NATIONAL BAKLAVA DAY!

 

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Today is National Baklava Day! I didn’t know there was such a day until recently. There seems to be a day for everything, so why shouldn’t this delicious, traditional Greek pastry be honored with its own day?

Many people are intimidated by the thought of attempting to make baklava, mainly because they’re not familiar with working with phyllo. It’s actually one of the easiest pastries to make and I often whip up a tray when I want to make something without too much fuss.

Baklava is so special it’s even mentioned in my novel, Evanthia’s Gift. Here is an excerpt:

           As the weeks went by, the change in Sophia could not be suppressed. She was lighter, happier and her eyes had a more dreamy quality to them. Whatever her task, it reflected the love that was bursting from the depths of her soul. Her bouquets at the flower shop were the most beautiful and creative work she’d ever fashioned. For Valentine’s Day she baked a delicious batch of baklava, while daydreaming how Dean would lick the sticky phyllo and walnuts off her fingertips, and she would kiss the rest of the honey off his irresistible lips. At the dance studio, she lost herself in romantic love songs, staying after class to choreograph pieces to the music that expressed her love for him. But it still bothered her that Dean wanted to keep their relationship a secret.

~ Baklava ~

 Filling

1 pound finely chopped walnuts

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

Pastry

1 package phyllo dough

1½ cups melted unsalted butter

Syrup

1½ cups honey

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

Orange rind and 2 tablespoons juice from orange

2 cinnamon sticks

*Don’t be intimidated by the phyllo. It does dry fast so you need to work quickly. Most bakers like to cover it with a damp towel. That method doesn’t work for me. I find the sheets of phyllo get stuck together. I just keep some Saran wrap on top to keep it from drying. The regular long size phyllo is great when I double the recipe and make a large pan. (The size of a full size sterno pan) If you find the shorter phyllo sheets, a 9x 13 pan works perfectly. I use a Pyrex baking dish and it works beautifully.

Combine the filling ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Brush the inside of the pan with some melted butter to coat. Lay two phyllo sheets in the pan. Brush the phyllo with butter using a pastry brush. Repeat three times. The bottom layer will have eight sheets in all. Spread one third of the filling onto the phyllo. Lay two sheets on top of the filling and brush with melted butter. Repeat two more times. Spread another third of the filling on the phyllo. Lay two sheets of phyllo and brush with melted butter. Repeat two times. Spread the last third of filling on the phyllo and cover with two sheets of phyllo. Repeat three more times. The top and bottom layers should have eight sheets. The layers in between the filling should have six sheets and there should be three layers of filling.

Carefully cut the baklava into squares, and then cut each square diagonally to form two triangles. This must be done before baking or the top layers will crumble if you try to cut them after baking. If you have any leftover butter, drizzle it over the top before baking. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes, then lower temperature to 300° and bake for an additional 30 minutes. The top layer should be golden brown.

While the Baklava is baking, combine all the ingredients for the syrup in a pot. When it reaches a boil, lower to a simmer. Simmer for twenty minutes.

The syrup should be cooled if you are pouring it over hot pastry, or the pastry should be cooled if the syrup is hot. I prefer to have both slightly warm when I pour the syrup. Let the syrup absorb into the baklava for a day before serving.

 

 

BAKLAVA – CHRISTMAS BAKING MARATHON CONTINUES…

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Yesterday, I began to assemble trays and boxes of my cookies and pastries to hand out to neighbors, friends and others that I am in contact with during the course of the year.

In the past, I filled each tray or box exactly the same, but this year, each package was just a little different. About a month ago, I began to get little reminders from my friends as to which cookie was their favorite. None of my “Xeno” friends could pronounce any of the treats I’ve gifted to them, so they describe them to me instead. Richie told me he wants plenty of the ones with the sesame seeds – (koulourakia). Jo at work said she’s waiting for the revani. Maureen, the doctor I work with said the ones with the clove in the middle and drenched in syrup is her favorite – (melamakarona). And Ron down the block wants baklava — all the time. Every time he sees me — not just for Christmas.

Baklava is one of my quick and easy desserts to make. Most people think it’s difficult to make, but it’s quite simple, especially when you buy the packaged phyllo. I rarely make anything that is not completely from scratch, but rolling out dough as thin as paper would take all day.

My friend, a very talented chef, Krystina Kalapothakos, recently told me she was making her own phyllo. Youth and patience – that’s all it takes! Krystina’s blog is kouzounaskitchen.com. She has some amazing recipes on it. And if that isn’t enough, she just finished writing her first cookbook, Back To My Roots.

There’s plenty more trays to be assembled, so you’ll have to wait and see what else I’ve baked this season.

~ Baklava ~

 

Filling

1 pound finely chopped walnuts

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

Pastry

1 package phyllo dough

1½ cups unsalted butter, melted

Syrup

1½ cups honey

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

Orange rind and 2 tablespoons juice from orange

2 cinnamon sticks

*Don’t be intimidated by the phyllo. It does dry fast so you need to work quickly. Most people like to cover it with a damp towel. This doesn’t work for me. I find it gets mushy and the leaves stick together. I just keep some Saran wrap on top of it. The regular long size phyllo is great when I double the recipe and make a large pan. (The size of a full size sterno pan) If you find the shorter phyllo sheets, a 9x 13 pan works perfectly. I use a Pyrex baking dish and it works beautifully.

Combine the filling ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Brush the inside of the pan with some melted butter to coat. Lay two phyllo sheets in the pan. Brush the phyllo with butter using a pastry brush. Repeat three times. The bottom layer will have eight sheets in all. Spread one third of the filling onto the phyllo. Lay two sheets on top of the filling and brush with melted butter. Repeat two more times. Spread another third of the filling on the phyllo. Lay two sheets of phyllo and brush with melted butter. Repeat two times. Spread the last third of filling on the phyllo and cover with two sheets of phyllo. Repeat three more times. The top and bottom layers should have eight sheets. The layers in between the filling should have six sheets and there should be three layers of filling.

Carefully score the baklava into squares, and then cut each square into two triangles. This must be done before baking or the top layers will crumble if you try to cut them after baking. If you have any leftover butter, drizzle it over the top before baking. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes, then lower temperature to 300° and bake for an additional 30 minutes. The top layer should be golden brown.

While the Baklava is baking, combine all the ingredients for the syrup in a pot. When it reaches a boil, lower to a simmer. Simmer for twenty minutes.

The syrup should be cooled if you are pouring it over hot pastry, or the pastry should be cooled if the syrup is hot. I prefer to have both slightly warm when I pour the syrup. Let the syrup absorb into the baklava for a day before serving.

 

 

 

Throwback Thursday! Kourabeithes

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Originally, made this entry during the holiday season of 2010. I think I mentioned at Thanksgiving that my family is imbedded in tradition and I don’t think that’s about to change, nor do I want it to.

This time of year my home turns into a cookie factory. Each Christmas, my mother baked traditional Greek pastries and cookies and gave them out to friends and neighbors. I carried on that tradition—times ten! When my girls were in grade school there were so many people to give gifts to—classroom teachers, music teachers, dance and gymnastic teachers, and classroom aides. Honestly, the last thing any of them needed was another mug or #1 teacher paperweight, so I gave each teacher a tray of Greek cookies. They were unique and not at all like the usual Christmas cookies they’ received in the past. I continued this right through the girls’ high school years, even though there were several teachers to remember.

In order to bake the number of cookies I do in such a short amount of time, I need to stay focused and organized. I don’t want to loose sight of the reason and feeling behind the holidays. I don’t want the baking, decorating and shopping to become a chore. I want it to be something to look forward to and to enjoy with my family. It saddens me that we work ourselves to exhaustion for that one day or even eight days for some of my friends, but then we feel let down in the end. It’s not that the gifts weren’t good or the gathering with family wasn’t fun. We are let down because we didn’t enjoy the journey of the whole season and after all the planning and preparing, it was over in the blink of an eye. I like to watch corny Hallmark Christmas movies while I bake and wrap gifts. I choose less crowded times to shop and enjoy finding the perfect gift for each person. Driving through my neighborhood is like being on the set of a Christmas movie. Each home is beautifully decorated, and I love driving around blasting Christmas music. I think if you enjoy the whole season, you will appreciate the day itself.

Whenever I see old friends or someone mentions my mom and coming to our home when we were children, it seems that the same comment is made across the board—Those cookies your mom made with the powdered sugar were my favorite. To this day I get requests to make them or to share the recipe. Yesterday, I kicked off my baking marathon by making the famous Kourabeithes—butter cookies with crushed toasted almonds, blanketed in powdered sugar. My husband’s family calls them Petedespina cookies, named after My Aunt Despina and Uncle Pete who made platters of these cookies for each table at my wedding. You’ll find these cookies in a few shapes—crescents, discs (like my mom made them), or pyramid shaped. Aunt Despina made the pyramids and I always liked that shape the best, so although I use my mom’s recipe, I don’t make them the same shape she did. These cookies are easy to make, taste just as good after freezing and thawing, and they’re a crowd pleaser. This recipe yields about 140 cookies.

Kourabeithes

* Do this prep work ahead

Let butter sit out at room temperature

Toast almonds in oven for about 15 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool.

Zest and juice one orange.

Ingredients

2 lbs.-unsalted butter

2 tablespoons Crisco shortening

12 ounces slivered almonds, toasted and crushed

1 teaspoon vanilla

Zest and juice of 1 orange

4 tablespoons baking powder

2 eggs

4 tablespoons sugar

5 pound bag of flour

Rose water (optional)

Cream butter and Crisco shortening. Add crushed almonds. Add zest, juice, vanilla and baking powder. In a separate bowl, beat eggs and sugar, then add to the butter mixture. Add half the flour and mix well. Keep adding flour and mix with your hands until you get soft dough that can form a shape and not stick to your hands. You may not necessarily use the whole bag of flour. Shape into circle, crescent, or pyramid (similar to a Hershey kiss). Bake at 450 degrees until tops just begin to get slight golden color. The cookies should still be somewhat pale when you take them out. The amount of time in the oven will depend on the shape. I would say about 12- 18 minutes. The kiss shape takes the longest. Sprinkle with rosewater if you choose to use it. Cover the cookies with powdered sugar.

These freeze great. If you want to make weeks ahead, store them in a large container and freeze. Do not sprinkle with rosewater or powdered sugar until thawed.

Galaktoboureko – Easier to make than it is to pronounce!

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What is this strange sounding pastry? It’s a milk and egg based custard held together by layers of buttered phyllo. What separates this Greek dessert from its French and Italian counterparts are two ingredients. Farina or semolina is added to the milk and eggs, giving it a slightly firmer texture, without losing the delicateness you’d expect from a pastry cream. The second ingredient is a simple syrup, which is poured over the pastry after coming out of the oven. You will need to taste this to fully understand the moistness this adds to this wonderful dessert.

We hear Crème Brûlée, profiteroles, and now I am introducing you to galaktoboureko—and we get intimidated. We’ve convinced ourselves that they are labor intensive or difficult to make. Let me assure you—they are not. Do not let the names fool you. If you can follow instructions, you can make any of these desserts.

Two days ago, it was my niece, Athena’s, twenty-first birthday. Three hours before I was to arrive at her party, I decided to make galaktoboureko. Using a 9×13 glass baking dish, I made one large pastry and cut it in squares. You can also make individual rolls by rolling the phyllo as you would an eggroll.

Custard

8 cups milk

1 ½ cups sugar

1 ½ cups farina

6 eggs, beaten

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon vanilla

Pastry

1 pound phyllo

1 cup unsalted butter, melted

Syrup

1 ½ cups water

1 ½ cups sugar

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

2 strips orange peel

2 cinnamon sticks

In a pot, place milk, sugar, vanilla and farina. Stir until mix through. Add the beaten eggs and stir. Place over medium heat and simmer, constantly stirring. It will take a while for custard to thicken. Keep stirring. When the custard thickens, remove from the heat and add the butter. Stir until the butter has melted and mixed through. Place the custard in a bowl and cover with saran wrap. Allow the custard to cool. You can put it in the refrigerator while you prepare the phyllo, but not for too long. Butter a 9×13 inch pan. Using half of the package of phyllo, butter each sheet with a pastry brush and place it in the pan. Keep layering the sheets until you have finished the first half of the phyllo. With a large spoon or ladle, add all the custard over the phyllo. Layer and butter the remaining phyllo—one sheet at a time on top of the custard. Brush the top with butter. Tuck in the edges of any overlapping phyllo. Score with a sharp knife into squares and bake at 350 degrees F for 1 hour.

In the meantime, combine the water, sugar, orange juice, orange peel and cinnamon sticks, and simmer for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool. When the galaktoboureko comes out of the oven, drizzle with the syrup.

Let the pastry cool a little before attempting to remove the squares neatly. This will be your biggest challenge. This pastry tastes best when it’s still warm.

Easy, Right? If you want to try this, but you are still not sure you want to try your hand at baking, attend one of the many Greek festivals this summer. Just about every Long Island Church will hold their annual festival during the summer. Last weekend I went to the Festival in the Hamptons and at the end of August Port Jefferson will hold their festival. The pastries are all homemade by the Women’s group in the church, as is most of the delicious food. Find out where the festivals are in your state.

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