It is very annoying when you want to rise to an occasion but no occasion to rise to presents itself. That’s how I’ve felt since the slight nip in the air has welcomed people back to school or back to work. New things are being learned and noses are to the grindstone. But when you are no longer a matriculated student, and don’t have someone expecting a certain output of weekly work in order to earn your weekly pay, it is up to you to create your own challenge to meet. When I find myself in a rut or I’ve reached a plateau (really kind of the same thing) I know it is time to stretch myself.
When I get in a mood like this the most natural thing for me to do in order to ignite the shake-it-up process is to bake something I have never baked. I don’t mean a new take on a chocolate chip cookie or a brownie, but something I have written off as best left to the professionals, basically because I am scared to tackle it on my own. By pushing myself I know I’ll learn something new, be completely present and have to concentrate. Sure, I’m risking the agony of defeat but maybe I’ll find the thrill of victory!
So I decided it was about time I tried to make baklava. It’s one of my favorite pastries and I don’t have it nearly enough. The kind I usually encounter can be found in the smeared display case of a coffee shop or gourmet deli, snug in a big foil tray looking like it was baked when the store was built. It sits there getting soggier and sadder while no one buys it. Such a pity since good baklava is, well, really good. And I know that I have resisted making it myself because of my Fear of Fillo.
Why should I be scared of anything made with flour, water and oil? I’ll tell you why. Because every time I read a recipe requiring the use of that paper thin dough it is filled with italicized warnings. “Keep the dough covered or it will dry out!” “Work quickly!” “Don’t let it tear!” And my favorite, “Be Patient!” How am I supposed to be patient when I feel like I was just yelled at? I’m a nervous wreck! I knew I’d need to shut out the fear and self-doubt and just give it a try. I had nothing to lose and potentially a wonderful treat to gain. Plus, I had enlisted my mother to help me, couching it as a mother-daughter experience. Wouldn’t it be fun?! We’ll bond! Plus, she loves spanakopita and baklava is kind of like a sweet, nutty cousin.
The day of the baklava bake started out with Mom cleaning her closet and playing on ebay. I, in the meantime, did some yoga, sat outside when it was still sunny and read Bossypants, telling myself that as soon as Mom was ready, we’d go to the store and buy some walnuts. And then I went back to my book. Then I made lunch, then I talked to my sister on the phone, then I helped my mother clean her closet and then I realized just how much procrastinating I was doing.
The day reminded me of the first time I had “Sunday Night Feeling.” When I was a kid my father took my sister and me to see a re-release of Oliver! I remember it was a freezing Sunday and, being children, we went to a mid-afternoon show. At some point while Oliver plaintively sang, “Where is love?” it happened. I remembered that I was sitting in a theater, the film would be over at some point, we’d get back on the bus to go home in the dark, and I had yet to finish my homework. For the rest of the movie I was completely preoccupied with the book of fractions I knew was waiting for me and the trouble I’d be in if I didn’t complete my assignment. Sunday Night Feeling is really all about Monday.
And that’s what the baklava bake had turned into: this thing I knew I had to do that was casting a shadow over everything else. Procrastination is the super highway to self-loathing and I knew I had to get myself off that road. Now, it might seem stupid that I was nuts about a project I had assigned myself. No one else was expecting anything. But that was just it. I would only have myself to blame for letting me down. Personally, I think that makes sense. So I announced to my mother that we needed to get things going.
Finally we got home from the store and while she went to deal with some closet or ebay related crisis, I decided that I could go it alone. She clearly was not a committed baklava partner and I didn’t need any dead weight in the, er, her kitchen. There was work to be done! I made the sugar syrup and put it to the side. I chopped my nuts and browned my butter, took the stack of the fearsome fillo, which I’d defrosted overnight in the fridge, covered it with two pieces of damp paper towel and then began the assembly. Yes, the first sheet I pulled off the stack tore into shreds but I was okay with it. I was able to sort of patch it together in the bottom of the pan and then I got into a groove, pulling sheet off the pile, laying it carefully over the other, brushing it with melted butter and so on. It was a totally calming and focused experience and when the sheets smoothed out perfectly, so satisfying too. I was more than a little bit proud.
All was great until it was time to cut the baklava before slipping it into the oven. Here is where my math homework rears its head. The recipe tells you to cut the baklava into 2 ½ -inch diamonds. This is something I am terrible at. I have butchered so many pans of bar cookies trying to cut them this way. So I panicked and cut very uneven diamond-esque shapes. (When I was in pastry school this job fell to whomever I was teamed up with that day. If it had been left to me, we would have failed the task.) So the next time I will cut my baklava into squares. And there will be a next time because I have conquered Fear of Fillo! And more importantly to you, this recipe is amazing. Of course it’s sweet, nutty and sticky, and the syrup is more delicate in flavor than some that are overwhelmingly honey-ish. In the future I may try pistachios instead of walnuts or maybe add some rose water. That’s something I’ve never used. And now that I’ve shaken things up a bit, I am vowing to challenge myself monthly. Look out yeast, you’re next!
NOTE: You will see in the photo that I placed a clove in the center of each piece, as per the recipe. Tasters felt it was unnecessary and a bit too much so I left them off of the ingredient list.
Adapted from Food from Many Greek Kitchens, Tessa Kiros, 2011 as excerpted in House Beautiful September, 2011
2 cups sugar
2 Tablespoons honey
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Strip of lemon peel
2-3 cinnamon sticks
1 cup almonds, chopped medium fine
1 cup walnuts, chopped medium fine
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
22 sheets of fillo pastry (my brand had 20 sheets per sleeve and that was plenty)
1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter, melted to golden brown
Put the sugar, honey, lemon juice, lemon peel and cinnamon in a saucepan with 1 cup of water and bring to a boil, stirring.
Simmer for 5-6 minutes, then take off heat and cool.
Preheat the oven to 350
Mix the almonds, walnuts, sugar and cinnamon together in a bowl. Have the fillo sheets ready, covered by a damp dishcloth or paper towel to prevent them from drying out. Brush the bottom of a 9x13" baking pan with the melted butter.Lay one sheet of fillo on the bottom and brush with the melted butter.
Cover with another sheet, brush it with the butter, and continue in this way until you have a neat stack of 10 sheets lining the bottom of the pan.
Spread half the nut mixture over the fillo, patting down firmly and leveling the surface.
Cover with another two sheets of fillo, buttering each one. Scatter the rest of the nuts evenly and press down gently. Now lay down the remaining sheets of fillo, buttering each one and finishing with the last layer buttered.
Using a small sharp knife, trim any side of the fillo that is crawling up the sides. Cut diamonds on the diagonal of about 2 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches. If this seems to hard to figure out, cut the pan into small squares. Flick or mist a little cold water over the top to prevent the layers from curling up.
Bake for 25-30 minutes until just golden on top.
Place pan on a cooling rack and pour 1/2 of the syrup over the top. When it is absorbed then pour over the rest.
Let cool completely before serving (could take up to 3 hours but the longer it sits, the better it tastes.)
Yield: 24-28 pieces.
The baklava will keep 2 weeks at room temperature in an airtight container. It also freezes very well.