Every year we attend the Master’s Swim Team holiday party and every year I wonder what to bring to a gathering of healthy eaters looking to treat themselves after a year of nutritious meals and regular exercise. This year we’re bringing my friend Leesa’s mother’s Lebanese baklawa. I learned this recipe in her kitchen and have never written it out. It had been handed down through oral tradition in her family and she had me repeat the steps back to her as we worked – rapping me gently on the hand with a wooden spoon when I stumbled over the details.
If you’ve made “baclava” from the package directions on the box of phyllo dough this version is going to be so much easier! On the other hand, Leesa’s mom was adamant about a few things:
- If you’re thinking about using anything but walnuts stop right there. Pistachios are fine, pecans are delicious, but they don’t make baklawa – only walnuts will do.
- Ditto adding chocolate, dried fruit, coffee, or hazelnut liqueur; just say no.
- Don’t skimp on the butter. Limit yourself to just one piece of the finished product if you must, but use the amount specified. Angels in heaven will be lining up for the leftovers.
Ingredients: a 10 x 13 pan, 1 package phyllo dough; Filling: 3 C walnuts, 1/2 C sugar, 1 C butter: Syrup: 1 C sugar, 1 C honey, 1/2 C water, 1 Tbs lemon juice, 1 tsp rose water
The phyllo layers are probably in your grocer’s freezer. They need to be fully defrosted for this recipe so leave them in the refrigerator for a day if you have time. If not, open the box and remove the two plastic-sealed rolls of dough and leave them out on the counter. In a warm kitchen they should be thawed in an hour. Don’t open the plastic until right before you need them; the dough dries out very quickly.
Melt the butter over a low flame and keep warm once melted. Preheat the oven to 350.
Make the syrup by boiling the water, honey, and 1 C of sugar together until the sugar melts and the honey is thoroughly combined, about 10 minutes at a simmer. When cool, add the lemon juice and rosewater. Orange blossom water will do in a pinch, but rosewater does add a characteristic flavor; you could try a little vanilla as a substitute.
While the syrup is cooking, toast the walnuts. I like to do this in an uncovered skillet on top of the stove, but you could spread them on a cookie sheet and put them in the preheating oven. Keep an eye on them – a little burnt is fine but blackened is not. Leesa’s mom liked them quite toasty and said it gave the dish a “grown-up” flavor. Allow them to cool just a bit and then put them in a food processor with the 1/2 cup sugar. Pulse about 10 times to get them finely chopped – big pieces will interfere with cutting the fragile dough layers into serving pieces, but you don’t want to go too far and make walnut butter either.
Now we’re ready to construct the baklawa, and here’s where the Lebanese method diverges from the traditional Greek dish. Brush your 10 x 13 pan with butter. Dampen a dish towel and have it ready. Open one plastic packet of phyllo and unroll it on the plastic it’s wrapped in, then immediately drape the towel over it to prevent drying. Lay two leaves in the bottom of the pan. Are they a little too long? If so, cut a strip off the leaves that are still under the towel with kitchen shears (you can ignore the layers already in the pan).
Pick up about half the remaining layers (still working with only one of the plastic rolls of phyllo) and lay them in the pan. There’s no need to be precise about how many layers are in each step. Brush with butter and spread half the walnut mixture on top. Drape the remaining stack of phyllo from that first package over the nuts, brush with butter, and add the rest of the walnuts. Open the other roll of phyllo, cut to fit if necessary, and drape the whole thing over the nut layer.
Now take your sharpest, most evil kitchen knife, and cut four times lengthwise down the pan. You can (gently) hold down the down with one hand as you go, and try your best to get through all the layers to the bottom without disturbing the top layer too much. This is how the rest of the butter, and eventually the honey and rosewater syrup, are going to travel through every single delicious nook and cranny (مكان إختباء). Now cut through on the diagonal until the entire pan is criss-crossed into rough diamond shaped pieces.
Check the pan of butter to be sure it is still liquid and heat it up again if a firm surface has formed. Pour the butter evenly over the dish, making sure the edges are filled in. Place the pan in the middle of the preheated oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes until browned.
Place the pan on a cooling rack or trivet and pour the syrup over it, trying to distribute it over the whole surface. Don’t worry about this too much – it’s going to spread through the layers by itself. Let the pan sit and soak, uncovered or loosely covered with waxed paper, for several hours or overnight. There will be a few small, oddly shaped pieces around the edges – those are for the cook and their assistants.
It’s traditional to cut the pieces out of the pan and place them in small, individual paper servers. I use cupcake liners. Arrange them in a starburst pattern on a large platter and you’re ready for the potluck. This recipe makes about 30 pieces.
The dish keeps for a week, loosely covered, at room temperature. I’ve never had it around long enough to see if it kept well refrigerated.