Saturday, December 27, 2008
Baklava - vegan style!
Baklava is one of those desserts that seem so intensely difficult to make that few people try. Trust me: you can do this. Working with Phyllo dough is a little intimidating at first because speed is of the essence to keep it from drying out. But really you don't have to move at lightening speed to do this - just remember to cover the dough with plastic wrap and a damp towel to keep it from drying out, stay calm and breathe!!!
There are two key ingredients that also make Baklava non-vegan 1) Butter and 2) Honey. People swear you need these to make it 'real' Baklava. Guess again. Earth Balance makes insane vegan 'butter' - the taste is all there. They even make one with olive oil now and because my local store had run out of the usual variety I use I tried the olive oil one. I figured olive oil = Mediterranean and this dessert is nothing if not Mediterranean, whether it originated in Turkey or in Greece is up for debate - but not by me! The Earth Balance worked beautifully.
Now the honey issue. Personally I like honey and I use it. I know, I know: scandal. But I would never suggest that because I have no issues with honey that it is something ALL vegans should use. NEVER. It's a personal choice. My choice is to use it. BUT I decided to make my Baklava without honey to see how it would work. It's been at least 10 years since I made Baklava so I was a little bit afraid I wasn't familiar enough with making it to fiddle with recipes, but I gave it a shot. It came out just great! And totally, completely Vegan.
So if you want to use honey, please go for it. IF you are strongly opposed to it, the following may be the answer!
1 lbs finely chopped nuts (I used a mix of walnuts, pecans and pistachios but any nuts will do)
2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. ground cloves
1/8 t. allspice
1/4 C. sugar
1 lbs package Phyllo dough (reserve 6-8 sheets for top layer)
1 C. melted Earth Balance (you may need more or less depending on how you brush it on)
1 C. water
1 C. sugar
1/2 C. dark Agave Syrup*
1 T. lemon juice
zest of one large lemon
2 t. Almond extract*
1 t. Vanilla extract
You will need a 9 x 12 pan (or thereabouts) that is at least 2-3 inches deep. You will also need a pastry brush.
The first thing you want to do is make the syrup so it has plenty of time to cool while the pastry is in the oven. This is where the honey usually goes and I replaced it with dark Agave syrup. *(Flavored agave syrup is showing up on the shelves, so it you find one flavored with Amaretto you don't need to use the almond extract because it's in there already.) Normally you would put in about a cup of honey, but using the agave, almond and lemon gives a 'sort of' approximation of honey flavor.
Put the water and sugar into a saucepan and bring to a slight boil cooking until the sugar is fully dissolved. Reduce the heat and add the lemon juice, zest, Agave and extract(s). Cook over a very low heat for approximately 20 minutes until syrup begins to thicken up. Then remove from heat and allow to cool fully - you can pop it into the fridge to cool it that's fine.
Now preheat your oven to 350° and melt your 'butter'.
Prep the filling by thoroughly mixing the nuts, spices and sugar together in a large bowl. Depending on how sweet you like things you can add more sugar here or omit it entirely. Taste the syrup and see if the lemon makes it too tart for you, if it is you want to put more sugar in the nut mixture.
With a pastry brush lightly butter the bottom and sides of your baking pan. Open your package of Phyllo dough, pull out one sheet and promptly reroll the rest and/or cover with plastic and a damp towel. Take one thin sheet of dough and lay it in the bottom of the baking pan. Gently, but quickly brush the dough with melted butter. The end of the sheets of Phyllo will begin to dry out very quickly so you should start at the ends and butter 'in'. And don't worry if you miss a few spots - you don't have to butter every single centimeter. If your sheets are very large you can either cut them or save time by simply laying half over the pan, buttering it and then folding the other half over (giving you two layers of dough very quickly without having to open the towel-covered 'stash') and buttering that portion. Also do not fret if you tear a sheet here and there while buttering - it happens! It will be fine.
Repeat the layering and buttering of the dough until you have between 6-8 layers of dough on the bottom of your pan. If there are edges sticking to the sides of the pan just push them down as they happen with the edge of your pastry brush. The more 'crumpled' the dough is the more it will flake and layer when it cooks - so don't worry that you will mess it up. You won't!
Once you have the bottom layer of dough done take a couple of handsful of the nut mixture and sprinkle a VERY thin layer across the entire pan - covering all the dough. Remember you will be cutting this into small pieces and you want every piece to have full layers of nuts. Now layer another sheet of dough on top of the nut mixture (this is where some tearing can happen because of the nuts - but again - it's fine the next sheet will cover for you!) and repeat the buttering layering process until you have 2-6 layers of dough which you will top with nuts again and continue this process until you are out of nuts. For reference I only did 2-3 layers of dough between layers of nuts and as you can see in the photos that doesn't give you a really defined 'layer' look. So I would err on the side of more rather than less for the dough layers - 2 is the absolute minimum. Just be sure to reserve about 8 sheets for the final top layer of dough so that you get that nice flaky pastry top.
Once you have the top layers done you can pour any remaining 'butter' right on top of the whole dish.
Important step coming up.
You MUST, absolutely MUST cut the baklava BEFORE you put it in the oven. If you miss this step you will end up with one giant baklava and trust me, that flaky crust will not cut well once it's been baked. So please: cut before cooking! And use the sharpest knife you have.
You can cut squares or try angles for a fancier look - either way is totally fine. If it's your first time, you may want to stick to the squares/rectangles because the diamond shape can be a little tricky as the top layers of dough are going to try very hard to slip away from you. Baklava - it's a feisty dessert.
When you are cutting through make sure you go almost to the bottom of the pan but try not to completely cut the bottom layer because a) the syrup will stay IN the pastry if it has no where else to go: if you cut all the way through you'll have a layer of syrup on the bottom of your pan and while that's still fine, it's not really what you want. So cut almost all the way through (do your best). b) You will cut all the way through thoroughly after everything is done.
This is what it looks like before it goes into the oven - after you've cut it.
Same thing - just a closer look (see how some of the top layers have left their assigned seats? that's okay!)
Put the pan into the oven - top shelf if possible to avoid burning the bottom layers - for approximately 50 minutes or until the top is a nice golden brown. Give it a quick look after about 30 minutes - some ovens may be quicker and you don't want it to burn after all that layering and buttering work you've just done!
There it is all golden and pretty!
Now take your cooled syrup and pour it evenly all over the top of the baklava right away while it is still hot from the oven. You may get some pops and hisses from the cool meeting the hot, but that's fine. And fun!
This is how it looks after the syrup is poured on. Shinier. Now you must let the whole thing cool fully. Leave at room temperature to do this part of the cooling and don't cover it with anything or it can get soggy. Nobody wants soggy Baklava! Crispy tops is part of the fun here.
After it's thoroughly cooled (a few hours) you can cut all all the way through and serve! However the longer you can let it sit and kind of marinate the better - so if you can wait until the next day that's good. Of course you can do a sampling - just to make sure you like it before you serve it up.... you'll like it.