On Berry Almond Baklava & Defrosting the Freezer

I was in Seattle this past weekend when Eugene sent me a text from back home in NY. "There is a layer of frost over everything in the freezer."

I showed it to Sarah, who was sitting next to me, and she started cracking up.  Just moment earlier, Eugene had texted to ask: "Is pastrami is supposed to taste sour? Because I had some and it tastes sour and the date on it says June 2nd." (He sent this to me on June 9th.)

I told him to throw out the pastrami and not worry about the freezer, but when I got back, it was worse that I had imagined. Thick layers of snow blanketing the frozen bags of tortellini, passion fruit puree, and carefully wrapped salmon. The boxes of phyllo dough I'd been saving for some kind of last-minute entertaining dish were now soggy and warped, buckling under the weight of the ice that clung to them. The light wouldn't even turn on because little icicles had frozen the switch into the closed position.

I ignored it for a day, too exhausted with jet-lag and an airplane cold to deal with it. Then I started pulling things out. I boiled water and cooked the tortellini, tossing it with olive oil, grated cheese, oregano, and canned tomatoes for a kind of salsa cruda that would be just as good cold as it is hot. [I meant to photograph it, but Eugene ate it all before I could.]

I put the phyllo and a bag of cranberries--leftover from last Thanksgiving--on the counter to thaw. Old leftover containers of ice cream went into the trash, along with a ziploc of homemade gnocchi from last February.

I used a spatula to scrape off the frost, letting it fall onto the kitchen floor, which I then mopped up with a clean pink bath towel, remembering (once again) that I really need to buy a proper mop.

The best thing to do with all the thawing boxes, I decided, would be to bake something. I wanted to make a pie, but there weren't enough berries for that, nor did I feel like dealing with pie dough. Maybe baklava, I thought, since I really did have to use that phyllo up now. But I didn't have enough nuts for a full batch.

But if I combined them...

I tossed the cranberries (and some sad-looking blueberries I found in the fridge) with coconut palm sugar, a little bit of almond and vanilla, leaving them to macerate until syrupy.

The only nuts I could find were roasted salted almonds, so I put those in the food processor along with some sesame and pumpkin seeds I found in the pantry, pulsing them until they were crushed, but still chunky. I added more sugar, a bit of cinnamon, and lots of allspice. It's my new favorite and it's magic with berries--sexy and spicy and just unrecognizable enough to seem exotic.

I dropped two entire sticks of butter into a small pot and let it bubble and melt. Baklava calls for a lot of butter. You can't be afraid of it. I love dipping my brush in the hot butter and painting it on the thin pastry. It tears. It always tears, but just brush on more butter, and keep going.

Just before finishing I though of something, climbing up onto my counter to fish out a bag of Ghirardelli white chocolate chips from the back of baking shelf. I pulled back a layer of the buttery phyllo and sprinkled them in, knowing the creamy sweet would be nice with the tart and the crunchy.

I was worried that the fresh berries would be too juicy for the thin phyllo, but they weren't. The pastry stayed together, with thin layers of flaky filo on top, chunky spiced nuts in the center, and bits of tart berries that pop and drip blue-red juice over everything with each bite. I made a syrup for it with the bottoms of various jars of honey, some hot water, and almond extract, and poured it over the pastry allowing the nuts and bottom layers to soak it in.

It hasn't stopped raining today and I ate two pieces feeling all along like it was just the thing. I'll have a third just after I hit publish.

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Berry Almond Baklava
Makes 16 servings

For the pastry:
1 package frozen phyllo pastry sheets, thawed
2 cups fresh or frozen berries (use a mix of cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, etc.)
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 teaspoons allspice, divided
6 tablespoons brown sugar, divided
2 cups almonds (or mixed nuts), coarsely crushed
2/3 cup white chocolate chips (optional)
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, melted

For the syrup:
1 cup water
1 cup honey
1 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. You will need a 9” square pan.

In a large bowl, combine the berries, almond extract, 1 teaspoon allspice, and 3 tablespoons of brown sugar. Set aside. In another bowl, combine the nuts, white chocolate chips, remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar, cinnamon, kosher salt, and remaining allspice. Mix well until all the spices are evenly distributed.

Unroll your phyllo and use a knife to cut the rectangle of pastry sheets down down into a square that it is a just slightly larger than your baking pan (adjust according to your phyllo and pan). Re-roll and put away the extra phyllo  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 melted butter.

Sprinkle the top sheet with 1/2 the nut mixture, then top with four buttered sheets of phyllo. spread the berry mixture over the top of this sheet, and then cover with four more sheets of phyllo, buttering between each sheet. Spread the rest of the nut mixture and top with the rest of the phyllo, buttering between each sheet and on the last sheet.

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.

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.

Make the Syrup:
While the pastry is baking, combine the water and honey and let simmer until the honey has dissolved. Stir in the almond extract and let cool.

When the baklava is finished baking, pour the cooled syrup on top. Let the syrup-covered Baklava cool at room temperature for a minimum of four hours before serving.

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