Baklava is a beautiful pastry with light, flaky layers of crust and a sweet filling, drenched in a light syrup. I'm not going to get into the history of baklava but, suffice it to say, this delicious pastry is made in every corner of every region in Greece.
Layers and Layers
Today, baklava is made with paper-thin sheets of phyllo. The dough can be layered on the bottom and top only, or - with a few sheets on the bottom and top - phyllo is alternated with the filling to form multiple layers.
A Special Dish
As a sweet, rich dish that requires time and expense (ingredients are not inexpensive, even in Greece), it is considered a "presentation" dish and generally reserved for special occasions. It is not served as a dessert but rather as a special treat.
In some areas, baklava is the most important sweet served at weddings and is actually taken to the church before the ceremony; in others, it is always served at Christmas; and, in some regions, when it is made at Easter, 40 sheets of phyllo dough are used, representing the 40 days of The Great Lent.
Butter or Oil?
While many of my American friends brush each sheet of phyllo with melted butter, here in Greece (a country not known for its butter), most use olive oil. In Greece, creamery butter was historically scarce and much more expensive than the ever-present olive oil, putting it out of reach for much of the populace. Because butter was so expensive, using it was considered a sign of wealth. Today, with what we know about saturated fats, it makes sense to use olive oil.
- Note: If you're in a U.S. television viewing area where you have the pleasure of watching the Greek cooking duo of Georgia and Dez, you will see that olive oil in baklava is their (healthy) choice as well.
In some areas, we don't brush - we pour. In Evros, at the most northeastern point in Greece, many still make baklava according to their tradition: the Baklava is constructed without brushing the phyllo, and hot olive oil is poured over the entire pastry before baking.
The filling for baklava ranges from the use of one nut (generally almonds or walnuts) to a combination, sometimes including pistachio nuts, which grow profusely on the Greek island of Aegina (say: EH-yee-nah). In northeastern Greece, a version of baklava is made with sesame seeds.
Prep Is Key
Baklava is not the most difficult dish to make (but don't tell anyone when you serve it). It's simply layers of phyllo and filling. The key to success is to have everything ready before starting: all refrigerated ingredients at room temperature; all nuts chopped and measured; all phyllo rolled out (homemade) or defrosted (don't open until ready to use); all brushes ready; and the oven preheated.