Sahara market doesn’t look like much from the outside, but once you’re in the doors you’ll swear it’s doubled in size. Barrels of spices, nuts, and marinated olives crowd an entrance that gives way to shelf after shelf of unfamiliar (but so exciting!) grocery items. The aroma is distinct and intoxicating—a mix of freshly baked bread, grilled meats, and spices. Generous containers filled with milk cheese and yogurts sit in the refrigerator cases at front, up where the owners operate a modest Halal take-out.
While we were growing up, my father occasionally stopped at the nearby Arab market to pick up food for lunch or dinner or some meal in between. He was a fan of the falafel platters, both for taste and nostalgia. With each bite he’d recount the similar falafels he practically lived on as a young actor living in Greenwich Village. The story added just the perfect amount of romance to the already incredible platters; savory, lemon-sized falafel balls drizzled in tahini and served alongside generous portions of hummus, tabbouleh, and cucumber salad.
The best thing about dinner from the Arab market was that the meal didn’t end with the entrée. Just at the moment when I scraped up the last spoonfuls of creamy hummus and the hint of sadness that the deliciousness would soon be over started to set in, my father would reach into the store bag and pull out a second, smaller container. Inside, sitting in a small pool of honey syrup, were two perfect triangles of baklava.
My mother rarely ate sweets. My brother was disgusted by the whole meal, preferring the plastic-wrapped treats found on the regular grocery store shelves. But my father and I relished every single bite of that baklava. He ate his one small bite at a time, all the while gingerly holding it about a foot away to keep the drops of honey off his chin and shirt. I, on the other hand, ate mine with my fingers, peeling off each thin layer of phyllo and consuming it before moving on to the next. I started with the light and crispy top layers dusted with green-hued crushed pistachio, and worked my way down. The slices grew sweeter and stickier, until I finally reached the thick layer of crunchy ground walnuts near the bottom. The last few sheets of phyllo are still my favorite, having absorbed the most syrup. I sucked on them, then used my fingers to wipe up and final bits of syrup that may have dripped onto the plate.
A few weeks ago, on one of those lucky free days off work, I came across a package of frozen phyllo leftover from some long ago cocktail party. Though I’d originally meant to turn it into some kind of fancy canapé, I never quite got around to it and figured that I might as well experiment. I had time, afterall, and there was no one around to catch me if I messed it up. And that’s how I decided to make my own baklava.
I promise that though it might seem terrifyingly complicated, making baklava really is rather straightforward. My baklava isn’t exactly traditional—I based my recipe on the one printed on the side of the box, but used hazelnuts and almonds instead of the classic walnuts and pistachio. Since I love orange, I added a bit of zest to the nut mixture and used more zest and orange juice to make a heavily citrus-scented syrup that paired beautifully with the hazelnut.
I loved my baklava and so did my father, who excitedly drove into the city to pick up the portion of the batch I’d saved for him. I learned quite a bit while making it, too, and will include these notes here. I think that the next time I make it I might try and play around with the flavors—perhaps adding dried pineapple and coconut for a tropical flavored treat or mixing in some chocolate with the hazelnut. Once you have the technique down, you’ll see how easy it is to play with.
A few tips:
- Make sure you set up all your ingredients and everything first. The phyllo is easy to work with, but is delicate and dries up quickly. You’ll need to work fast for the best results so make sure you’re organized and all set to assemble before you start
- The point when you add the syrup to the baklava will determine your results. To keep your pastry crisp and not soggy, make sure the syrup and pastry is at opposite temperatures when you combine them. Meaning that either the pastry should be crackling hot (with a fully cooled syrup) or the syrup should be hot off the stove (with fully cooled pastry). As long as both aren’t at the same temperature, you’ll be fine.
- If you can find it, freshly made phyllo (available at Mediterranean and Arab markets) is the best, but frozen phyllo works too. For best results, take it out of the freezer and let defrost in your fridge for a day or two before you use. This way it will be completely defrosted and pliable.
- Don’t stress about small tears or slight overlaps. These are inevitable when working with such thin delicate sheets. Just straighten as best you can, brush with butter, and keep going. Your pastry will have so many sheets of phyllo on it that a few tears or bumps will be indiscernible in the finished pastry.
Makes 16 servings
For the pastry:
1 pound frozen phyllo pastry sheets, defrosted
1 pound unsalted butter
2 cups ground hazelnuts
1 cup ground almonds
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
4 pieces Zwieback toast, crumbled (you can replace with ¼ cup plain bread crumbs)
1 tablespoon cinnamon, preferably Vietnamese
1 teaspoon orange zest, finely grated
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the syrup:
3 cups water
2 ½ cups sugar
½ cup honey
5 large strips of orange zest
2 large strips of lemon zest
1 vanilla bean, split
2 whole cloves
1 star anise
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. You will need a 9” square pan.
First clarify your butter. Cut the 1 pound of butter into small pieces and melt in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Simmer until it forms a white froth and is completely melted. Skim off the foam and discard. Reserve the clarified butter.
In a large bowl, combine the hazelnuts, almonds, toast or breadcrumbs, sugar, orange zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and salt. Mix well until all the spices are evenly distributed.
Unroll your phyllo and use a knife to cut the rectangle of pastry sheets down about 6 inches so that it is a just slightly larger square than your baking pan (adjust according to your phyllo and pan).
Re-roll and put away the extra small part you just cut off as you won’t be using it for this.
Lay the phyllo out and cover with a damp towel while working to keep from drying out. Place nine sheets of phyllo on the bottom of your pan, brushing each one with the clarified butter before laying the next sheet.
Sprinkle the top sheet with the nuts mixture, then top with two buttered sheets of phyllo. Continue alternating nut mixture and two sheets of phyllo, being sure to butter each sheet, until you finish the nut mixture.
Place the remaining sheets of phyllo on top, buttering each one including the final layer.
With a sharp knife, cut the Baklava in half across, then turn and cut in half again. Cut each quarter in half diagonally both ways until you have 16 equal sized triangles. Use the clarified butter to brush over the cuts to seal them.
Bake in the 350 degree oven for 30 minutes then lower the heat to 300 and continue baking for 45 minutes to one hour, or until the pastry has puffed up slightly and taken on a slight golden hue. It will also pull away from the sides.
While the pastry is baking, combine the water, sugar, honey, citrus peel, and spices in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Let simmer for about 15-20 minutes to infuse the syrup and let it reduce a bit. It should take on a slightly golden color.
Let cool completely before pouring over the hot Baklava. (Or let the Baklava cool completely before pouring on the hot syrup.) The syrup pastry will crackle a bit when you pour on the syrup. Add just a small portion at a time so that it has a chance to sink in. Please note that you probably won’t need all the syrup (I had about a cup left).
Let the syrup-covered Baklava cool at room temperature for a minimum of four hours before serving. Can be stored covered with parchment or wax paper and plastic wrap at room temperature for 2-3 days. Can also be stored in the fridge but it will likely get a bit soggy.