I feel like the closer we get to Christmas, the more people are prone to becoming a bit frazzled by the holiday grind. We all have to keep track of the parties, and whether or not we’ve already bought gifts for everyone on our list. Add to that there is some form of anxiety for people who are planning to cook their own Christmas feast or host their own parties. Even if you do it every year, it can still be daunting.
Personally since I’m more party-goer than party-hoster, I like to take this opportunity to get creative in the kitchen and try out recipes that I feel are really special. The sort that would be fun additions to any potluck party or fitting to hand as a gift to the host. Somehow when the holiday season comes around, I also have more energy and enthusiasm to attempt recipes I normally wouldn’t make on any regular old day. You know, recipes that kind of require more effort like cupcakes with fluffy Swiss meringue frosting, or the show-stopping Buche de Noel. I also allow myself to gravitate towards those really rich and sinful desserts, such as the baklava.
We often order baklava for dessert when we eat at Greek restaurants and my impression was always that it is something difficult to make. It’s not the chopped nuts but the golden layers of phyllo pastry (or filo/fillo) that looks rather challenging to replicate.
I don’t really know how to make phyllo so all I can rely on is a secret ingredient called frozen store-bought phyllo pastry! This recipe is not traditional by any means and I can’t vouch for authenticity at all since one, I’m using frozen phyllo, and second, I’ve never seen how real baklava is made. So apologies to those who might feel offended by this shortcut recipe. I’d love to learn how it’s done properly though.
The thing about baklava for me is that it is massively impressive. I imagine if you brought one to a Christmas potluck party- at least locally- people would oooh and aaah because it’s a rather uncommon dessert to bring to a Christmas party. The next thing they always seem to ask is if it was difficult to create it. Truth be told this particular recipe takes less than 20 minutes, though you are going to need to make this ahead of time because it needs a good deal of umm… sponging time. I’ll explain later.
Since it’s not at all too late yet to add this to your holiday menu or gift list, maybe you’d want to see for yourself how easily it can be done? And by the way, this ain’t just any baklava recipe. It’s a chocolate baklava recipe. I mean, it’s Christmas, so basically you have the license to go all out with the good stuff, yes?
First things first: If you live in Manila, let me tell you right now where to get the frozen phyllo pastry. S&R has them in the Antoniou brand, which is the one I bought. (Santi’s also carries the same brand.) Frozen phyllo pastry isn’t tricky at all, not especially this brand which isn’t packaged as a whole roll. It is already cut up into sheets the size of a legal-size bond paper, and there are 20 sheets inside the box. Exactly the number you need for this recipe.
The only thing you need to remember about frozen phyllo pastry is to thaw it in the fridge the night before, then on the day itself, take it out to rest at room temperature an hour before you start making your baklava. That’s it! Then you will find no trouble at all in handling these sheets. (Instructions are on the box too.) They do look like extremely fragile pieces of silky paper but they don’t break as easily as you might think.
They are sooo pretty. (I have this thing for papers because I draw and write quite a bit and this definitely reminds me of those pieces of paper where you can do Chinese watercolour paintings.)
As I made my baklava I got to wondering about how phyllo pastry is probably such a pain to make from scratch! How in the world do you get your sheets this thin and paper-like by hand?! So I thought, why not just make my life easier with this one. It’s a cheat’s way of making baklava if you will, which I learned from here.
Anyway, going back to the baking process, once you’ve taken out your phyllo sheets, the next step is to prepare your honey syrup. You just melt the sugar and let it simmer for 20 minutes, then set it aside to cool. Just leave it to one side as you make your baklava, or you can make it a day early and store it in the fridge. It’s not a thick syrup but a very liquid one so you don’t have to worry about it seizing or anything like that.
Next up, make sure your nuts are all chopped up and ready to go. I don’t like to finely chop mine because I like being able to sink my teeth into big chunks of nuts. Any combination of your favourites is fine as long as they amount to around 250 grams, or a little more if you’re feeling generous. I used pistachio, almonds, and walnuts.
The chocolate in the filling is just a bonus but you can omit it if you wish. Just make sure you replace the same amount with more chopped nuts or your filling might not be enough. Also make sure your fully-thawed phyllo sheets are cut to the size of your pan. You’ll be needing 20 sheets for this.
Now melt about ¾ cup of butter- yes, you will use it all up… It’s the holidays!!- and prepare your brush. Brush your pan and take one sheet of phyllo pastry and lay it evenly on the bottom. Brush the sheet in the pan with butter as nice and evenly as you can then lay another sheet, brushing the top once again. Repeat this laying and brushing process for 6 more sheets until you have 8 stacked up.
Spread half of the nut-chocolate mixture on the phyllo sheet. Take another phyllo sheet then lay it out on your kitchen counter, brushing one side with butter. Gently take this sheet and place it butter side down onto your nuts layer, then once again brush the other side with more butter. Take your next clean sheet of phyllo and lay it down on the previous layer then brush the top surface with butter again. Repeat this process until you stack 4 sheets this time, then add in your remaining nuts. Take a sheet and brush both sides (I like to do it one side at a time) and lay it on your nuts, then for the final stack you’ll want a total of 8 sheets once again.
(So while this dessert is mighty impressive, it’s not exactly diet-friendly.)
And there you go! You’re essentially just stacking and brushing the sheets! The only problem you will probably have is if you lose count of how many sheets you’ve already placed haha! To make things simpler, remember this sequence for your baklava layers: 8 layers of phyllo + nuts + 4 layers of phyllo + nuts + 8 layers of phyllo.
Once all layers have been set and brushed, cut into squares in the size you prefer. You can go smaller if you want though I wouldn’t recommend squares that are too large since this is a rich and sweet treat after all. It gets real sweet when you eat too much. For this reason, I feel like my squares are a little big for my 13-inch pan. Next time I’ll have to slice it into 30 squares. That just means more squares for everyone!
So after that grueling decision of how to slice it, all you need to do is to bake it. Remember to tent it halfway through to prevent too much browning on the surface. The moment it comes out of the oven all crisp and golden pour the syrup all over, making sure to also pour into the corners and sides.
Now you just need to leave it at room temperature overnight and let the phyllo pastry and the nuts soak in the syrup. If you cut into it too early it will be wet. Just like this:
After an overnight sponging session, the syrup completely disappears from sight. The squares will no longer feel wet or “oily” but the center where the nuts are will be nice and moist. I promise the wait will be worth it!
I like to eat this at room temperature but you can store it in the fridge before a meal and allow it to come to room temperature while you eat the main course.
And might I suggest a scoop of tangy frozen yoghurt to go with it on the side? Drizzled with a little honey?
Makes one 13 x 9-inch pan or about 24 squares
For the Honey Vanilla Syrup
- 250 millilitres water
- 200 grams sugar
- 50 grams honey
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- juice of half a lemon, optional
For the baklava
- 150 grams melted butter, cooled
- 20 sheets phyllo pastry, cut into the size of the pan
- 250 grams dark chocolate chips
- 250 grams chopped nuts of choice, pistachio, hazelnuts, walnuts, etc.
- 1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
Make the syrup
- 1. In a medium saucepan, combine all syrup ingredients and bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Turn heat to low, then let the syrup simmer for about 20 minutes.
- 2. Remove from heat and allow the syrup to cool completely before use. If not using immediately, syrup can be stored in the fridge.
Make the baklava
- 3. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). In a bowl, combine chopped nuts, cinnamon, and chocolate chips.
- 4. Prepare phyllo sheets. Cover with a damp towel to prevent phyllo sheets from drying out.
- 5. Butter a 13 x 9-inch baking pan, and set a sheet of phyllo on top. Brush the surface of topmost phyllo sheet with butter and then add another sheet. Brush the surface of the second sheet and stack another. Working this way, stack a total of 8 sheets of phyllo in buttered baking pan.
- 6. Spread half of the nut mixture evenly over layered phyllo sheets.
- 7. Brush next phyllo sheet on both sides with butter, then place on top of nuts. (Do one side first on the countertop then place it butter-side down on nuts before brushing the other side.) Stack 3 more phyllo sheets, brushing only the topmost phyllo sheet on the surface with butter before stacking on the next one. Spread the remaining nut and chocolate mixture.
- 8. Brush next phyllo sheet on both sides with butter once again, then place on top of nuts mixture. Add 7 more phyllo sheets, brushing the topmost layer with butter before stacking. (The layers should end up being 8 sheets-nuts-4 sheets-nuts-8 sheets.)
- 9. Using a sharp knife, cut baklava into 24 to 30 squares, or in the size desired. Bake for a total of 45 minutes, with the first 20 minutes uncovered. Then bake for the last 25 minutes covered with aluminium foil to prevent top from browning too much.
- 10. Once done and the baklava is golden on top, take the baklava out of the oven and immediately pour the cold syrup over the hot baklava. Let stand at room temperature until completely cool, preferably overnight so the syrup gets completely soaked in.