Baklava is a really cool dessert that has a great history to it. Regionally, it comes from the Middle East, but there are interesting variations all across Europe, Africa, and Asia. The most well-known variant is Turkish and it usually features chopped pistachios or walnuts with cinnamon and layers of phyllo dough soaked in a honey-water mixture. In Iran, rose water is used as opposed to honey-water. In Armenia, clove and nutmeg are often added to the cinnamon to create a more spiced version. Some recipes call for almonds instead of walnuts or pistachios!
We are not from Turkey or Armenia, and, being from Alabama, I have always used pecans in nutty desserts. Therefore, we decided to add our own, southern twist to this delicious Middle Eastern staple. We used pecans instead of pistachios or walnuts. Now, in other parts of the world you will sometimes see baklava with almonds- but never pecans! In the South, we like to put pecans in all sorts of things. Pecans are softer than the alternatives. They have a mild nutty flavor, which I almost think of it as being buttery! They are perfect for a dessert, and most importantly they are cheaper than pistachios and walnuts! However, I still like to dust the plate with pistachios, just to give it that traditional look.
We also use salted butter instead of unsalted butter. Often baklava can taste too sweet to me, and the use of salted butter really balances out the sweetness of the honey.
The main structural component of baklava is the phyllo dough, and often phyllo dough can be a pain to work with. Instead of coming out in large sheets as it should, it often crumbles to pieces. I usually end up like a mason– carefully finding strips that fit together to make a whole sheet– but I do have brand preferences.
If you let it defrost long enough, or keep it in the refrigerator and not the freezer, Athens or Pepperidge Farm will do wonders for you! I have had no problems with Pepperidge Farm, and Athens typically does fine. However, if you are going to buy a bargain brand of phyllo dough (like Safeway), you should buy two boxes just in case!! As a side note: you will often find phyllo, fillo, or filo spellings on packages. They are all the same product, just different spellings!
serves about 25-30 people with pieces of varying sizes
1 pound pecans
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 cups salted butter
1-2 packages phyllo dough, defrosted
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup clover or orange blossom honey
13″x9″ cake pan
*You might also want a silicon or horse-hair brush to spread the melted butter, and a food processor to chop the nuts!
First, chop the pecans. If you use a food processor, this will be the easiest part of the recipe. If you chop them by hand, it will be the most tedious part! You want to mix the cinnamon and the pecans together in a large bowl, and the nuts need to be ground fairly well, with no big chunks.
Next, set up a station for layering the phyllo dough. You will have a bowl with melted butter, a brush, the cake pan, and the dough.
I recommend melting the butter 1/2 a cup at a time. Everyone uses a different amount for their baklava, and you won’t quite know how much you will need from the very start. You will start by stacking layers of phyllo dough with the melted butter. Think of the dough like bricks and the butter like mortar. Each layer will technically consist of 2 sheets of phyllo dough. I know this sounds complex, but I will lay it all out very clearly!
Brush the bottom and the edges of the pan with melted butter, and carefully unroll the phyllo dough. Place two sheets of phyllo dough in the pan, one on top of the other. Brush the top one generously with butter, and add two more sheets. You might have to create a patchwork, as I said before. It is not easy to pull apart an entire sheet of phyllo whole without ripping or tearing. This is to be expected, and it really shouldn’t affect your baklava. You just need to be careful when you brush on the butter.
After each “layer” (i.e. two sheets of phyllo), brush with butter and add another layer. Continue in this manner until you have 6 layers on top of each other (12 sheets of phyllo in all).
Spread half of the pecan + cinnamon mixture over the top layer of phyllo.
On top of the pecans, add two more sheets of phyllo and brush them with butter. Add another layer of phyllo and brush with butter. Finally, add one last layer of phyllo (making for 6 total sheets here) and brush the top with butter, making sure to seal the edges of the phyllo especially.
After the last layer of phyllo, spread the remaining pecans over the top.
Finally, place 5-6 more layers (10-12 sheets) of phyllo, buttering each layer generously.
Preheat the oven to 350°F and cut the baklava. YES, you cut it BEFORE you bake it! This is necessary in order to help them keep their shape and crisp up appropriately. You can definitely cut it any way you like, but I usually start by making vertical cuts along the long edge of the pan, and then making diagonal cuts to create the traditional triangular/diamond shapes.
Bake the baklava for about 35 minutes, or until it is golden brown on the top.
While the baklava is baking, combine the water, sugar, and honey in a pot. Heat this syrup on medium (about simmering) for 20 minutes.
Pour the syrup over the baked baklava, so that it soaks into the phyllo.
The syrup will really fill up the pan, but don’t worry, it will all be soaked up and it will make your baklava yummier!
Let the baklava sit for about 5 minutes before serving. I usually sprinkle crumbled pistachios on top!
If you are planning to eat it later, do not wrap it up. The baklava will stay crispier and yummier if you just sit the pan in the refrigerator, uncovered. However, I love warm, fresh baklava, so I would recommend having at least one piece right away!