Some dishes with roots in other countries can be “localized” by sourcing some or all of the ingredients locally. My father-in-law’s moussaka is like that. His baklava, not so much. But because the difference between homemade baklava is so much worth the effort, I keep this recipe close to my heart and in regular rotation for special family events. I consider it to be local to me!
Traditionally, baklava features layers of thin phyllo or fillo dough brushed with butter and filled with ground nuts, baked crispy, then soaked with sugar syrup and honey. Mr. Catacalos taught me not to be intimidated by the notoriously fragile phyllo and he always took the time to sprinkle nuts, sugar and cinnamon on every single layer, versus what you often get in restaurants or stores – all the nut filling between two stacks of phyllo leaves, soggy on the bottom and dry on the top.
Over the years, I’ve altered the recipe a bit in ways that my husband agrees retain the magic of his dad’s and, when I really hit it, might even be better. To make assembly a little easier, I grind the nuts, sugar and cinnamon together and sprinkle them all in one pass, instead of three. I also save a little time by putting nut filling on every other phyllo layer rather than every layer, which still provides an even distribution throughout to absorb the syrup and hold the baklava pieces together.
Last fall, to keep from leaving out a friend who eats vegan, I tried brushing the phyllo with olive oil instead of butter. It turned out so delicious, it’s now my standard method. Olive oil is also easier to manage than melted butter and probably better for our health to boot (as if we eat baklava for our health, lol). The subtle change in flavor made me rethink the citrus syrup Mr. Catacalos made with oranges and lemons. To lean into a slightly more savory edge with the olive oil, I decided to leave out the orange and pair the lemon with another classic Mediterranean flavor – aromatic rosemary. The rosemary, which I grow in my own garden, and the final flourish of local honey, are where I get to add a little true local flavor to one of my favorite “local to me” recipes.
Be sure your phyllo has been defrosted and brought to room temperature per the box directions before you begin this recipe!
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 lemon
- 1 tablespoon dried rosemary or 3 sprigs fresh rosemary
Heat and stir the sugar and water together to melt the sugar. Bring it to a boil. Peel half the zest of the lemon off in strips, then cut the lemon into quarters. Add the zest and lemon quarters to the syrup. Reduce heat to medium and keep on an active simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30-35 minutes until reduced and syrupy. (You can assemble the baklava during this time.) Add the rosemary and simmer another 5-10 minutes. Remove syrup from heat and let cool.
- 3 cups walnuts
- 1 cup pistachios
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 tbsp cinnamon
- 1/2 lb phyllo dough (look for a 1 lb box with two sleeves inside)
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup honey
Preheat oven to 375F. Prepare a 13×9-inch baking pan by brushing it all over with olive oil. I like to use a glass dish because I can see how brown the bottom has baked and how the syrup is being absorbed.
Place the pistachios, walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in a food processor and process in bursts until it is mostly the consistency of sand. Some slightly bigger pieces are okay. Pistachios tend to be harder so I recommend putting them in first, closest to the blades. Put this mixture into a bowl for assembly.
Lay a clean dish towel along the top side of your work area. On top of this, open the sleeve of phyllo and carefully unroll it to avoid cracking the leaves. Cover the leaves with either the plastic sheet from the phyllo or a sheet of wax paper or parchment paper, then cover this with a damp dish towel or paper towels. The goals is to be able to peel back these layers and grab a leaf of phyllo, then cover the remaining ones to keep them from drying out. When phyllo gets dry, it cracks, so that’s what you are trying to avoid. Also try to avoid getting the phyllo itself wet, because that will make the leaves stick to each other and tear when you try to separate them. If you do end up with tears or breaks, just try not to use those leaves on the top where you can see them. They are fine cobbled together on the inside. And it’s okay to completely discard one or two sheets if they tear too badly.
You will brush EVERY layer of phyllo with olive oil. Lay and brush four layers of phyllo with oil, then sprinkle a generous 1/2 cup of the nut mixture. Layer and brush two sheets of phyllo, then nuts, another two sheets of phyllo, then nuts. You should have eight layers of nuts. Layer and brush the three or four sheets you should have left after you finish with the nuts. Put the pan in the freezer for 5-10 minutes if possible to firm it up before slicing.
Slice carefully all the way to the bottom with a sharp knife into diagonals. Bake for 50-60 minutes until golden brown. (Err on the side of overbaking vs underbaking!) Remove from oven and use a large spoon to pour the cooled syrup all around the edges of dish and along the cut lines of the baklava to ensure it reaches all parts of the dish. Pour in enough syrup to come about halfway up the pan, which could take as much as 1 1/2 cups of syrup. Drizzle the honey over the top of the baklava. Let cool at room temperature several hours or overnight before serving.