I don't know why I never tried this stuff as a kid. I wasn't a very adventurous eater. One time a friend's mom had made a batch of Baklava and offered me a piece. I declined. It sounded too exotic. I was an idiot.
Years later, when we planned Greek for dinner night, I decided to make Baklava because, after reading the recipe, it didn't sound too bad. Having never tried it before myself, I had no baseline to compare the result against. I follow this recipe. Thank you, Donna Townsend. It's equally simple and fucking frustrating to make. I thought I'd outline the process for you.
I'm sorry, I need to explain. The pan, back-middle, contains the melted butter that will be applied to the phyllo dough, front-middle, with the pastry brush, front-left, in the pan, front-right. The chopped nuts, back-right, are sprinkled on after eight sheets of phyllo have been layered. The beer, back-left, should be consumed instead of kicking the dog after your fifth sheet of dough has torn.
Buy whole nuts and chop them by hand with a knife. Don't skimp on this step. The irregularly chopped nuts go from large chunks down to an almost flour texture that lends iteself to the texture of the finished dish. I think this helps bind the sheets together in the final product.
People are scared of phyllo dough. They shouldn't be. If you get scared of the dough, the dough will KILL you. Instead, respect the dough. Boxes of phyllo dough are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you'll get. Ideally, you have a stack of pristine, elastic sheets of impossibly thin dough. What you'll usually find is that part of the stack is ripped making spreading the butter difficult. Spreading the butter and managing the sheets of dough is the absolute most time-consuming part of the process. If someone invented a device for the home cook that would keep butter melted, and apply it in spray form, they would simultaneously simplify the dish and take the fun out of making it. The treatment of the dough and the application of butter simply takes practice. Do it a few times, screw it up, then try again.
A couple thoughts about the butter. First, I don't clarify the butter. But melt the butter far enough that it separates. If you don't it spreads too thick and you use too much. Which brings me to my second thought. Your goal is to use exactly two sticks of butter per pound of phyllo. I used a whole pound of butter once because it spread too thick. The butter didn't do its job of keeping the sheets of phyllo flaky. Instead, the dish simply poached in all the butter.
After laying-up eight sheets of dough and spreading some nuts out, this is what things should look like:
Continue this process until you've used all the dough. Before the assembly goes into the oven, cut the layers into whatever shape you prefer. I've never been able to figure out the nifty triangle shapes you see in some restaurants. I just cut them in squares because, after you eat them, they all come out in the same shape. Am I right? Eh? The pan with the shapes half-way cut.
After the pan goes into the oven, start making the syrup. The instructions are pretty straight-forward about this. One thing I suggest you change. Don't add the vanilla until after the mixture boils for twenty minutes. Add it in ahead of time and some of that vanilla flavor boils off, I feel. The finished product:
Hang in there, and this is a pretty rewarding dish. The hard work is rewarded with a delicious dessert that transports well, stores uncovered and yields marrage proposals.