Yesterday, I walked into the kitchen just as the syrup was being poured over a huge tray of Paklava. Do I have good timing or what?! After I scarfed down a few of the random edge pieces that aren't quite beautiful enough to make it onto a serving platter (just doing my part to ahem help out in the kitchen), I noticed there was about a half package of phyllo left. My brain immediately raced back to en episode of Semi Homemade with Sandra Lee that I saw on the Food Network a few years ago where she was making a tray of Almond Baklava. I have always been tempted to try something different, but being Armenian, I'm pre-programmed for a cinnamon/sugar/walnut filling. It's not something you randomly bake up for dessert, so when I'm baking it for a holiday or event, I have always stuck with the original. Seeing that small amount of phyllo pushed me to try a small batch, and am I glad I did. WOW!!!
I'm still pushing myself to come up with uses for a sampling of Japanese Juices I received from Marx Foods, so I immediately knew I would be using one of them in the simple syrup. I wanted to use almonds, but what else? Chocolate came to mind, so when I went to the pantry to see what varieties we had, I remembered that I recently picked up a bag of Heath Milk Chocolate Toffee Bits. I love adding those to Chocolate Chip Cookies. I also like the chocolate/chile pepper combination, so I went back and tasted all of the chiles I also received from Marx Foods and chose to include the New Mexico variety for it's sweet heat.
Just to avoid confusion - I'm listing the ingredients for a full-sized tray, but what I made last night was just a mini batch.
2 lb phyllo
1 lb butter
2 T Crisco shortening
10 oz almonds
8 oz Heath Milk Chocolate Toffee Bits
1 T granulated New Mexico Chilies*
1/2 c water
1 c sugar
2 T Kabosu juice*
Start by clarifying your butter with the Crisco. There are different schools of thought on how to go about clarifying butter, but just so long as you heat it to the point where it foams and separates, you'll be fine. My understanding has always been that if you don't clarify it, you will end up with a spotty end product. I was always taught that the Crisco makes the Paklava more crisp. Let the butter cool a bit, then scoop the foam off the top and discard. If you're one to leave your pastry brush standing in the butter container, you will want to pour the clear middle layer into a measuring cup or bowl. Otherwise, you can just dunk your brush into the pot, being careful not to scoop up the layer that settled to the bottom. That's what I usually do - one less thing to wash.
For the filling, I briefly pulsed the almonds in the food processor, then added the chilies and toffee pieces and pulsed again. I did not just stir the chilies and toffee into the nuts because I wanted to make sure there was an even distribution of flavors.
Brush your baking sheet with melted butter, then start layering the phyllo, brushing every second layer with butter. This can be kind of a pain because not all trays are created (sized) equal, nor are all brands of phyllo the same size. You can trim it to fit your tray, tuck the corners under if that's where the excess is, fold the dough - whatever works for your pan. The only layer you really need to be concerned with is the very top. You want that layer to be free of breaks or seams so when it bakes, they don't curl up on you. What's in the middle is up for grabs. If you are folding your dough to fit, just make sure you alternate directions so it's not high on one side and low on the other. If there is a gap in the middle because it isn't reaching that far, no big deal - just layer some pieces in the center to make up the difference.
You will also hear/read a lot about laying a damp towel over the dough as you go along. I never bother with that. I did it when I was young, because that's what I was told to do, but as far as I'm concerned, I would rather have dry sheets of dough to work with than sheets with damp spots on them that get gummy and stick together. Then they just tear when you're trying to separate them. One thing I will suggest is that if you have a Middle Eastern Bakery or restaurant in your area, see if you can get the dough from them rather than from the freezer section of the grocery store. The bakery we get it from goes through it so fast, they never freeze it, so it's always fresh and soft. Some of the stuff you get in the freezer section is old, brittle, coated in starch, etc. I've actually wrestled with a few packages over the years where I had to scrape the starch off them it was so thick. Ewww!
Most recipes call for 8-10 layers on the bottom, but I like it thicker, so I usually use half a package of phyllo on the bottom, sprinkle a layer of filling, then continue with the other half and as much of the next package as I can pile on until it reaches the top of the tray. Sometimes I'll do two layers of filling, but I usually keep to one. I did two layers last night because when I ground the filling, I wasn't thinking about the fact that I was only making a small tray, so I had more than I needed.
Because the New Mexico Chilies provided a sweet heat rather than an in-your-face burning heat, I actually decided to sprinkle more over the top of my filling layer. See all the dark bits? Mmmmm.
Now that you're at the top of the tray (make sure you butter the top), you're ready for what I think is the hard part - cutting it. Make sure you use a super sharp knife and you should be fine. Otherwise, you might be at it for a while. Start by cutting a line on the diagnonal.
Decide how big you want your pieces and work your way out to the corners making slices, then rotate the tray and do the same thing in the other direction to form diamonds.
I managed to breeze right thought that last night, but there have been days when I would have a tray braced against a wall somewhere using a paring knife to cut out each piece separately because the layers were sliding apart on me. A sharp knife is your friend.
Bake at 375 for about 40" until golden brown, then let cool completely. That's another thing that differs from recipe to recipe. I was always taught to pour hot syrup over cold dough for Paklava but hot syrup over hot dough for Kadayif (that's the stuff that looks like shredded wheat). Others were taught to pour cold syrup over hot Paklava. Hot on cold works for me, so I'm sticking with it! To my mind, I want the syrup hot so it runs into all the little nooks and crannies. If it's cold, I would think it would be thick and just run over the top. That's no fun!!
I got ahead of myself. You haven't even made your syrup yet, have you? Bring the sugar, water, and Kabosu to a boil, stirring for about a minute. You want it to turn into a syrup but don't want to boil it for so long that it solidifies on your pastry. Believe me, I've seen that happen to people. It's not pretty! If I'm making "regular" Paklava, I boil the sugar and water, then add a teaspoon or two of lemon juice once it starts to boil.
To be completely honest, never having tried the chocolate almond filling before, much less knowing what the Kabosu simple syrup would turn out like, because there was some standard simple syrup left from the earlier Paklava session, I added a little more water to that syrup and re-heated it. I used the plain on half the tray and the Kabosu on the other half in case it was a disaster. Not at all! The Kabosu gave it almost a hint of orange at the end, which was really nice with that little bit of heat you felt when you were done.
I think there are going to be some extremely happy campers at my office tomorrow. This stuff is killer!!!
* The products I have received are solely for sampling - there is no expectation of what I will say about the products or how I will choose to use them.