We’ve got to pick up all the ingredients for Easter dinner.”

“What do you guys usually have for dinner?” Michael started to slow down as they approached a street intersection, but Joseph didn’t even pause and as he crossed the street.

“Tons of stuff. Always magiritsa which is… hmm how do I describe it… like a stew with lemon, egg, and lamb? Yeah, it’s real good. We roast a whole lamb on a spit. We got salad, moussaka, bread, red-dyed eggs, baklava. The list goes on forever.”

Michael nodded, not quite believing how elaborate the meal was going to be. When he lived with his family in California, they always just went out to eat at some restaurant. Granted, he and his family were Atheists, and to them, Easter was just another candy-filled holiday. That’s probably why Michael was so intrigued when he met Joseph two years ago and noticed that he changed his diet a couple months before Easter. Joseph explained that growing up Eastern Orthodox, he had to fast throughout a period called Lent which was the 40 days prior to Easter. Joseph couldn’t eat any meat, fish, eggs, dairy products – basically anything from animals. He also couldn’t eat anything with olive oil or drink any alcohol. Michael remembered bombarding Joseph with questions about practicing Eastern Orthodox because it all seemed somewhat random, a little pointless, and pretty strict. After becoming close friends and seeing how curious Michael was about his religion, Joseph invited Michael to tag along on his annual trip to Greece to experience Easter with his extended family over spring break. So here Michael was, an Atheist among devout Eastern Orthodoxies celebrating Easter in Athens, Greece.

****

By the time Michael and Joseph arrived at the market, it was already jam packed, bustling with shoppers who most likely were also buying items for their Easter dinner. Michael struggled to maintain visual of Joseph who was expertly weaving through the crowd.

Between all the bumping and squeezing between people, Michael also noticed the occasional tug at his pockets. Was someone trying to pick his pocket? When Michael asked Joseph, he laughed saying, “It’s like you’ve got a target on your back. This is a prime pickpocketing area, and you look like a tourist. That is why I’ve got the money.”

They first stopped by the fruits and vegetables section of the market. The whole isle of the market was bursting with vibrant colors. The produce was stacked high in plastic cartons with hand-drawn signs displaying the prices. Joseph hopped from stall to stall, amiably speaking to the vendors while inspecting the fruits and vegetables. Before Michael knew it, his arms were full with bags of potatoes, lettuce, lemons, nuts, eggplants and more.

Their next stop was the meat section of the market. Various cuts of meat were displayed on table in a stall while long cuts starting from a leg to the top of the spine hung from the ceiling. Michael wrinkled his nose at the scent of animal and blood. He had never seen so much meat at once and questioned how sanitary it was for meat to be out in the open with no packaging or refrigeration. Joseph, on the other hand, was not phased and immediately walked up to a particular meat vendor, shook his hand, and began pointed at various cuts, speaking in fluent Greek. After a few minutes of back and forth conversation, Joseph was carrying a massive package of meat.

“I got the star of the meal!” Joseph exclaimed, his biceps straining under the weight of the package. “YiaYia better be satisfied. Let’s go before this market gets any more crowded.”

“Did you know all those people you were talking to?” Michael asked, straining to see over the bags in his arms.

“No, not necessarily. I know some of them or they know my grandparents, but for the most part, they were strangers. Everyone here is fairly friendly though.”

By the time the boys arrived back at their house, they were tired and covered in sweat. The sun was now beating down on them their entire trip back, and Michael began to worry that he might get sunburn despite the little time they were outside. Joseph and his family didn’t have sunscreen in their house though because all of them had deep, olive skin tones that didn’t burn even after long periods of sun exposure.

YiaYia,” Joseph yelled when they stumbled through the front door of the house. “We got all the groceries you wanted!”

Joseph’s grandmother appeared out of the kitchen wearing a worn yellow apron and brandishing a wooden spoon. She was a small woman, no more than five-foot-three, but made up her lack of height with a big personality. With dark curly hair peppered with gray, deep smile lines, and a fiercely friendly face, Michael immediately felt hospitality and warmth radiating off of her when they first met.

“Yes, come, come,” she exclaimed in accented English waving the boys into the kitchen. Upon realizing that Michael knew zero Greek, she really made an effort to speak as much English as she could so Michael would be able to understand. In turn, Michael tried his best to pick up a couple Greek phrases here and there.

Along with Joseph’s grandmother, his mom and aunt were already in the kitchen preparing various foods. They all grabbed different bags out of Michael arms while Joseph brought the lamb to his dad and uncle who were preparing the spit outside.

“Michael, go help my mom make baklava,” instructed Joseph’s mom once all the groceries were taken from him. Without taking her eyes off the cutting board, she carelessly waved her knife towards Joseph’s grandma before expertly chopping the eggplant.

Michael made his way towards Joseph’s grandmother who was using a rolling pin to pulverize a bag of pistachios. She also had a bowl of melted butter and a large baking pan.

“I was told to help,” Michael said, rolling up his sleeves. “What can I do?”

“Have you ever had baklava?” Joseph’s grandmother asked.

“Yeah, I’ve had baklava from a Lebanese restaurant before, but I’ve never seen it made before.”

“Yes, well this baklava very special. We make every year. Forty sheet of dough used for the forty days of fasting. You, grab that brush and help butter the dough.”

For the next half hour, Michael listened to stories from Joseph’s grandmother as she taught him how to assemble baklava. Joseph’s mom and aunt would often chime in to add their versions of the tale. Joseph’s cousins Nikos, Marina, Cassia, and Demitri all made their way into the kitchen after waking up and immediately began helping their mom with whatever she needed.

Bits of Greek and English flew around the kitchen as the aromas of different foods mingled together. Michael realized that he loved the hustle and bustle of Joseph’s family. It was so very different than what he was used to. This entire house was filled with an air of liveliness that simply became contagious.

****

Around 8:00pm, after a long day of cleaning and preparation, Joseph and his family went into a frenzy, getting ready for the 11pm Easter church ceremony. All the women did their hair and dressed in bright color dresses. Joseph and his male relatives wore neatly ironed suits with white dress shirts. Michael had to borrow some of Joseph’s clothes because he didn’t realize how nicely people dressed for Easter and didn’t think to bring any dress clothes. Joseph’s grandma was dressed in a bright green dress suit and continued to flit around the kitchen making last minute adjustments to everything. By 9:45pm, Joseph’s grandparents began urging everyone else out of the house to head towards the nearest church.

“Why are we leaving so soon? Isn’t the church service at 11?” Michael asked Demitri as they stepped outside the house and began walking in the direction Michael assumed was the church.

“It gets insanely crowded, just you wait,” Demitri stated. “YiaYia and Papou need to get seats so we need to get there early.”

And when they got to the church, Michael understood why they left so early. Despite being an hour early, most of all the seats were taken. When all of Joseph’s family filed into the church, random people rushed over to greet them. Everyone exchanged hugs, kisses and handshakes speaking in rapid Greek. Michael even got pulled into multiple hugs by strangers he had never seen before. Joseph introduced Michael to all of them but Michael lost track of all the foreign names he could barely pronounce. When Joseph told these people that he and Michael were attending college at University of Chicago, Michael got a lot of back slaps and proud smiles.

“They all say that they are proud of us,” Joseph grinned. “College is really important to everyone over here.”

Eventually, after many greeting, the ceremony began. Michael felt so very lost with all the random standing, sitting, bowing and kneeling. He didn’t know any of the prayers and even if he did, it was all in Greek. To top it off, he didn’t even believe in a god. It was all slightly awkward but interesting nonetheless.

Michael’s favorite part came at the very end of the celebration. Everyone was handed a small, white candle, and one person lit his candle from some special holy candle. He then lit other people’s candles, and then it was just like people sharing their light with others. Eventually, the congregation was flooded with light and processed out of the church. Fireworks went off painting the black sky with color, and the church bells rang joyously.

“It’s over, right?” Michael whispered to Joseph.

“Yeah,” he grinned, wiggling his eyebrows. “How’d you like it?”

“It was different. But it was a good different. The candle thing was cool.”

Once Joseph and Michael found the rest of the family, they made their way back to their house with their lit candles. As soon as they got home, Nikos ran into the living room to turn on the speakers and play some music. Everyone filed into the kitchen to help set the table and bring out the food they prepared.

“You guys eat now??” Michael wondered out loud.

“It’s tradition,” Joseph’s uncle exclaimed, clasping Michael on the shoulder. “As soon as we come back from church we always have a celebratory feast! Christos Anesti!

Alithos Anesti,” Joseph responded, hugging his uncle. Then turning to Michael he said, “That’s how you greet everyone at this time.”

“Come now, let’s break the fast and enjoy!” The uncle strode towards the large dinner table that was quickly filling with foods. The smell of lamb, bread, butter and spices filled the air.

“Everything you expected?” Joseph inquired as he started towards the table.

“Everything and so much more,” Michael replied. “Really, this has been one hell of an Easter.”

 

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