Since I did two cookie recipes in a row, it's time for something different. I took a poll on Facebook. Honestly, I was expecting requests for cakes, more cookies, maybe a pie... but what did I get? Croissants, tiramisu, souffles, and baklava.

 I'd never made baklava before. Baklava has never been my favorite dessert, mostly because I'm picky about how and when I eat nuts. Also because I had the pleasure of spending a week in Greece and partaking of authentic Greek baklava almost every day, and nothing I've had since can compare.

Naturally, my next thought was to make something that could compare.

So I pulled on my thick black gloves, my mad scientist goggles and channeled the long-dead fictional ghost of Dr Frankenstein. And by that I mean I took parts from different recipes and put them together to create my own. No I did not exhume dead bodies and dismember them and use their ground-up intestines as filling or use layers of their skin in place of the phyllo dough. Nor did I boil their cerebrospinal fluid with a stick of cinnamon and a dash of bile for the syrup. Why would you even think that. You sicko.

The first thing I did was thaw my phyllo dough. Since it's so thin, it won't take but 2-4 hours to thaw. But you may need to leave it out overnight. Once it's thawed, roll it out onto a clean, dry surface and cover it with a damp towel so it doesn't dry out and break when you breathe heavily.

Next I gathered my nuts. Pistachios were the only common thread across the board. Other options included walnuts, almonds and, oddly enough, Brazil nuts. My recipe ended up using one and a half cups of nuts. Half of that mix was pistachios. The other half was split evenly between almonds and pecans. A big soft spot exists in my heart for pecans. I have this incredibly vivid memory of my little sister and me gathering pecans from under the trees at my grandparents' house. And fighting over who got to roll around with the pecan picker-upper.

They say to pulse the nuts gently in a food processor to get a nice, chunky, even mix. But a blender worked just fine for me. After the nuts were, on the whole, evenly chopped (and I'd eaten the big chunks), I added my sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves and allspice. None of the recipes online called for allspice or brown sugar, but if you haven't noticed by now, white sugar is not my favored sweetener of choice. Whenever I can, I substitute either honey, dark brown or light brown sugar for part of the white sugar. The honey is a bit better for you as a sweetener, and both it and the brown sugars add another subtle layer of flavor as well as sweetness.

We're all mixed nuts here.
 Next, I melted a cup of butter in the microwave. I took the time to ponder the rumor that the Greeks have a very healthy diet. Then I gazed at the golden delicious puddle of fat in the bowl I'd just removed from the mic, gazed at the sugar, the nuts, the honey...

Phyllo in the foreground and a demon in the microwave.
 Aw, screw it, I said to myself. I'll go eat some olives later.

So now, my nuts are mixed, my butter's melted and my phyllo is thawed. Time to start layering. This is where it gets time-consuming. For this part I would recommend collecting a friend and duct-taping them to a chair in the kitchen so you can have someone to talk to while you work.

Preheat your oven to 350, lightly grease a glass 9x13 pan and gently line the pan with a sheet of phyllo. Using a pastry brush, brush the sheet with butter. Do not fret if your first couple sheets fall apart or wrinkle; this will just add texture. Repeat this process seven more times until you have eight sheets of phyllo in the bottom of your pan, all brushed with butter.

I washed that paintbrush. Whatever's left on there will just give the baklava a little zing.
Next, spoon a layer of your sugary mixed nut deliciousness over the phyllo. After that, spread two sheets of phyllo over that, brushing each with the butter. Repeat this process until you've run out of the nut mixture.

This part took me almost two hours because I kept getting distracted by cartoons.
Lastly, spread eight sheets of phyllo over the top, buttering each one. Sprinkle the top with cinnamon. Pop that sucker in the oven for 30-35 minutes. Again, this varies by the temperature of your oven. I didn't go strictly by time. When the edges of the phyllo start curling up and getting lightly golden brown, I pulled it.

While your baklava is baking, make the syrup. This calls for sugar, honey, water, vanilla, lemon juice and a cinnamon stick. If you don't have cinnamon sticks, half a teaspoon of cinnamon is all you need. Chuck all the ingredients into a saucepan over medium-high heat, bring to a boil and then simmer for about 7 or 8 minutes, or until reduced by about a third. It should be slightly thick when you're done. Remove the cinnamon stick and let it cool for the remainder of the time that your baklava is in the oven. Resist the urge to use the cinnamon stick as a straw to drink the syrup.

Makin syrup. LIKE A BOSS.
Once your baklava is out of the oven, pour the cooled syrup over the hot baklava so it can sink in and the flavors can blend together. Let the baklava cool for about an hour. It really should be longer because you want it to be completely cool before you start cutting it. If it's not, layers go everywhere. I found this out the hard way so you don't have to. You're welcome.

It looks like a bed of deliciousness that I want to crawl into.
The numbers:
For the baklava:
  • 1 1/2 lb. chopped nuts (I use pistachios, almonds and pecans, but most recipes call for walnuts)
  • 1 lb of phyllo dough
  • 1 cup of butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/3 teaspoon ground cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon allspice
For the syrup:
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 1/4 cup of honey
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • dash vanilla extract
  • 1 cinnamon stick
Several recipes have the option of garnishing this with some ground pistachios. I eschew garnishes simply because I'd rather spend the time eating than garnishing.

I will warn you: this recipe goes a little heavy on the sugar. The joy of baklava is the balance of flavors: the nuts (I used salted pistachios for this very reason), the cinnamon and spices, the delicate flavor of the dough, and the hint of honey, lemon and vanilla in the glaze. I would actually recommend easing up a little on each sugar to give the other flavors a chance.

Some alternatives I've seen: a teaspoon of orange zest in the syrup; a teaspoon of rose water in the filling; completely removing the syrup and instead using honey in the filling.

Please post questions, alternate recipes or changes in the comments section! Happy baking!

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