In Lebanon, nobody makes baklava at home! Every neighborhood has at least one famous pastry-maker whose family has been making it for hundreds of years. People just buy it!
I had used phyllo dough a few times over the years; decided it was too much trouble.
Then one day, a lady I knew was having a fund-raiser at her house with 125 attendees, and I agreed to help out; as soon as I realized what I was getting myself into, I placed an urgent call to my Egyptian-born friend Phoebe; “You have got to help me!“ I knew she had years and years of experience churning out thousands of trays of baklava for her Coptic church festivals all over the South. Cooking and baking for a crowd was second nature to her.
I had 48 hours and we had no time to lose; I set out unrolling the phyllo out of each package and apprehensively praying that the thing would not dry out or tear or do something very annoying like crumble in little pieces; I checked Phoebe on my right: I was stunned!!!!!
Here she was, grabbing the phyllo, slapping it over, crumbling it like a piece of old tissue paper! I wanted to scream: “Are you crazy? What are you doing? This is phyllo dough, not your old mop!” Only the fact that I was desperate for her help made me bite my tongue. As it turned out, her manhandling of phyllo was sure-footed and she produced tray after tray of the most professional-looking (and tasting) baklava, taking 10 minutes to finish up one tray, and moving on to the next, until it was all completed, in ample time.
Here is Phoebe’s 10-minute, fool-proof technique, step-by-step. (I have adapted it slightly).
INGREDIENTS: One tray, 9inX13in, 24 baklavas or 48 mini-baklavas
- 12 ounces of pistachios, peeled and chopped coarsely in a food processor for one minute. See note at the bottom on peeling. I strongly encourage you to chop your nuts.
- 1 cup of syrup. See note on how to make the syrup at the bottom of the post.
- 1 cup of unsalted butter, melted and clarified. (See note at the bottom of the post on clarifying butter)
- 1 pound package of Phyllo dough
Before starting make sure all the ingredients are ready and placed nearby on a work surface.
Utensils needed are:
A brush (for greasing the pan), a baster, a rectangular pan (9×13), a large spoon for mixing the nuts, a sharp knife, a small spatula or knife (not sharp), a large spatula. A damp kitchen towel.
- Place the chopped pistachios in a bowl, pour two ounces of melted butter on top.
- Pour 2 tablespoons of syrup over the pistachios and combine the syrup, pistachios and butter mixture for 10 seconds until shiny and well-mixed.
- Grease the pan with some melted butter, or spray with a can of butter spray for 3 seconds.
- Pour the oil and the clarified butter in one bowl. Set a spoon or brush nearby.
- Open the package of Phyllo; unroll it; place the pan on top of the sheets of Phyllo, with one end on top of the edge. Count the sheets: you should have 22 sheets of Phyllo. You will use 10 sheets for the bottom and 10 sheets for the top layer. That leaves 2 sheets for the middle section.
- Cut the dough with kitchen shears, following the edge of the pan, so that all the sheets will fit the pan, within half an inch. You will have 22 sheets of scraps. Leave a quarter-inch border all around, no more.
- The scraps will be used as a filler in the middle, to give the baklava volume, and save time in assembly. Cover the scraps with the damp kitchen towel.
- Using the baster, squirt two tablespoons of clarified butter on the pan. Brush for a few seconds to spread it all around.
- Take 2 sheets of the cut Phyllo and place in the pan; with the baster, squirt butter/oil mixture at different spots on the pan.
- Take 2 more sheets, repeat the operation; take 2 more sheets, then 2 then 2, until all 10 sheets have been used. Cover the remaining 12 sheets with the damp kitchen towel.
- Take 1 sheet of scrap and crumple it up like a piece of tissue paper. Place on the pan, and crumple one more sheet until all are crumpled and placed side by side.
- Squirt butter on all the crumpled sheets generously.
- Place two sheets of Phyllo on top of the crumpled sheets to prepare a smooth surface for placing the pistachio nuts.
- Spread the pistachio nuts all over and smooth the layer of nuts with the large spatula.
- Now that the pan is covered with a layer of pistachios, cover with the remaining 10 sheets of Phyllo; take 2 sheets at a time, squirt with butter going up and down until all 10 sheets are used up.
- Take a knife with a dull edge or a spatula, run all around the pan tucking the phyllo into the pan so that it is neatly tucked.
- With the sharp knife, cut 3 columns (measure with a ruler if you wish) and 4 rows; you will obtain 12 squares. Cut diagonal lines in the squares to obtain 24 triangles.
- Squirt butter on top of pan.
- Place the pan in a 350F oven for 45 minutes or until the baklava appears toasted and a deep gold.
- Pour the syrup on the baklava when you pull it out of the oven; use a tablespoon and pour the hot syrup one spoon at a time in the cut sections of the baklava; use as much syrup as your taste dictates, reserving the extra syrup for people who want to pour more on their plate. I use less than 3/4 cup of syrup for the entire pan.
- After having drizzled the syrup, let it sit uncovered for a few hours, then cut the individual pieces with a sharp knife and set side by side in a metal or plastic container to be stored for three weeks.
HOW TO MAKE CLARIFIED BUTTER:
- Take 4 sticks of unsalted butter and place in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Let the butter melt slowly; it will foam at the top; remove the foam with a spoon. Let it melt completely and continue to heat up, remove the foam until there are none left. When the butter is clear, transfer to a jug through a sieve on which you will have placed a paper towel or coffee filter; this step is to remove more of the whitish substance as possible; the clarified butter is the yellow clear liquid that remains. When ready to use, it should be reheated slowly so that it is clear again and liquid. Keep any extra clarified butter covered in the fridge for up to a year.
HOW TO MAKE THE SYRUP:
- Measure two cups of sugar and one cup of water and place in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring from time to time and boil for 10 minutes. Add a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice to the syrup and boil one minute longer; add the rose water and orange blossom water and remove from the heat. You will obtain a larger quantity of syrup than what I have used for this batch, which you can keep for several weeks in a closed container in the fridge and offer more syrup to people who like their baklava sweeter. In Lebanon, Arabic pastries always come with a small container of extra syrup on the side.
HOW TO PEEL THE PISTACHIOS:
- Place the pistachios in a bowl and cover with water; let them sit in water for one hour, drain them and using your fingers, rub the pistachios together until the peels detach easily. Dry them with paper towel and dry further by spreading them out on a cookie sheet and roasting in a 300F oven for 10 minutes. Do not let them burn or brown. Remove from the oven, cool the pistachios at room temperature for one hour and process in a food processor or chop them by hand with a good knife, until they are coarsely chopped. They are now ready to be used.
If using other nuts, toast them for 10 minutes in a 300f oven, cool and chop coarsely in a food processor pulsing for 30 seconds.
NOTE: The clarified butter can be mixed with oil for those concerned about cholesterol. I would recommend 1/2 cup of oil and 1/2 cup of unsalted clarified butter.
The amount of butter and syrup is a matter of taste and personal preference. If you like more, douse more all over the pan. Do the same for the syrup. Here I tried to minimize the butter/sugar ratio for health reasons.