Episode 9, GBBO 2014, Signature Bake

Baklava

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World are celebrated in stories and legends, but the eighth wonder of the world is much debated.

I propose that the eighth wonder is something that has endured throughout history, changed with time yet is still tied to its ancient roots. Like the other seven, it was shaped by human hands, using materials provided by nature to create a thing of beauty, wonder and, in this case, deliciousness. I give you the masterpiece known as … baklava.

Yes, this small, delicate yet intricate structure made up of layer upon layer of thinly rolled dough that encases a filling of nuts and spices and is soaked in a sweet, floral syrup is older than the statue of Zeus that graced the temple at Olympia in the mid-fifth century BC. Its origins are attributed to the Assyrians around 800 BC, when they stretched thin layers of bread dough and baked it with chopped nuts and honey for special occasions.

Fast forward more than 2,000 years and you’ll find that the Ottoman Empire was instrumental in perfecting this sweet pastry and eventually spreading it throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East so that, today, it is claimed as the national dessert by Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Bulgarians and Armenians, among others. According to the kitchen notebooks of the Topkapi Palace — the empire’s political seat in Istanbul — baklava was baked in the palace in 1473. And by the 17th century, it is reported, the ruling sultan would present his soldiers with a gift of baklava on the 15th day of Ramadan in what became known as the Baklava Parade.

But it is the Greeks who are credited with creating the dough that makes baklava’s multiple crispy layers possible, when they figured out how to roll the pastry as thin as a leaf. Thus, this dough was called phyllo, which is Greek for “leaf.”

Each country this pastry traveled to put its own mark on the delicacy. Armenian merchants plying the silk and spice routes on the eastern border of the Ottoman Empire integrated cinnamon and cloves into the recipe. The Arabs introduced rose and orange blossom water to their version of baklava, and the Persians added a nut stuffing scented with jasmine and cut the sweet treat into the diamond shapes still popular today.

In a nod to the multicultural background of this ancient dessert, I decided to make one with traditional flavors — pistachio filling and orange syrup scented with orange blossom water — and one less traditional but incorporating the flavors of another culture — macadamia nut and coconut filling with lime syrup — for a Hawaiian touch. For my pistachio baklava, I chose to make it in the concertina shape, where it’s rolled around a dowel and then scrunched to make it look like an old-fashioned concertina. I made my macadamia and coconut baklava in the traditional way, layering the phyllo and nut filling in a pan, then cutting it into rectangles (or diamonds) before baking it.

Macadamia, Coconut & Lime Baklava

But first I had to make the phyllo dough. I’ve discussed before the different spellings — phyllo vs. filo — here, so I won’t go into that. No matter how you spell it, though, it’s a lot of work. If it weren’t for My Great British Baking Challenge, I would be picking up a package of phyllo dough in the freezer section of my local grocery store like every other sane cook in America. But because the bakers in the Great White Tent were required to make their own, I’m doing it, too.

If you’re rolling it by hand, it’s impossible to achieve the leaf-thin sheets that commercial bakeries can make. One recipe I found said to expect to reach the thickness of two sheets of copier paper. In my research, I discovered two methods for rolling it by hand (as opposed to using a pasta maker, as demonstrated here). There’s this method, which involves wrapping the dough around the rolling pin (skip to 1:44 in the linked video to see the rolling method), and this alternate method, in which several pieces of dough are stacked together, separated by a liberal sprinkling of a cornstarch and flour mixture, and rolled out together (skip to 3:40 in the video to see this method). I followed the phyllo recipe on TheSpruceEats.com but chose to try the stacking method for rolling it out.

This all takes time and considerable upper arm strength, so my suggestion is to make and roll out the dough the day before you plan to make the baklava. (Or, alternatively, purchase your phyllo dough at the store. I won’t judge.) Once you’ve divided the dough into pieces and rolled it out, it can be stacked, five sheets together, between two pieces of parchment paper, rolled up, wrapped in plastic and stored in the fridge for up to 24 hours. Then you can prepare your fillings and syrups the day you plan to assemble and bake your baklava. 

Pistachio-Orange Baklava
Brush the phyllo with clarified butter and sprinkle with pistachios.

For my Pistachio-Orange Concertina Baklava, I started with this recipe but used only pistachios, omitting the cinnamon, and for the syrup I substituted orange slices for the spices and orange blossom water for the lemon. I also used only one sheet of phyllo for each concertina roll, since mine were thicker than the store-bought variety. After brushing the phyllo with clarified butter and sprinkling the ground nuts over it, I rolled it up around a ½-inch dowel, scrunched it together by pushing the rolled dough together with both hands, and then slid it off the dowel into a greased 8-inch square pan. Once I filled the pan with these rolls, I cut them into 1½-inch pieces and baked them until they were crispy and golden on the top and the bottom. After taking them out of the oven, I poured the cooled syrup over the still-hot pastry and left them to soak up the syrup for at least an hour.*

For my Macadamia, Coconut & Lime Baklava (adapted from this recipe), I used the more traditional method, layering nine sheets of phyllo brushed with clarified butter in a square pan; topping that with half the macadamia-coconut mixture; then adding four more sheets of phyllo and the rest of the filling mixture; and topping it off with four final phyllo sheets, each brushed with clarified butter. After cutting them into rectangles, I baked them at 350°F for 30 minutes, then lowered the temperature to 300°F and baked for another 1¼ hours, till the pastry was browned on the top and the bottom. This time, when I poured the lime syrup over the hot pastry, I made sure the syrup was hot, too. This is contrary to many baklava recipes but was recommended in New York Times Cooking.*

Because my sheets of phyllo were not as thin as the commercially available ones, my baklava may not have been as tender, but the pastry was still crisp, and the fillings were sweet and chewy, just like you’d expect of baklava you might find in its native region. Baklava is very versatile, and once you know the basic elements—phyllo pastry, flavored syrup and nut filling—you can experiment with different fillings and flavors until you discover your signature style!  

*There seems to be an endless debate, on the internet at least, as to whether the syrup poured over the baklava should be hot or cold. Several recipes I read stated that it didn’t matter which, as long as the temperature of the syrup was opposite the temperature of the pastry (i.e., cold syrup over hot pastry or hot syrup over cold pastry). For these two recipes, I followed different instructions for each. The first called for cooled (in this case room temperature) syrup over hot pastry. For the second, I followed the directions in the New York Times Cooking’s baklava recipe here, which called for hot syrup over hot pastry (contrary to other recipes). In the final taste test, I couldn’t tell the difference.

Phyllo Dough

  • Servings: Makes 24 sheets
  • Print
Adapted from TheSpruceEats.com

Ingredients

  • 6 c. + 2 T. flour, divided
  • 1¼ – 1 1/3 c. hot water
  • 2 t. white vinegar
  • 2 t. olive oil
  • 3 T. fresh lemon juice
  • ½ c. cornstarch
    • Directions

      1. Add 6 cups of flour to a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add the water (starting with 1 cup) and vinegar. Combine with a fork. Add the olive oil and lemon juice and continue mixing, adding more water if needed to make a soft dough.
      2. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead by hand, oiling hands if necessary, until the dough is soft, malleable and smooth, about 10-15 minutes. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 1-2 hours.
      3. Mix the cornstarch with 2 tablespoons flour. Cover a table with a clean tablecloth and dust it with the cornstarch mixture. Divide dough into 24 equal pieces (Mine were 45 grams each, or about 1½ oz.) and place on a baking sheet; cover with plastic wrap. Keep remaining balls covered with plastic wrap while working with one at a time. Flatten ball with hands, then sprinkle with cornstarch mixture and begin to roll out with a rolling pin. Roll it from the center outward, turning 90 degrees every so often, until it is as thin as you can get it. Dust it with the cornstarch mixture and set it aside, covering it with plastic wrap as well. Continue with the next ball, rolling it into a sheet and sprinkling it with the cornstarch mixture, then stacking it on top of the previous sheet until you have a stack of five sheets of dough. Roll these out some more, unstacking and dusting with more cornstarch mixture as needed. Place the stack on a piece of parchment, top with another piece of parchment, roll them up and wrap in plastic wrap. Repeat for the rest of the dough balls. The wrapped rolls of phyllo sheets can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.

      Pistachio-Orange Concertina Baklava

      Recipe adapted from cleobuttera.com

      For the syrup:

      • 5/8 c. sugar
      • 1/3 c. water
      • 2-3 orange slices
      • ½ T. orange blossom water

        For the filling and assembly:

        • ¾ c. pistachios, plus more for garnish
        • 6 sheets of phyllo dough
        • ½ c. butter, clarified*
        • Grated orange peel, for garnish

          Directions

          1. First, make the syrup: In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water and orange slices and bring to a full boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to ensure that the sugar dissolves. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until the syrup is slightly thickened, then remove pan from the heat, take out the orange slices and stir in the orange blossom water. Transfer syrup to a measuring cup with a spout.
          2. To make the filling, grind the pistachios in a food processor until very finely chopped but not powdery, making sure there are no large pieces that could rip the phyllo sheets.
          3. Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and preheat oven to 300°F. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan.
          4. Unwrap and unroll phyllo on a large baking sheet. Cover with wax paper, then a barely damp dish towel to keep the phyllo from drying out. (If using store-bought phyllo, cut the sheets in half to form smaller rectangular sheets half the size of the original phyllo sheets.)
          5. Keeping the rest of the sheets covered, lay one sheet of phyllo with the longer side facing you. Brush with clarified butter. (If using store-bought phyllo, top with a second sheet and brush that with ghee as well.) Sprinkle ground pistachios over the entire surface of the phyllo. Place a long rod or ½-inch diameter wooden dowel along the edge nearest you. (In a pinch, you could use a chopstick.) Loosely roll the phyllo around the rod (making sure it’s not too tight or you’ll have difficulty getting it off the rod).
          6. Placing one hand on each end of the rolled phyllo, carefully push both ends toward the center to scrunch it up. Slide the scrunched phyllo roll off the dowel and transfer it to the prepared pan. Repeat with remaining phyllo sheets, arranging the rolls so they’re touching, side by side.
          7. Using a sharp knife, trim the ragged ends of the rolls off but leave the ends in the pan. (You can nibble on them while waiting for the baklava to cool!) Then cut each roll into 1½- to 2-inch pieces. Brush the remaining clarified butter all over the rolls. Bake until crisp and deep golden brown in color, about 70-90 minutes.
          8. When baklava is done, remove from the oven and place pan on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drips of syrup. Immediately pour the cool syrup over the hot baklava. Allow it to soak up the syrup for at least an hour, then garnish with pistachios and grated orange peel. Serve at room temperature. Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container for about a week.

          *To clarify butter, melt it over low heat, then let it cook until foam rises to the top and the milk solids fall to the bottom of the pan. This will take 5-15 minutes, depending on how high the heat is; don’t rush it, as it could burn. Skim the foam off the top, then line a fine-mesh sieve with cheesecloth, place it over a clean bowl and pour the melted butter through it.

          Macadamia, Coconut & Lime Baklava

          Adapted from Epicurious.com

          For the filling:

          • ½ c. shredded unsweetened dried coconut, plus more for garnish
          • 1 c. coarsely chopped unsalted macadamia nuts
          • ¼ c. sugar
          • 2 T. water
          • 1½ t. lime juice
          • Pinch of salt

            For assembly:

          • ½ lb. phyllo dough, or about 17 sheets of homemade phyllo
          • 5/8 c. (1¼ sticks) butter, clarified*
          • Grated lime peel, for garnish
            • For the syrup:

              • ¾ c. + 2 T. sugar
              • ¾ c. water
              • Pinch of salt
              • 3 T. lime juice

                Directions

                1. To make the filling, stir the coconut, macadamia nuts, sugar, water, lime juice and salt in a medium bowl.
                2. Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 6-inch square baking pan. (If you don’t have a 6-inch pan, you could use an 8-inch round or square pan, but my phyllo sheets weren’t quite big enough.) Trace the bottom of the pan onto stiff paper or cardstock and cut it out. This will be your pattern for the phyllo.
                3. Unwrap and unroll phyllo on a large baking sheet. Cover with wax paper, then a barely damp dish towel to keep the phyllo from drying out. Remove one sheet of phyllo at a time (two if using store-bought), place the pattern on top and use a long sharp knife to cut the phyllo to fit the pan. Place the first sheet in the pan (two if using store-bought) and brush with 1 tablespoon clarified butter. Repeat with the phyllo and butter until you have used nine (or 18 if store-bought) sheets.
                4. Sprinkle half of the filling evenly over the phyllo in the pan. Place one sheet of phyllo in the pan (two if using store-bought) and brush with 1 tablespoon butter. Continue in the same way until you have used four (or eight if store-bought) sheets. Spread the remaining filling on top. Layer and butter the remaining four sheets of phyllo (eight if using store-bought) in the same way. Brush the top layer of pastry generously with butter and pour any remaining butter over the top. With a sharp knife, cut the baklava into 12 equal pieces using clean, up-and-down strokes, taking care not to press down too hard on the phyllo. (Make sure to cut all the way through to the bottom of the pan.)
                5. Bake for 30 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 300°F and bake for 1 hour & 10-15 minutes, until golden brown. If the top starts to get too brown before the pastry is cooked through, lay a piece of foil over the top. To test for doneness, use a knife to lift up a corner of one of the pieces in the center of the pan to see if the bottom is brown.
                6. While the baklava is baking, make the syrup: Bring the sugar, water and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until slightly thickened. Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the lime juice.
                7. When baklava is done, remove from the oven and place pan on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drips of syrup. Slowly pour hot syrup over the pastry. It will bubble up and some may overflow. When the syrup stops bubbling, move pan to wire rack to cool. Let cool completely, then use a sharp knife to cut the pieces again where they were cut before baking. Garnish with coconut and grated lime peel. Serve at room temperature. Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container for about a week.

                *To clarify butter, melt it over low heat, then let it cook until foam rises to the top and the milk solids fall to the bottom of the pan. This will take 5-15 minutes, depending on how high the heat is; don’t rush it, as it could burn. Skim the foam off the top, then line a fine-mesh sieve with cheesecloth, place it over a clean bowl and pour the melted butter through it.

                Next week: Schichttorte

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