We have a dinner club with a couple of my gal pals. The hostess picks the theme, and the rest of us decide whether to bring dessert or an appetizer. Most recently, my friend chose a Lebanese theme and dessert fell to me – someone who considers herself a mashed potatoes kind of girl. However, I can and do make a mean dessert, so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work on one that’ll knock your sweet tooth loose.
The arrival of an early summer in certain parts of the country is what got me started. Where I am, it’s hot! I pictured sitting on my front porch, fanning myself with an old magazine. The ice melts in my glass as the lemonade (a cool pitcher of lemonade, by the way, goes perfect with baklava) quenches my thirst. I reach for that little sumthin’ sweet and here it is: a sticky, buttery, rich bite of nuttiness. It may have its origins in the Lebanese kitchen, but this baklava has a lot of Southern soul too.
I wanted this dessert to reflect my own American roots, but stay true to its Middle Eastern origin.
I researched and found that Lebanese kitchens often offered their version of baklava as the sweet meal ending dish. In Lebanon, baklava is made of phyllo dough sheets filled with nuts (pistachios, walnut, cashews, pine nuts, almonds) and steeped in “Atir” (ka-tr) syrup made of orange blossom honey or rose water and sugar. It is cut in triangular, rectangular, diamond, or in square shapes. The city of Tripoli in Lebanon is famous for its baklava products.
Finding a recipe for traditional Lebanese baklava was tough. Once I did, I realized that I had to blend the traditional with a bit of Southern soul. The phyllo dough stayed. But…I added pecans to the nut mix and replaced honey with Sorghum syrup. You’ll see from the cooking instructions below, that it’s pretty darn good and a lot easier to prepare than you might think.
Yields about 2 dozen pieces
30 Minute Prep; 40 Minute Baking; at least 2 Hours to Cool
½ pound frozen phyllo dough, thawed
2 cups walnuts
2 cups pecans
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup butter, melted 2 sticks
½ cup butter, 1 stick
2 cups sorghum syrup
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
Thaw the phyllo dough in the fridge overnight or by leaving the package (rolled up) on the counter top for about 2 hours. Do not unroll it until you are ready to rock and roll!
Place the nuts into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to form coarse crumb size pieces. Add the cinnamon and nutmeg, and pulse one to two times more.
Preheat the oven to 350°. Melt two sticks of butter. Use a pastry brush to butter the bottom and sides of an 11 x 7 x 2-inch baking pan.
Dampen a clean dish towel. Roll out the phyllo dough on your work surface and cover with the damp towel. (Phyllo dough is a bit tricky. If you leave it out, it can dry up and become very difficult to work with. Keeping a damp towel on top of the sheets will prevent this.)
Brush the top sheet of phyllo with butter. Use the sheet below it to help you lift both sheets into the pan, butter side down. Repeat this process so that you have a total of 6 phyllo sheets in the bottom of the pan. Now, cover the remaining phyllo sheets with your damp towel.
Cover the phyllo sheets in the pan with a layer of chopped nuts. Remove the towel from the unused sheets, and brush the top sheet of phyllo with butter. Again, use the sheet below it to lift two sheets of phyllo on top of the nuts, butter side down. Do this again, so that you have four sheets of phyllo on top of the nuts. Cover the remaining phyllo dough with your damp towel.
Keep layering buttered phyllo sheets and nuts until all the nuts are gone; you should have 4 sheets of phyllo left. Brush the top sheet of phyllo with butter, and use the sheet below it to lift the two sheets into the pan, butter side down. Repeat with the final two sheets, but this last time leave the buttered side up.
Use a sharp knife to carefully cut the baklava into pieces. Start in one corner and cut to the opposite corner. Repeat the process to create an “X”. Continue to cut diagonally, creating 2-inch diamond shape pieces. Bake until the baklava is golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes.
Make the syrup by placing 1 stick of butter, sorghum syrup, granulated sugar, vanilla and ½ cup water into a sauce pan over medium heat. Cook until the butter melts and the sauce begins to boil. Reduce the heat to very low and simmer for 5 minutes. The syrup will turn a caramel color and thicken slightly. Keep the sauce warm until the pastry comes out of the oven.
Remove the baking pan from the oven. Pour half of the syrup over the entire pan of baklava. Wait a minute or two while the pastry sucks up the syrup. Pour the rest of the syrup over the pastry. Let the baklava cool in the pan, uncovered for several hours. Slice the pieces again, using the same cuts you made earlier. Carefully remove the pieces to a serving platter. Try not to lick your fingers until after all the slices have been removed!