I was less nervous than when I had my wisdom teeth out. But the only way to overcome it all was to face my fear of filo. Although it was a tense and focused effort I am well on my way to demystifying the effort.
Filo (phyllo or fillo) dough is named after the Greek word for “leaf”. The thickness (or for that matter, the thinness) of Filo gives baklava its delicious crispy taste. So, when some people eat a piece of baklava, they may want to think of Greece. However, the history of baklava reveals it came from farther East.
According to The Kitchen Project, around 8th century B.C., it was recorded that Assyrians baked thin layers of dough with nuts, poured honey over it. However, Greek voyagers and sea merchants brought this treat back and improved on it. By creating a technique that made the dough as thin as a leaf, compared to the rough, bread-like texture of the Assyrian dough.
Various countries offer tasty variations using this pastry made from only flour and water it is used in the making of many Middle Eastern savories and sweets. The Armenians, as their lands were along the Spice and Silk Routes, added cinnamon and cloves to the recipe; the Arabs introduced rose water and cardamom. Strudel is also another pastry direction using filo.
Baklava is layers of nuts blended with cinnamon and spices layered between light, flaky filo dough bathed in honey.
Although tradition suggests you lay a sheet down and then paint the sheet with butter I saw a local cooking show this weekend that used a butter-flavored cooking spray, such as PAM. But since this is pastry making a bit of real butter maybe on every other sheet could be the happy compromise.
Having read a good deal about baklava and dozens of recipes I settled on the version that appears in The Professional Pastry Chef, 3rd edition, by Bo Friberg. This was probably my first judgment mistake was made. Mid way through I was moving from this pastry school textbook to the back of the Athens filo box. By choosing the pastry school recipe I overcomplicated what is a simple and elegant creation.
Due to my novice approach and the overstated instructions I inadvertently swapped the sugars using the white sugar to process the nuts instead of the brown causing a less than desirable texture I’d say that baklava is easier than I anticipated. And seeing a tray of golden brown flaky treats cut into uniform triangles was rewarding. Maybe I’ll try spanakopita. I’m encouraged.
1-pound packages of filo dough come packaged approximately 20 to 25 sheets per box. However if the filo sheets are larger than the size of your sheet pan, cut through the stack of unrolled sheets with scissors so that they fit properly.
Allow filo dough to thaw in refrigerator overnight. Bring to room temperature before using about 30 minutes.
Use a damp towel to keep the filo from drying out as you create the layers.
Don’t worry about tears on the sheets, particularly on the inside layers. After buttering and baking they will disappear.
Brush the final layer with butter.
From Athens (fillo dough manufacturer)
1-1/2 pounds of walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup of granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
40 sheets Athens™ fillo dough
about 2# or 2 boxes
1 cup butter, melted
Combine walnuts, sugar, cinnamon and cloves.
Brush a 12″ x 17″ baking pan with butter. Place 10 buttered fillo sheets on bottom. Sprinkle with 1/3 of walnut mixture. Place 7 more buttered fillo sheets on top, then 1/3 more walnut mixture, top with another 7 buttered fillo sheets and rest of walnuts. Finish baklava with another 16 fillo sheets and brush with remaining butter.
With a very sharp knife, score fillo into 1-1/2″ diamonds or squares. Bake in preheated 350°F oven for 45-60 minutes or until golden brown. Cool slightly. Pour warm syrup evenly over baklava.
Makes 88 pieces
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup honey
2 cups water
1 lemon peel
Bring all ingredients to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Strain and cool slightly. Pour warm syrup over baklava. Cool completely, cut and serve.
NOTE: I would add that several recipes suggest that you prepare this a few days ahead as the flavors are enhanced. If you choose to do this cover with wax paper and place in the fridge.