Saturday, November 26, 2011

Today was BAKLAVA day


Once I was asked by famous New Yorker Chris Wells to provide a food offering for his avant-guard artsy church service The Secret City. I jumped at the chance to do this (after sulking about the fact I couldn't squeeze a NYC trip out of it). I felt I'd waited my whole life to be asked a favor like this.
The following is the piece I wrote to be read at the service that evening. The theme of the service was WORK. I'm publishing it here, 'cause dang! I am totally going to milk a blog entry out of it. It's not like sloppy seconds. Really.

I picked Baklava.. My choice of food had to jump a few hurdles. Certainly I wanted the offering to reflect a fair amount of work involved in its preparation, but also I wanted to choose something that would travel well and still taste good several days after making it.

Why is it special to me? I grew up with a Greek father who wasn’t very Greek except in his love of Greek foods. I wore my ethnicity as a badge of pride as a young person since being half Greek in my small California desert town made me unusual, but not in a bad way.
Baklava is really a show-off’s dessert. I’d watched my mother end many a baking session in tears as she confronted her inability to master the process. In California, baklava is not unheard of, but there’s no Kalustyan's on every corner either. So when I grew up and discovered a natural affinity in the kitchen, I became the family’s official Baklava-Baker. My mother was thrilled. My father was thrilled. And for many Christmas', I baked Baklava in copious quantities that my parents promptly froze in their giant Kenmore freezer and ate thorough out the year.
I don’t necessarily enjoy making Baklava. It really is a recipe that asks you to follow directions to the letter and, at the same time, have the confidence to make decisions based on past experience.
Every time I think I know more than the recipe---something goes wrong and every time I follow the recipe exactly, something is off as well. It is a tricky balance.
To make Baklava, you really need to give it your undivided attention and a good 3 hours of your day. I can’t even imagine what it would take if you made your own phyllo dough…
To start, the sheets of this paper-thin dough are defrosted overnight. They rapidly dry out and will become so brittle they shatter, so once unwrapped from the packaging, they are kept under a damp towel. If the towel is too damp, the sheets of pastry will get soggy and become impossible to separate from each other. Your mother will often cry at this point.

A pound of butter is melted and clarified (milk solids removed). Each sheet is placed one at a time in the pan and painted with a thin coat of butter. The sheets tear, squirm, move, wrinkle. Cursing ensues.One must work quickly so the dough doesn’t become too wet under the towel or dry out. After the layers of pastry and butter have been built to about 1 inch, (aprox.20 sheets of dough), a sprinkling of nuts, sugar and spices is added between each layer.Now the paper-thin dough is asked to rest on the bumpy nuts and be brushed with butter. More tearing and wrinkles. More swearing and ordering of one’s children to GET THE HELL OUT OF THE KITCHEN. However, after 20-odd years of this, today I discovered that if you paint the sheet with butter BEFORE you lift it and put it on the pile...well. It works a thousand-million times better that's all. And thus today I did not cry or abuse children. When this dough/nut layer is about 1 inch thick, we resume layering just the dough and butter.The pastry is cut into the traditional diamond shapes, a clove stuck in each piece. If you are out of cloves and decide to skip it or you realize no one ever eats the clove anyway and leave it out, your father will complain about it for the next 7 months.Speaking of cloves: They are freaking expensive! I don't know why everyone is bitching and moaning about gas prices ---this jar of cloves was $10.78!

The pan of pastry is baked for an hour. Finally a syrup of honey and sugar that’s infused with cinnamon and citrus peel is poured over the hot pastry. Too much and the baklava will be wet and ooze out syrup. This also makes your father grumble. Too little syrup and the dessert will be dry and layers will separate. After it is cooled, all the syrup will have been absorbed up into the pastry layers. You can remove the pieces from the pan and set on cupcake papers or just onto a plate.
My sources tell me it can be eaten straight from the freezer while standing in your bathrobe, and actually some of these sources really have never eaten it any other way that tells you something.

Mmmm. There they are. All ready for Christmas.

After all the Baklava is packed up, these little bits left in the pan are my FAVORITES. They are simultaneously sopped with honey and crispy-crunchy. You can get plenty ill eating these all up, but it's required. The next day, you can go into the garage and , in your bathrobe, stand in front of the freezer and eat a few of the extras that didn't get shipped off to NYC or your father.

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