When I worked at my dad’s office in California, there was a really funny, really helpful guy named Kevin whose wife Jennifer made baklava during Christmastime. One bite and I was hooked. I really wanted to know how to make it so naturally I asked if they gave out the recipe. Kevin’s response was, “You only get the recipe when you marry into the family.” Which of course led me to ask if there were any single guys in Jennifer’s family. (Nope.)
So when I mulled and mulled and mulled over the idea of hazelnut baklava, I turned to Alton Brown. When it comes to certain things, there is a guru, sage, or personified encyclopedia to consult. For carpentry, it’s my grandpa and his groups of friends. Ask them about any kind of mitered joint and they’ll tell you the best tool to use (including brand), whether glue alone will hold it or if you need wood screws. They’ll all bicker and then offer up tools to borrow and then tell you a big ole story while you drink coffee that faintly and sweetly smells like sawdust. When it comes to carpentry, ask “What would Grandpa do?”
But with cooking, you can ask one of three choices. Obviously, Saint Julia knows all. “What would Julia do?” Then of course you might want more scientific explanation. In that case, look no further than Alton Brown. He and Ree from the pioneer are my ideal, dream neighbors after all. “What would Alton do?” Then, if you are Chad, or if you just plain agree that Wolfgang Puck is delightful and talented and just plain awesome, ask “What would Wolfgang do?” (Ask that in German if you can.)
So, not having any evidence that Saint Julia made Greek pastries, I looked to my would-be (if ever possible) neighbor. I tweaked some parts of his recipe, halved the syrup, and used some of the finished product to incorporate into vanilla ice cream. How this idea never occurred to me before trying it at Trojan Horse of Bloomington, I will never know. But seriously. Do it.
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground allspice
9 oz almonds (toasted, unsalted)
9 oz hazelnuts (toasted)
2/3 C sugar
1 C water in a bowl
1/2 lb phyllo dough, thawed
1 stick butter, unsalted
3/4 C honey
3/4 C water
3/4 C sugar
1 or 2 cinnamon sticks (use real ones)
a couple inches of fresh orange peel
Preheat the oven to 350. Turn on some music or some bad reality television (or maybe put on Everybody’s Fine if you want to cry your eyes out) and grab 10 butter knives or spoons from the drawer. You’ll see why in a minutes. Fetch a 9×13 pan, roll out the thawed phyllo dough, and cut it to fit the bottom of the pan. Throw the stick of butter in a little sauce pan over medium heat just to melt through or nuke it in a microwave-safe bowl. Toast the almonds and hazelnuts in a stainless steel skillet over medium-low heat (I only toasted the hazelnuts because my almonds were already done). Don’t let them burn. It happens in a heartbeat. Now toss all those almonds and hazelnuts in a food processor (or do it in batches if you have a mini-prep blender like I do). When they are finely chopped, pour into a medium bowl and add sugar and spices and stir well. Now form the assembly line. You will have the bowl of nuts and sugar, a small bowl of water, the trimmed sheets of phyllo dough, the bowl of melted butter (at least we know Saint Julia would approve!), two pastry brushes (one for butter and one for water) and another spot for the knives or forks.
Start with one layer of butter brushed on the bottom of the pan. Add a layer of phyllo and press out any bubbles with your fingers. Add butter again then phyllo. Continue until you have 10 sheets of phyllo layered. Remember how I told you to grab all those knives? Here’s why: do you find when you have to measure and count that you lose track and can’t remember how many cups of flour you added to your yeast roll dough? Push all the knives to one side and for every layer of phyllo you apply, move one to the other side. This way you can make fun of the Real Housewives while you cook and not loose count. Or if you have 10 things that would be more fun to count, use those. GI Joes?
Now, when you have just a layer of phyllo on top and no butter on it, add one third of the nut/sugar mixture. Now sprinkle on water using a pastry brush or alternatively you can put the water in a spray bottle. Now you will add phyllo then butter then phyllo again for another 6 sheets of phyllo. Pour on another third of the nut/sugar mixture, then layer 6 more sheets of phyllo and butter. Pour over the remaining nut/sugar mixture and top with the remaining 8 sheets of phyllo and butter. Bake for 30 minutes at 350. Let cool 10 minutes before cutting into small squares. While cooling, make the syrup. Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan until sugar is dissolved and all is combined. After baklava is cut into squares, pour on the syrup and bake for another 30 minutes.
Let cool completely before placing squares in small candy or mini-muffin cups. To make baklava ice cream, chop some baklava and stir into softened vanilla ice cream.