Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Maple Pecan Bourbon Baklava

This is the same version as my bacon baklava, which I posted about earlier this summer, but contains no meat. You can't go wrong either way ; ).
Despite my lack of  spatial reasoning, each of these differently sized diamond baklava bites tasted good. Maybe I'll get it right one day... 
I adore baklava. From the very beginning it intrigued me with its glistening golden layers of syrupy confections. It looked unlike any other dessert I had seen before, and I imagined it was way out of my league in terms of preparation. Fast forward to this year, and I built up the confidence to make it! And then I made it again, and again! That being said, this is a labor of love. Expect to be in your kitchen for a good half day, which makes this the perfect project for when you have a day off. The rewards are well worth the endeavor.
The butter station. 
Maybe I pronounced it wrong, but the other day I had someone ask me if I was knitting a balaclava. Hmmm... well, Baklava is made with layers of paper thin pastry dough, called phyllo dough, and can be used for savory, or sweet dishes. My mom and grandma make their own phyllo dough for their savory dishes, called pita.
I have childhood memories of visiting my mother's aunt in Detroit, where we would watch her make phyllo dough from scratch. My mom would scold me pre-preemptively, warning me not to talk, breathe, or make any other indication that I was alive.

 We would climb up the rickety stairs to the second floor of my great-aunt's apartment, and I would give her the obligatory two to three kisses (sometimes four!), typical of the Montenegrin culture of my mother's side. My mom's strina (aunt on her father's side) would be in her mourning black with a black headscarf, and I would peer from the far end of the table, watching her as she effortlessly spun a thick block of dough into a large, shining sheet of thin phyllo. Her eyes looked closed, as if this was a meditation for her that was both effortless and involuntary. She was the phyllo machine, and we were her humble subjects, eager to learn and fawn over here (quietly, and non-existantly in my case).

I digress though. Let's talk baklava. I learned how to make baklava first-hand from a Italian-Greek master of said pastry at IU, George L. Watching George make baklava, I realized that organization is key. Prep all of your ingredients and have them accessible and ready to go- it will make your life easier. I used to not be a very precise baker, but having all of your ingredients measured out and ready to go is crucial.
It sizzles and hisses when the syrup hits the hot pastry! 
To sum up George's philosophy- be organized, prep, move fast, and use a sharp knife! He also decorates each diamond with a tiny clove, which is a beautiful touch. Since I didn't use any in this baklava I didn't include it, but feel free to add it (not to be eaten, just for looks), or a tiny pinch of crushed nuts on top of each square.

Now, let's talk about the process a little...
Clarified butter shining with the warmth of a thousand suns. Isn't it beautiful?

Why use clarified butter? Clarified butter is the process of removing the water from the butter. Most butter is typically 80-82% butterfat, and the rest is water. If we kept the water, it would steam during the baking process, which would make it soggy. Clarified butter will ensure a wonderfully crisp texture. You can use unflavored ghee, which is essentially clarified butter, or make your own. Don't drown the phyllo in butter, as I did the other day. "The more butter the better" I greedily thought as I generously slathered the clarified butter, almost into pools above the phyllo. Yeah... that turns out kind of heavy and almost soggy. There is perfect Goldilocks amount for each baklava, which you'll find with practice.
Why toast your nuts? Toasting your pecans allows for a stronger nuttier flavor, which is always welcome. You don't need to toast them, but putting them in a single layer on a baking sheet at 350F for 10 minutes won't hurt ; ).
Syrup mixture.
Real maple syrup, seriously girl? Girl, yes. Get grade B, which is a little darker/more flavor. A general rule of thumb is the darker the color, the more flavor there is.
Phyllo- if your phyllo is frozen, put it in the fridge overnight or on the counter for a few hours before using.
Kind of ugly looking, but I gently pat down the baklava before slicing, to get any air holes out. 
Baking pans- avoid nonstick, because you will be slicing the baklava in the pan and you don't want to damage the nonstick coating. A traditional metal pan will work well, or glass (which I used).
 Knife- you will need a really sharp knife. Seriously. The sharper the knife, the easier it will cut through the layers of baklava to make clean beautiful buttery delicious diamonds. If your knife is not sharp you will probably end up cursing a lot, and it will feel like you have to force the knife more, which is dangerous.
Cross section (un-strained syrup, which is why there are little bits of orange zest throughout).  


Sugar syrup
1 1/4 granulated sugar
1/2 Cup water
1 Cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon squeezed orange juice
Zest of half of one orange
3 Tbsp. bourbon : )
1 large cinnamon stick
a few shakes of ground cinnamon
If you would like to add a pinch of nutmeg or allspice go for it!

Phyllo layers
1 pound phyllo (it comes in different grades. I used #10, which is on the thicker side)
4 sticks of butter, clarified

Nut filling
12 ounces toasted and cooled pecans
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp sugar
1/8 tsp table salt

Toast nuts for 10 minutes at 350F, then set aside to cool. Once cool chop them finely, or pulse them in a food processor.
Clarify butter. I suggest checking out David Lebovitz's article on clarified butter.
Trim phyllo. Depending on the size of your phyllo you may need to trim just the edges, or perhaps like me, cut a giant sheet in half. Unwrap the phyllo and lay it out flat, then trim it as needed to fit in the pan. Lay a piece of saran wrap over the phyllo, and then a damp towel (or paper towel) over that. This keeps the phyllo moist, as it dries out quickly.

To prepare the nut mixture:
Finely chop by hand or food processor (pulse it) your nuts. Add the cinnamon, salt, and sugar, and mix evenly. Set aside. Have ready to go before building your baklava!

To make the syrup:
In a medium sized saucepan, combine all of the ingredients. Bring to a gentle boil, and simmer for five minutes. You can strain the mixture at this point if you don't want the orange zest in the baklava. Turn off the stove and take off the burner. Let cool. Make the syrup whilst the baklava is baking.

To assemble the baklava:
Make sure everything is ready to go! Cooled clarified butter, nut mixture, phyllo sheets. Check, check, check.

Take your baking dish, and using a silicone or other cooking brush, paint some butter on the bottom of it. Lay your first phyllo on it carefully, and then brush it with butter. Make seven such layers.
Sprinkle 1 cup of the nut mixture evenly over the pan. Carefully layer another sheet of phyllo, except this time dab the butter on. If you try to brush it it will tear.
Make 5 such layers, then another layer of the nut filling.
Make 7 more layers, and then press down on the phyllo carefully with your hands to get any air pockets out.
Using your sharp knife, slice it into diamonds.

Bake at 300 from 60-90 minutes. Check it at 45-50 minutes. When it is done it will be a light golden color.
Immediately pour the cooled syrup over the hot baklava. It will make a hissing noise! Let cool at room temperature, then put in the refrigerator overnight. This is important to let all of the flavors develop and deepen.

When ready to eat, slice again into the layers, and enjoy!

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