The other night at dinner, a few friends and I debated the qualities of what makes, in our minds, the best baklava. The general consensus was that it had to be flaky and floral-tasting, not too dry, and yet not overly drenched in syrup. Tough crowd. After playing with several recipe combinations, I’ve landed on this one, filled with crunchy almonds and topped with pistachios, for a bit of variety.
This is the recipe that I submitted to the Baklava Bakeoff, a competition to find the state’s best baklava baker earlier this year. I came in as a semifinalist, and have my sights set on the gold next year… if only because it means I get to practice and taste test sheet after sheet of this heavenly dessert.
My little secret for maintaining a crispy top layer of phyllo while still ensuring a soft, syrupy middle: pour the syrup into the “cracks” (or slice lines) when the baklava has just come out of the oven. The syrup will pop and sizzle as it hits the pan, and soak into the bottom and middle layers without dampening the top. I then grab a spoon and drizzle a tiny bit of syrup over the top, enough for the crushed pistachios to stick.
Extra syrup is never a bad idea, either, for days that require that extra bit of indulgence. Double or time-and-a-half the recipe, then store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to eight weeks. Traditionally, baklava was made with pine nuts, which are truly the most decadent, both in cost and flavor. These days, cashews are often used to simulate the pine nuts’ creaminess. Or almonds, as I’ve done here, and walnuts, as the Greeks often use. Use whatever your heart desires.
- 2 packages (or 40 sheets) phyllo dough (preferably refrigerated rather than frozen), at room temp
- 3 cups almonds, blanched and skins removed
- 4 tbsp syrup (see below)
- 1 cup unsalted butter, melted
- 5 tbsp pistachios, crushed
- 2 cups white sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp orange blossom water (mazaher)
- 1/4 tsp rose water (maward)
Remove phyllo dough from the fridge and thaw according to package instructions.
Preheat oven to 160C / 320F. Prepare the syrup: place sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Allow the syrup to boil 2-3 minutes without stirring (stirring causes the sugar to crystallize). Add the lemon juice and continue boiling for 10 minutes until it is a light, syrupy consistency that coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and stir in the orange blossom and rose waters. Set aside.
If your almonds aren't already peeled, place them in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to sit until the water is warm to the touch but won't burn your hands. Pinch the skins off of the almonds and discard the skins.
Pulse the almonds in a food processor until coarsely ground. Pour in four tablespoons (or a drop more, to taste), of the syrup. Continue pulsing until the almonds are finely ground and the syrup is well incorporated. Melt the butter and set aside.
Line a baking dish with wax paper. Remove the phyllo dough from its packaging, and place a clean, damp cloth on top to keep them from drying out. Cut the stack of phyllo dough to fit the size of your baking dish - this makes it much easier to stack the sheets perfectly without overlapping.
Place one sheet horizontally in the baking dish and brush all over with melted butter. Place another sheet on top and brush with butter. Continue stacking and brushing sheets until you have 20 sheets on the bottom of the pan.
Pour the almond mixture on top of the phyllo stack, and spread out evenly throughout the pan.
Repeat the buttering and layering process with 20 more sheets on top of the almond mixture.
Using a sharp knife, carefully slice the raw baklava into 1.5" vertical strips, making sure to slice all the way to the bottom of the baking dish. Then, Make diagonal slices in a crossways pattern, to create diamonds (or, just cut totally crosswise to make squares).
Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the tops of the baklava have puffed and are golden brown.
Pour the syrup all over the hot baklava (hear it sizzle!). Sprinkle the chopped pistachios on top. Set aside to cool and hold its shape. Serve at room temperature.