Pistachio Baklava (and a trip, awhile ago, to Istanbul)
This post has been a long time in the making. Almost exactly a year ago I arrived home from spending three weeks in Europe with my boyfriend. He had been studying in Switzerland for the year, and we had decided that when the semester finished we would spend one week each in Istanbul, Italy, and Southern France. It was maybe the best three weeks of my life (short as my life is), and although I feel kind of silly for thinking such a brief amount of time could have such an impact, especially when friends of mine study abroad for months at a time, I really do think it changed the way I see a lot of things.
At first, I didn’t know how to feel about my time spent in Istanbul. That part of the trip had been picked out by my boyfriend, who restlessly wanted to see some place outside of the Christian Western European zone. I was desperately trying to stay within that zone on our trip, though, as my experience in foreign travel has been contained largely within the developing world. And even though I was really enjoying Istanbul while I was there, at the time it just seemed to blend together with all of the other busy, large, dirty cities that scatter the world outside the most touristy fully-industrialized nations. (I realize now writing this out that I sound like the most spoiled and self-righteous person around. I really would like to say I’m not, but the best I can do is assure you that I hope I’m not.)
But, of course, I was wrong. It may have been hard to compete with the holy capitol of the world at the time (I was so, so excited to see Italy and France for the first time), but I have found myself nostalgic for Istanbul a lot lately. When I smell hot sun warming up a dirt road, I miss when Waylon and I walked the few miles from the Northern part of Istanbul to its old-town as the sun was setting and the silhouettes of the speckled mosques on the horizon stood out. I miss walking along the coast and grabbing fish sandwiches for lunch and hearing the Islamic prayer calls being played out of speakers all around the city. I miss the colors of the city, the flavors of the Grand Bazaar.
I think most of all I miss the people, who were some of the most generous and friendly I’ve ever met. Like the man who owned a rug and tile shop, who talked to us about Turkish rugs for a couple hours while offering us tea despite the fact that he knew we weren’t about to buy anything. Or the two guys who became our friends and who we talked to around lots of tea and hookah for the second half of our week in Istanbul. They were both from the Kurdish part of Turkey, much farther inland, where they claim fruit, syrups and jams are the best in the world. They told us stories of their childhood there, and about one of their fathers who they claimed that although he was old, “he still has the strength to sleep with two women at the same time.” (!) I hope I get to see them again.
Throughout the entire trip, I kept a food journal where I would write down everything we ate. At the time I just saw it as a silly way to keep track of foods I liked and wanted to make back home. But now, even a year after our short trip, I love looking back and reading parts to remind me of places and people and the feelings I had. As the trip progressed in Italy and France (and the wine became more and more prevalent), my food journal became pretty extravagant as though I had artistic license in describing and romanticizing our food experiences. But while I was in Istanbul, I kept the entries pretty concise. Still, the second day I was there, Tuesday May 17th, I had written down:
“Afterwards cafe Hafiz Mustafa (again), got turkish tea (always), got best baklava ever—pure pistachio, super soaked, creamy-like consistency and taste. Post dinner had fried honey croquette-looking things, free tea + free turkish delights. Sugar!!!”
Friends, as I’m sure you can tell from the quantity of sweets I keep posting on this blog, I have quite the tolerance for sugar. And yet, when I was eating my dessert of syrup-soaked deep-fried pastries along with sweetened turkish tea after having snacked on samples of turkish delight all day… yes, it happened, I was sugared out. But that doesn’t mean I don’t remember all of those Turkish treats now and salivate.
One of my favorite parts of all the pastry shops and cafes was the prevalence of pistachio. It was everywhere and in everything. This was new to me, as pistachio as a flavor in sweets doesn’t seem that common here in the States (am I wrong in thinking this?). But I’m a converted person now: after munching on that pistachio baklava in Istanbul on my second day there, I can’t return to eating run-of-the-mill walnut or mixed nut baklava now. Call me a snob or maybe weirdly-food-obsessed, but I’m afraid that from now on I will only be loyal to pistachio.
I was determined to make baklava, the correct way, when I came back from my trip. (The fact that that feat took a little more than a year to do is neither here nor there.) But as always in this sad life, my baklava would not come out the same. I blame this largely to the fact that that America has not embraced pistachio the way that it should, and the only thing available to me in about 4 different supermarkets nearby were toasted and salted pistachio nuts. I know, I am dumb and should have looked the other way and continued on a search for raw, unsalted nuts. But I was desperate! I figured the toasted part may not mess up my results too much and that I could just not add any salt and hope for the best.
So, what I present to you today is Pistachio Baklava, a True Disappoint and Not Correctly Made (shame on you, Amy). I think the toasted nuts is what truly did me in, as the flavor of this baklava basically ended up tasting like any sort of mixed-nut sort. However, over-cooking it so that it crisped up beyond the creaminess I remember sealed the deal of my disappointment.
I realize that the above description probably will turn any and all of you away from trying this recipe. But, please don’t blame the recipe for my faults. When I get my hands on a bag of unsalted, untoasted pistachio nuts (which may or may not take yet another year to accomplish), I will be using this recipe again.
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup water
1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 large strips of lemon zest
1 cinnamon stick
12 ounces raw unsalted, untoasted pistachios
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter (3 sticks), melted, and cooled slightly
1 pound frozen phyllo, thawed
To prepare the sugar syrup, combine sugar, water, honey, lemon juice and zest, and cinnamon stick in small saucepan and bring to full boil over medium-high heat, making sure the sugar dissolves. Transfer to a small glass bowl and set aside to cool while making the baklava. Once the syrup cools, remove the cinnamon stick and strips of lemon zest. (Note: This can be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge in an airtight container for up to 4 days.)
Next, to make the nut filling, pulse the pistachios in the food processor until very finely chopped—think the texture of coarse sand. Add the sugar and pinch of salt and toss to combine. Set aside a couple tablespoons of the ground nuts to be used later as a garnish on the finished baklava.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Unwrap and unfold the phyllo dough on a large cutting board. Most phyllo dough will already be in a 13 by 9-inch shape, but if yours comes in one large sheet, cut the phyllo dough so that you have roughly two evenly sized stacks that are 13 by 9-inches. Cover with a damp kitchen towel to prevent drying and cracking. Brush a 13 by 9-inch glass baking pan with some of the melted butter.
For assembly of the layers, it’s important to note here that you should save the best-fitting, most intact sheets for the top and bottom layers of the baklava. Place a sheet of phyllo dough in the bottom of the buttered baking pan, and brush the sheet until completely coated in melted butter. Repeat with 7 more well intact phyllo sheets, brushing each with butter, until you have 8 phyllo sheets stacked on each other.
Evenly distribute about 1 cup of the nuts over the 8 phyllo layers. Cover the nut layer with a phyllo sheet, and dab butter all over it (if you try brushing it on, the phyllo will slip all over the place). Repeat with 5 more phyllo sheets, brushing each with butter, for a total of 6 phyllo sheets on top of the nut layer. Repeat the layering process with another 1 cup of the ground nuts, 6 sheets of phyllo and butter, and the last 1 cup of nuts. Finish off the layering with 8 to 10 sheets of good, intact phyllo dough, brushing each layer with butter except for the final top sheet. Use the palm of your hands to press down on the layers, starting at the center and pressing outwards to remove any air bubbles. Then, drizzle 4 tablespoons of butter over the top layer and brush to cover completely.
Using a good, sharp knife, cut the baklava into diamonds—I found it easiest to make one long cut from one corner of the pan to the other and then making parallel diagonal cuts every couple inches on either side. I then repeated this on the other side of the baklava, to make complete diamonds.
Bake in preheated oven until lightly golden, about 50 minutes to an hour. Once removed from the oven, immediately pour all of the reserved syrup over all of the cuts lines and then over the surface of the baklava. Garnish each piece of baklava with a sprinkling of the reserved ground pistachios. Cool to room temperature, for about 3 hours, then cover with foil and let stand at least 8 hours. Really, please don’t try cheating on this. The baklava gets really, really good after some good rest to soak up all of the syrup. Since honey never goes bad, baklava can be kept wrapped tightly in foil or plastic wrap for a couple weeks.