Monday, December 15, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Baklava

Gather around, Dear Readers, and I will spin a holiday tale for you, a sweet saga of that beloved baklava...

By the end of last week, I had reviewed my "nice" list for giving away holiday treats and discovered that I only needed to bake one more pan of baklava for this year. The Renaissance Man and I had planned to head to the Farm for the weekend, and as I had planned to take some of the sweet treats to them anyway, I decided to take all the ingredients with me and bake a pan-full there, bringing the rest home to divide among other friends.

I packed my bags to include my traveling pan (with the fitted lid), my pastry brush, good local honey, a jar of crushed pecans mixed with spices, a block of good local butter, and the lemon. Before leaving town, we stopped by the grocery store so that I could pick up a package of filo dough from the freezer case.

We meandered along the country highway, heading for the farm (with a stop for lunch along the way), and we arrived with plenty of time for me to whip up a pan of baklava and pop it into the oven before helping with chores.

And there the trouble began.

For you see, Dear Readers, the filo dough had not thawed anywhere near enough for me to use it immediately. I usually thaw it in the refrigerator for two whole days before unrolling it to make sure that it is supple and easily separated and lifted.

Temporarily stymied, I thought, how can I thaw this dough quickly? At that point, we weren't certain we would be staying at the Farm for the whole weekend, so waiting a few hours wasn't an option. So I asked myself, "Self, what would the Chef Mother do to help something thaw more quickly?"

The answer, of course, was to fill a container with hot water and to soak the plastic-wrapped and sealed package of dough in the water. So I soaked one end, occasionally massaging the roll of dough to loosen the sheets, and then turned it over and soaked the other until the dough felt more pliable.

Mentally patting myself on the back, I lifted the package from the water and opened one end. And as I tipped it over to open the other end, water spilled from the package.

That cloudy water caused my heart to sink and my shoulders to slump, for it could only mean that the plastic was not, in fact, sealed, and that the dough was now too wet.

I sighed heavily and continued to unwrap the package to see just how bad the damage was. The edges had all pasted themselves together, and one end of the dough sheets had shattered at a fold, apparently in great annoyance at my rush and my abusive handling.

So I stared at the mess, quickly thinking about how I could salvage something from it and bake some baklava to share with the others on the Farm. Finally, I set aside my big baking pan and pulled out a loaf pan instead, greasing it with melted butter. I trimmed the edges off the dough and started picking up the fragile layers one by one, buttering almost all of them and folding in the excess before adding more butter.

Back and forth my hands went, picking up dough and pressing it into place, not really caring any more if it looked good, adding layers with a devil-may-care attitude, spreading three layers of nuts instead of the usual two, and brushing more butter with every layer to make up for the chaos.

Finally, the pan full, the dough decimated, I cut the pieces of pastry, poured the remaining melted butter on top -- a good deal of butter! -- and shoved the pan into the oven to bake while I made the honey syrup.

An hour later, the timer went off, and I pulled the baklava from the oven. Curious, I thought. The tops of the pieces are all so nicely rounded -- not flattened like I usually see. I shrugged and added the honey syrup, breathing in the fragrant steam as the syrup sizzled and bubbled its way into the pastry. Then I set it aside to cool.

After running errands, we returned to the Farm, now knowing that we would be staying overnight, and we sat down to dinner. For dessert, I dished up the baklava, thinking it wasn't nearly my best effort but it still had to be pretty good.

Well. Well, well, well.

Never doubt, Dear Readers, that miracles can happen. For this baklava -- this train-wreck of a baking bomb -- turned out to be the very best I have ever made. It looked and tasted like the baklava found at truly good Greek or Middle Eastern restaurants, made by chefs who know the pastry like the back of their hands. The top layers were flaky, the middle was moist and rich, and it shimmered at the bottom with a luxurious honey finish.

It was -- to put it simply -- divine.

When the Renaissance Man commented that it turned out just fine, I joked, "Perhaps I should screw up more often!" Or, at least I should remember what I did "right" in doing it "wrong."

That small pan -- only 10 pieces -- remained at the Farm, but I still had a package of filo left for another big pan once I got home. So tonight I made the final final pan of baklava for 2008, using the "techniques" learned in my mistake.

I returned to brushing every layer of dough with butter, and I spread the nuts among three layers instead of the two I usually use. The tops of the pastry pieces didn't puff up as beautifully as they did at the Farm, and that may be because I didn't pour as much melted butter on top this time.

The baklava still turned out light and flaky, though, and while it didn't quite reach the heights of delectability as Saturday's batch, it's still pretty amazing.

So from here on out, I'm not going to worry about perfecting my batches of baklava. Wonders will happen, and I'll hit that peak again sometime.

But for now, I'll just enjoy the sweetness of a job well done.

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At 12/17/2008 11:10 PM, Blogger Tara said...

I love happy stories like this! And the baklava looks fantastic too. :-)

At 12/18/2008 7:22 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Thanks, Tara! I was especially glad it turned out so well for his parents -- I think his mom had a bit of baklava this summer, but not sure she remembered it, so it was almost new to her. :-)


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