As a pastry chef, I’m often responsible for bringing dessert to whatever gathering I’m attending, whether it’s an office party, school function, or neighborhood get-together. Baklava is my ace in the hole for these occasions. Made with sweetened layers of crisp, buttery phyllo and bursting with toasted nuts, this seductive eastern Mediterranean dessert somehow manages to be flaky, moist, and crunchy all at the same time. It’s also practical, because it’s easy to assemble, feeds a crowd, and can be made ahead—all important qualities for time-crunched bakers. But one of the best reasons for making baklava is that it’s an entirely unexpected addition to the dessert table.
If you’ve ever had commercially made baklava, you might not be inclined to make it yourself, because most of what you buy is sodden and ultrasweet. But you should know that the homemade version is light years better than the commercial one and not complicated to make. While it does take some time, nearly all of it is hands-off time, waiting for the phyllo to thaw (see “Phyllo Pointers” below), the pastry to bake, or the baklava to absorb moisture from the syrup. And the method is easy—just keep the following tips in mind.
Use a food processor to chop the nuts. Traditionalists claim that chopping the nuts (pistachios, in this recipe) by hand is best, but if that were the only option, I’d probably never make baklava again. Luckily, the food processor does a perfectly good job in only a few seconds. Just take care not to overchop the nuts to a powder, or worse, to pistachio butter. Process the nuts with the sugar and spices for the filling; the sugar absorbs the oil released by the nuts, keeping them separate and fluffy instead of oily and pasty.
For this recipe, I use three thin layers of nut filling, whereas many classic baklavas have just one layer in the center of the pastry. Thinner nut layers give you a flakier texture (the bottom layers aren’t weighted down by one large body of nuts), a more robust nut flavor (thinner layers get toasted more evenly), and more evenly absorbed syrup.
The syrup should be hot when poured over the cooled pastry. There’s one rule for adding sugar syrup to baklava: The temperature of the pastry must be opposite that of the syrup. I had always been advised to pour cold syrup over hot-from-the-oven pastry. But the baklava was never quite as crisp as I wanted; the hot pastry absorbed the syrup readily and softened quickly. So I decided to try pouring hot syrup over cooled pastry, which worked beautifully. Letting the pastry cool and settle kept the layers separate and crisp, even after adding the syrup.
Phyllo dough is available in the frozen food section of the supermarket, usually near the puff pastry. Here’s how to coax the best from a box.
- When shopping for phyllo, always buy extra. Sometimes, the dough thaws along the route from the factory to your shopping cart, and thawed and refrozen phyllo sheets tend to stick together, ripping and tearing unmercifully as you try to pry them apart. That’s why I buy an extra box—even if the dough is in bad shape, I can always get enough sheets from the two boxes to finish the baklava. (If I don’t use the second box, it’ll keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.) Also, always choose boxes from the back of the freezer case, where the temperature is more constant.
- Put frozen phyllo in the refrigerator overnight so it can thaw gradually. When phyllo is thawed at room temperature, moisture condenses on it, which can cause the sheets to stick together. Once thawed in the fridge, let the phyllo come to room temperature on the counter for 1-1/2 to 2 hours before using, which will make it less likely to crack.
- Keep the phyllo covered. The dough dries out quickly and becomes brittle when exposed to the air. To prevent this, I lay the phyllo sheets on a work surface and cover the stack with a piece of plastic wrap several inches larger than the phyllo. Then I drape a damp towel over the plastic. The towel shouldn’t come in direct contact with the phyllo, or the sheets will get soggy. It is there to hold the plastic wrap in place and keep air away from the dough.