Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Recipe: Baklava

Adventures in Ancestral Dessert (Part I in a Series?)

I am half-Greek; Cypriot to be more specific. Pop's ancestors are from Cyprus, an island off the coast of Turkey. It's an independent country but half is occupied by peoples of Greek ancestry, the other half by Turkish. It has a long and sometimes violent history; my grandparents came to the United States in the 1950s at which point the British occupied the country.

The Greeks, Turkish, Lebanese, Persians, and Jordanians all share dishes that vary slightly from region to region. The shish kebab and keftedes Grandpa make have almost identical counterparts in these cultures. Grandma's reportoire of Greek desserts when I was a child included kourabiedes, which bear striking resemblance to Mexican wedding cookies. It's fascinating how food crosses regions and cultures, truly binding us together. But, I digress.

Baklava is not a dessert Grandma made often in my childhood. She made other filo desserts including galaktoboureko (filo filled with custard and covered in fragrant sugar syrup- think French mille feuille) and kadaifi (shredded fillo rolled around chopped nuts and spices, bathed in syrup). The aforementioned kourabiedes cookies are the favorite of my brothers, who'd happily fluff powdered sugar everywhere.
Despite that, baklava is probably the most well-known Greek sweet. NH really enjoys it and orders horrid squares of it at any Mediterranean restaurant, including the awful chain down the street from our home. He has hinted to me that he would like it if I made some sometime.

It's not difficult to make; it's merely time-consuming. I decided on a whim to make some baklava one morning, as a surprise. Filo dough is sold frozen and must be thawed for several hours before use. Because of my whim, I did not leave enough time for this step and it's crucial to keeping the dough in tact. I muscled through ok, but I don't recommend this. It took even longer to assemble the baklava and it was definitely tricky. In the future I will surely plan ahead, but in the end you couldn't tell I had made this mistake.

There are many recipes for baklava, but they have mostly minor differences. The nuts may vary and the syrup flavorings may change by taste/region, but most contain the same ingredients and measurements. Baklava is definitely worth making at home rather than purchasing. It's best when very fresh.

Many tastes vary on how much syrup to use; I'm convinced people think a baklava is good or bad based on their preference for syrup and how much the particular cook used. I prefer mine with much less syrup and a bit of crunch to the toasted filo and nuts. NH likes lots of syrup, a soggy and sweet pastry with little or no crunch. It might take you a few tries to determine what you and yours prefer.

Homemade Baklava

1 package of frozen Filo dough (16 ounces), defrosted in the fridge for about 8 hours
1 pound chopped nuts*
1 cup Butter, melted
1 tsp ground Cinnamon

1 cup water
1 cup white Sugar
1 tsp Vanilla extract
1/2 cup Honey
optional additional flavorings: lemon zest, orange blossom water, rose water

*Walnuts are the traditional baklava filling. However, I find a combination of nuts provides more complexity of flavor. I used almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts, but you could also use pistachios or even pecans. Any combination of what you have on hand could work.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Butter the bottom and sides of a 9x13 glass baking dish with a pastry brush.

Process the nuts and cinnamon in a food processor until fine, and set aside. Unroll the filo dough; if needed cut the whole stack to fit your dish.
Place a dampened cloth over the filo dough to prevent it from drying out. Make sure to recover every time you take another sheet from the pile.
Place two sheets in the pan and brush with butter thoroughly. Sprinkle some of the nut mixture over the dough. Place two more sheets of filo over the nuts and brush with butter. Repeat until all of the nut mixture has been used. Place any remaining filo on top and brush with butter.
With a very sharp knife, cut the baklava in diamond or square shapes, making sure to cut all the way to the bottom of the pan. Bake for about 50 minutes until golden brown and crisp.
To make the sugar syrup, boil the sugar and water until the sugar is dissolved. Add the vanilla, honey, and any other flavorings you choose. Simmer for about 20 minutes until the syrup thickens slightly. Allow to cool a little.
Remove the baklava from the oven and immediately pour the desired amount of syrup. The whole batch will create the soggy sweet baklava that some prefer; use about 1/3 to 1/2 if you prefer a crunchy, more dry pastry. Allow to cool.

Serves 18

Friday, February 15, 2008

Valentine's Day Dinner- Butternut Squash and Vanilla Bean Risotto

Valentine's Day was yesterday, so I made a special dish for NH and I. One of our favorite indulgences is risotto because it's rich and takes some time to prepare well. This is a recipe written by Giada de Laurentiis; I thought it sounded interesting so I saved it to try on Vday. It was superb! I did change it a little by roasting the butternut squash instead of cooking it in the vegetable broth. It gave it a little bit of crusty crunch that I liked. It serves 4 as a main course.

Butternut Squash and Vanilla Bean Risotto

1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed (about 3 cups)
4 cups Vegetable broth
1 Vanilla Bean
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine (I used a Pinot Grigio)
1/2 to 3/4 cup Parmesan, to taste
chopped chives.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Toss the butternut squash cubes with about 1 Tablespoon olive oil and some salt and pepper. Spread on a baking sheet and roast for about 30 minutes, tossing at least once. Set aside.

Warm the broth in a saucepan over medium high. Split the vanilla bean and scrape out the seeds. Add these to the broth as well as the whole vanilla bean. Turn the heat to low and cover to keep warm.
Saute the onion in the butter until tender, about 3 minutes. Add rice and stir to coat. Add the wine and simmer until evaporated, about 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of broth, stir until absorbed, about 2 minutes. Make sure to add the vanilla seeds as well, which may clump in the broth. Continue adding the broth until it's gone, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the squash, and Parmesan and salt to taste. Sprinkle with chopped chives. Serve with a wine that you love.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Recipe- Cinnamon Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are one of those "Hated as a kid and didn't realize what I was missing" foods for me. I always passed on the sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving in my youth in favor of the regular potato dish. They were too vivid, too different, too sweet, too orange.
Now regular white potatoes seem dull and flavorless in comparison. The intense flavor that comes from roasting these beauties is unbelievable.

In general I am a fan of roasting vegetables. Their flavor is intensified and the carmelized outlayer is coveted while the creamy interiors are practically seductive. I've noticed that even vegetable-haters (ahem- NH :-) will praise and gobble them up. Usually all they need is a drizzle of olive oil and some salt, about 30 minutes in a really high oven until they slightly char.

But when I came across this recipe for sweet potatoes dusted with cinnamon and a little sugar, I had to try it. I've mentioned my addiction to that particular spice before so I knew this couldn't be anything but yummy. Almost like candy, this would be a nice experiment, a departure from my usual methods.

Cinnamon Roasted Sweet Potatoes

2 Tablespoons Walnut Oil
1 1/4 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
3/4 Tablespoon Splenda Brown Sugar blend (double the amount if using regular brown sugar)
3/4 teaspoon Cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
A pinch of ground pepper

*Optional: chopped Pecans and/or crumbled Goat cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Toss sweet potatoes in the walnut oil and place in a baking dish. Roast for 20 minutes, tossing in the middle for even cooking. In the meantime, combine the brown sugar blend, cinnamon, salt, pepper, and optional pecans if using. After 20 minutes, sprinkle the potatoes with the brown sugar mixture. Roast another 10-15 minutes, tossing in the middle once again. Serve immediately or allow to cool a bit. Serves 3 as a side dish.

On a whim I decided to add some pecans to the dish right before adding the spices. This addition was delicious but not obligatory.
Since I was eating these sweet potatoes as my dinner I wanted to add a little something extra for protein, so I topped my bowl with a small amount of crumbled goat cheese. The flavor combination was wonderfully salty-sweet. Between the two I'd repeat the goat cheese before the pecans due to the nice contrast it made.

Update: Lunch, One Day Later
I prepared a salad with greens, shredded cabbage and carrot, cucumber, and feta cheese with walnut oil and balsamic vinegar. I decided to add a little of the leftover sweet potatoes; not a combination I would have normally thought of but it was delicious! I plan to have the same lunch tomorrow, using the remainder of the potatoes. :-)

Friday, February 1, 2008

I am
so sorry
I ate
the entire
I made.
I could
help it
it was