My Aunt Ellie recently passed away. It was rather quick and a shock to all of us when she got sick as we knew her as a very vivacious and lively woman. She was the wife of my dad’s eldest brother, Tony, and they lived in Canada or America throughout my childhood. They would occasionally pass through on their way to Greece/Cyprus, or sometimes he had a conference to attend in England and they would spend more than a few days. I didn’t really know them very well during this time but one thing I always remember is that she had the funniest stories, mostly about crazy things that had happened to her (like greeting a waiter at a reunion thinking he was one of the family, praying aloud for a young person referring to them as ‘he’ only to discover later that ‘he’ was a ‘she’, and many more). I loved that she could laugh at these things and her accounts were extremely entertaining.
Tony and Ellie moved to Cyprus a couple of years before my family did in 1993. I was 15 and finally at an age where my relationship with them began to deepen. One thing I soon learned was that Ellie welcomed everyone into her home with a lot of joy and a full plate of food! Although they moved away the following year, we ended up living in the same town again for about 6 months when I came to the States for my graduate degree in 2002. Every Sunday lunch featured a table full of people she had invited for a delicious meal and a dose of her amazing hospitality. All of my roommates soon loved being invited to Auntie Ellie’s and even when I went alone they would wait eagerly as I came home with several bags of Tupperware packed with leftovers every week. (Greek people always plan food for about 20 more people than they invite and Ellie was no exception!) She and I would have discussions about life and faith, and even though we may not have agreed on everything, and although I would arrive each week to find that she was trying to set me up with whatever single guy from church she could find (without warning me!), I had a lot of fun getting to know her better as a real person and not just ‘some relative that comes to visit.’ I have two very vivid memories of my time with her during this period. The first was when she took me out shopping for 10 hours straight (my feet still hurt thinking about it!), and the second is when she taught me to make her famous baklava rolls. Tony and Ellie moved permanently to Greece in the middle of my first year of grad school. When she passed away this summer, numerous people (around the world!) poured out their happy memories of her cooking and hospitality among many other qualities they admired in her. I only hope I have impacted half the number of people that shared their thoughts after her passing.
I have carried on her baklava legacy by making these rolls for tons of friends throughout the States and have helped teach others how to make them too. It was a little sad making these and writing about this recipe but I hope it will be one that you greatly enjoy.
One thing every one should know is that there is no rule to making baklava. Much like eliopita (olive bread), it is primarily based on people’s family recipes. However, the basic formula is always a combination of nuts, sugar, spices, phyllo dough, and syrup (honey or sugar). This is Ellie’s recipe, which uses almonds, and the only change I have made is that I don’t include rose water because it’s an acquired taste and not always popular with non-Greeks.
When I made Baklava this week, I decided to try a chocolate version as well as Ellie’s classic, so I have included both below.
(Makes about 40 pieces)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
squirt of lemon juice
1 1/2 cup almonds
2/3 cup of sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
pinch of salt
1 tbsp water or syrup.
(For Chocolate Baklava: add 1 cup of very dark chocolate chips)
1 box of Phyllo dough (two rolls)
3 sticks of unsalted butter
Yes, there is a lot of butter and sugar in this recipe. This is one dessert that you cannot skimp on and have a great result. However, it does make 40 small rolls, so instead of eating a whole square as with normal Baklava, you can nibble up a couple of pieces. They also keep for a week in the fridge so there is no need to eat them all at once! And, they make great gifts and are perfect for pot lucks.
Place all syrup ingredients into a small pan, mix well and then put on low heat and gently simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set aside to cool.
Combine nuts, sugar and spices into food processor and slightly pulse. Do not pulverize the almonds – you just want them to be chopped down a bit. Transfer into a bowl and stir in water/syrup to help bind the mixture together.
If you are making the chocolate version, pulse the chocolate chips first to break them down a bit and then add the almonds and continue as above. Because of all the sugar in this recipe, it is important to use very dark chocolate. My favourite at the moment is Guittard extra dark. Not only are they delicious, but they care about cocoa farmers and the environment.
Melt 1 stick of butter in a microwave safe bowl for 40 seconds. It should be melted but not really hot.
Brush the bottom of your baking pan with butter to prevent sticking during baking. You can spray the bottom if you like, but I find this actually changes the flavour and the bubbling filling that leaks onto the pan makes the baklava stick.
Set up your rolling station with your filling and butter bowls on one side, and your sheets of phyllo dough on the other. I like to roll my baklava on a cutting board in the middle.
Phyllo dough is rather intimidating. One of the main problems people have is that the very thin sheets tend to dry out if not used swiftly. However, if it gets damp, the sheets will stick together and be impossible to separate. Here are a few tips to help you manage this delicate balance
- Get good quality phyllo dough (Athens is pretty good and easy to find at major grocery stores)
- I recommend defrosting the dough overnight in the fridge. I find it tends to get wet on the sides when defrosting at room temperature and this makes it harder to work with.
- Only open one of the rolled packets at a time.
- Be gentle. If the sheet tears, don’t panic, you can always ‘glue it’ back together with the butter.
- Some suggest placing a layer of plastic wrap over the sheets you are not using and then a damp towel on top to help prevent the dough drying out in the air. (Be careful to make sure the dough is completely covered in the plastic wrap so it doesn’t get wet). I have worked often enough with the dough that I find this just slows me down, but if you have never used phyllo before, I recommend trying this method.
Lay out 1 sheet of Phyllo. Using a pastry brush, spread some butter all over. You don’t want the sheet to be saturated, just covered. I usually put on a couple of globs and then spread the butter around, making sure to cover all the edges and corners.
Lay a second sheet of phyllo over the top and butter again. Spoon a small amount of the filling mixture in a line along the bottom of the sheet. Leave a tiny gap at the edges because the filling will bubble up and expand.
Roll up tightly to the very top
and then slice into three sections.
Brush the top with more butter and place tightly together on the baking sheet.
It is tempting to skip this step because it means more butter but this serves an important purpose other than amazing flavour. As the rolls sit and you continue to work, they can get dried out, and the butter helps to keep them moist so make sure to lightly coat the edges especially. It also, helps them brown in the oven much like an egg wash.
Repeat until you are out of filling mixture. Melt more butter as needed, one stick at a time.
If you chose to do both flavours of Baklava, make sure you use two separate pans so chocolate doesn’t leak onto the plain ones.
Make sure they are all tightly snuggled into the pan. This is important to ensure that your edges don’t burn (especially for the chocolate ones).
Place in the oven at 350 for 50-60 minutes. They should be golden brown. Remove and immediately pour the cold syrup over the top.
The syrup needs to be cold and the baklava piping hot so that the syrup is absorbed well without making the baklava soggy.
Allow to cool and then serve. These keep for a week in a sealed container in the fridge. Just remove the amount to be eaten and bring to room temperature before serving.