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Hush: The Sound of Perfect Pastry

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the ‘60s, foodies discovered filo. In the ‘70s, they started to get a little tired of it.

Understandably. They’d made pan after pan of baklava and spanakopita. They’d rolled up cigar pastries by the bushel. They’d folded boreks without end. They’d erected Moroccan bestila pies and invented all sorts of flaky Brie balls and cunning hors d’oeuvre cups in their quest to take filo to the limit.

So when California Cuisine exploded onto the scene in the ‘80s, filo was ungraciously ignored, like the guest who shows up at the party a couple of hours before the crowd. But foodies had actually gotten nowhere near the end of its possibilities.

It turns out that there are more shapes for this paper-thin pastry than they’d ever tried, and more cooking techniques. You don’t have to butter each sheet of dough, for instance; you can get the filo to butter itself. These days, you can buy flavored and colored filos, which expand the horizons further. Even in the tradition-minded Middle East, cooks have experimented with new ideas for baklava fillings.

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The tradition is far more various than we knew in the first place. Cooks in the ‘70s usually drenched their baklava with syrup (or honey, though it’s not as traditional as syrup), but the favorite baklava in Turkey is “dry” baklava (kuru baklava), a crisp, lightly syruped variety associated with the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. All over the country, you find kuru baklava shops run by a Gaziantep family named Gulluoglu.

In Gaziantep itself, many connoisseurs think the best baklava comes from the shop of Burhan Cagdas. Since this is the pistachio capital of Turkey, Cagdas’ window (like the window of every other pastry shop in town) is all more or less green, from ordinary baklava with a mossy tone blushing through the pastry to lurid green cylinders called dolama, which are just a whole lot of sweet pistachio paste wrapped up in a single sheet of filo.

There’s the familiar baklava cut into diamond shapes, each a plump golden mound shading to tan at the top, and there’s havuc dilimi (“carrot-shaped”) baklava, cut in narrow pie wedges about 9 inches long; the different shape means the top bakes up higher and crisper. Sobiyet is like a triangular borek stuffed with walnuts and pastry cream.

Gaziantep has its own version of bulbul yuvasi (nightingales’ nests). In Istanbul, these are cigar-shaped pistachio baklavas coiled into circles and sprinkled with more pistachios in the middle of the “nest.” In Gaziantep, the “cigars” are rolled empty, without a filling, to make them extra-crisp, and they’re crowded into the pan with each “nest” resting partly on its neighbor to the left. And that’s just the beginning of the shapes.

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Burhan Cagdas is a third-generation pastry-maker, so he’s full of baklava lore. He tells a story about a feud between two 19th century baklava dynasties that ended when the son of one family married the daughter of the other. As part of the wedding formalities, he took his new in-laws a tray of baklava, and when he left, the father of the bride said to his own sons, “A gold coin to whoever can tell me what was wrong with that baklava.”

“The syrup was too thick,” said one. “The pastry was too damp,” said another. “They hadn’t clarified the butter properly,” said a third, and so on, until all seven sons had had their say.

“No,” said the father. “This is the correct answer: When you bite into a baklava, it should go hush, but that one went moojook.”

That’s a little baklava humor for you. Actually, the point of the story is that all the sons’ criticisms were correct, and they could have been summed up as a question of hush--a delicate, yielding crispness in which you can practically feel each layer of filo as you bite through the pastry--versus a clumsy, soggy moojook.

It’s fascinating to watch a traditional filo factory at work. Some workers make dough with a little oil in it, knead it hard and divide it into golf balls. Then others roll each ball into a circular sheet and stack up a dozen of them, putting plenty of cornstarch between the layers to absorb the moisture that will be forced out of the dough when the stack is rolled.

Then they roll the whole stack several times until the sheets are paper-thin, separating them and dusting them with more cornstarch every time. Filo can also be made by stretching the dough on a table or by a combination of rolling and stretching. The process is much easier today but it still involves a lot of cornstarch.

This laborious product was probably invented by the chefs of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, who had plenty of time on their hands. Baklava actually predates filo--east of Turkey, there are primitive baklavas made with plain old noodle paste, seven layers of dough to six of ground nuts. Baklava appears to be the Central Asian idea of layered bread meeting the Middle Eastern idea filling a baked pastry with nuts.

The Middle East has remained loyal to the nut filling, while central Europe has preferred to stuff its strudels with fruit. This may be because only one fruit, the date, is associated with pastry in the Middle East, but it’s also true that fruit fillings are moist and tend to undermine the hard-won hush of a perfect baklava.

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However, novel fillings are being tried in that part of the world. Necip Erturk (known in Turkey simply as Necip Usta: Master Chef Necip) suggests coconut, candied orange zest, candied cherries and even pineapple preserves.

And the availability of chocolate filo opens a whole new dimensions in baklava. Chocolate with peanuts! Chocolate with coconut! In effect, you could recreate your favorite candy bar wrapped in an ethereal flaky pastry that goes hush!

Packet Baklava (Bohca Baklava)

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours

In most baklava recipes, the sheets of filo separate because they have been buttered before being stacked. This one, adapted from “Turk Tatli Sanati” by Necip (Erturk) Usta (Remzi Kitabevi, Istanbul, 1988), bakes square filo packets with enough melted butter that they are automatically buttered. The result is very rich and easier to make than other individual baklavas.

BAKLAVA

1 (26-sheet) package filo

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter

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3/4 cup crushed pistachios

* Thaw filo and unroll. Put 13 sheets on work surface and cover rest with very slightly dampened cloth. Using very sharp knife, cut filo into 20 (3-inch) squares, discarding 1 inch trim from short side. Fold 4 corners of each square to meet in center, making envelope. Set squares in 17x12-inch jellyroll pan. Repeat with remaining 13 sheets filo. Divide pistachios among packets.

* Heat butter in small saucepan until hot to the touch. Pour butter into pan, making sure it gets to every part. Bake at 400 degrees until done, about 20 minutes.

SYRUP

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 cups water

Juice of 1 lemon

* Dissolve sugar in water. Add lemon juice and boil 2 minutes.

ASSEMBLY

* Remove filo from oven. Tip pan to drain off excess butter.

* Return tray to oven 1 minute, then remove from oven. Just before serving, pour boiling Syrup into tray.

40 pieces. Each piece:

153 calories; 130 mg sodium; 19 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 19 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.04 gram fiber.

Baklava With Orange Peel Filling (Portakalli Baklava)

Active Work Time: 40 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours

This recipe also comes from Necip Usta’s book.

ORANGE PEEL FILLING

Peel of 9 oranges

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 cups water

* Boil peel, sugar and water 30 minutes. Drain peel well and reserve peel and 1/2 cup syrup.

PASTRY

1 (26-sheet) package filo

2 cups clarified butter

* Thaw filo and unroll. Separate 3 sheets of filo and keep rest covered with lightly dampened cloth. Divide Orange Peel Filling in 8 equal parts. Spread 1 part along short (12-inch) edge of sheets and roll up. Place roll in 17x12-inch jellyroll pan with sides at least 1 inch high. Repeat with remaining sheets of filo and Orange Peel Filling. Using sharp knife, make 5 cuts across rolls, making 48 pieces altogether.

* Heat butter in small saucepan until hot to the touch and spread to all parts of the tray. Bake at 400 degrees until lightly browned, 30 to 35 minutes.

SYRUP

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups water

Reserved 1/2 cup syrup from orange peel

Juice of 1/4 lemon

* Boil sugar, water, syrup and lemon juice 2 minutes.

* When baklava is done, remove baking dish from oven and drain off excess butter. Just before serving, pour in Syrup.

48 pieces. Each piece: 130 calories; 42 mg sodium; 21 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0 fiber.

Chocolate Baklava

Active Work Time: 45 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours 30 minutes

This recipe comes from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, Chatsworth. For chocolate filo, see “Where To Get It.”

SYRUP

3 1/2 cups sugar

2 cups water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3 cloves

1 orange, cut in half

* Boil sugar, water, lemon juice, cloves and orange until 3 1/2 cups liquid remain, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool.

FILLING

2 1/2 cups chopped almonds

2 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

3 tablespoons brandy

1 1/2 cups mini chocolate chips

* Mix almonds, walnuts, cinnamon, brandy and chocolate chips.

ASSEMBLY

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1 pound chocolate filo

* Melt butter and brush over sides and bottom of 17x12-inch jellyroll pan.

* Thaw filo and unroll. Set aside 10 sheets for top layer. Place 6 to 8 sheets in pan, brushing each layer with butter. Sprinkle with 1/2 of Filling. Cover with 3 sheets filo, brushing each with butter. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 of Filling. Top with reserved 10 sheets, brushing each with butter.

* Cut through baklava nearly to pan with sharp knife to make 48 diamond shapes.

* Bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes. Remove from oven and pour Syrup over while still hot.

48 pieces. Each piece: 235 calories; 93 mg sodium; 10 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.64 gram fiber.

Baklava With Coconut Filling

Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

COCONUT FILLING

3 1/2 cups shredded coconut

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon water

* Mix coconut, sugar and water.

PASTRY

1 (26-sheet) package filo

1 cup clarified butter

* Thaw filo and unroll. Separate 13 layers of filo, brush with melted butter and stack up in 17x12-inch jellyroll pan. Spread with Coconut Filling. Repeat with remaining filo and butter. Cut diamond pattern in pastry with sharp knife, cutting right down to tray. Bake at 400 degrees until lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes.

SYRUP

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup water

Juice of 1/2 lemon

* Boil sugar, water and lemon juice 2 minutes.

* When baklava is done, remove from oven and add Syrup to tray while hot. Serve when cool.

48 pieces. Each piece:

117 calories; 94 mg sodium; 10 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.11 gram fiber.

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Chocolate Tryouts

To taste a chocolate baklava, try the recipe in this issue or visit the Valley Greek Festival, which will be held Monday--Memorial Day--at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 9501 Balboa Blvd., Northridge. Many Greek pastries will be available, as will sundaes topped with baklava.

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WHERE TO GET IT

Pegasus filo is available fresh to the food service industry and frozen in markets. A one-pound box (about 26 sheets) runs $2 to $4. It comes in five varieties: traditional, village style (a sturdier thickness for use in finger foods) and three flavors: chocolate, pistachio and corn. The Pegasus brand is available at the following stores:

* Jon’s Markets, selected Southland locations.

* Bay Cities Importing, 1517 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica.

* V&K; Distributing Co., 3407 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank.

* Greek Market & Deli, 6210 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach.

* Greek House Importing, 7856 E. Firestone Blvd., Downey.

* Ari’s Deli & Market, 10515 McFadden Blvd., Garden Grove.

* European Market & Deli, 4135 Park Blvd., San Diego.


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