Baklava.

Who needs a snappy title when you’re posting about baklava?  It’s the sweetest, most indulgent thing I make and it’s about time I stopped holding out on you.

Baklava has many variations, but essentially, it is crushed nuts between layers of filo pastry soaked in syrup or honey.  You can find baklava everywhere from Syria to Serbia served with tea or the thickest, darkest coffee you can imagine.  Baklava seems to have remained in a number of cultures after the spread of the Ottoman Empire and I’m happy to say that the Greeks continued to make it long after the invaders were gone.  Head to a zaxaroplasteion (a bakery that makes and sells lots of sweet pastries and biscuits) and you’ll have a choice of rich and glossy delights.

Recently, my local community organised an International Night at our parish hall.  The idea was to invite everyone in the area to bring food from their culture and share it.  There was African drumming, a food quiz, cheese tasting, chocolate tasting for children and of course, food from around the world!  It was a great evening.  The highlight for me and my son (The Tomato Monster) was definitely the gołąbki (Polish cabbage rolls).  We shared them and were devastated when they were all gone.  N was happy because she didn’t have any trouble getting him to sleep.  A belly full of Polish food ensured a restful night!

Last year I took along a big pot of beef stifado and a tray of baklava.  This year, I was pushed for time and decided to take my orzo and tomato bake and another tray of baklava.  You see, making bakalava isn’t that difficult, but it isn’t cheap and a full dish of baklava sitting in the house just isn’t conducive to a healthy heart.  Therefore, I only make baklava for larger gatherings.  International Night was the perfect excuse.  It meant that I could finally share with you one of the most special recipes from my kitchen.

There’s good baklava to be had in Mostar. The views aren’t bad either!

I’ve had some brilliant baklava in Bosnia where there are large Muslim communities who continue to make it and serve it with a host of other sweet treats.  The best examples were in Mostar which also had some of the most pleasant views.  Predictably, however, my preference is for the syrup-soaked offerings of Greece and so my recipe is closer to what you’d find there.

Get ready for the sweetest thing on the menu!

Baklava

12 sheets filo pastry

600g caster sugar

250g butter (melted)

200g walnuts

200g almonds

120ml golden syrup or clear honey

2 tblspoons ground cinnamon

1 tspoon vanilla extract

Begin by the chopping the almonds and walnuts in a food processor with the cinnamon.  Don’t turn them to dust.  We just need them finely chopped.  I’ve done this by hand in the past, but it takes longer, makes more mess and the results aren’t as good.

Place a sheet of filo on the bottom of your dish or tray and use a pastry brush to cover it in melted butter.  Repeat with another four sheets.

Now begin to sprinkle the nut mixture over the filo.  Cover this layer with another sheet of pastry and brush it with melted butter.  Continue to cover each layer with nuts and add a layer of filo on top until you run out of the nut mixture.  Butter and layer any remaining pastry and finish by brushing the top with butter.

Taking a very sharp knife, carefully cut the baklava into as many pieces as you like.  Some people prefer to cut diamond shapes.  I cut mine into squares.  Cutting the filo at this point will allow the syrup to soak into it every part of the pastry and nuts.  It is also easier to cut the filo without damaging it before you bake it.

Sprinkle some water over the baklava to stop the filo from wrinkling and slide it into the oven at 180C for about forty minutes.  It should come out golden.  If it starts to burn before the time is up, cover the bakalava with foil.

While the baklava is baking, make the syrup.  Pour the sugar and 450ml water into a small pan with the vanilla and syrup or honey.  Bring it to the boil while stirring then simmer it without stirring for a full five minutes and then set it aside until the baklava is ready.

Remove the baklava from the oven and pour the syrup over it while it is still hot.  It looks like there’s too much syrup, but trust me, the pastry will soak it all up.  Leave the baklava to cool for a few hours.  During this time, the syrup will soak in and become firmer and stickier.

You don’t need to refrigerate baklava, but you can if you wish.  Keep it covered and it’ll last for a fortnight.  (Though I have to say, that I’ve never heard of that happening-  baklava is just too good to keep!)

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Making it mine.

I don’t always feel like blazing a trail.  Every now and again, it’s nice to follow in the footsteps of those who share a passion for similar things and are willing to create and share with the kind of gusto that I secretly hope I have.  My thanks, then, to Nigella Lawson for her commitment to artery-blocking sweet treats and flavours that pack a punch.

Not many Christmas’s ago, the plucky, self-acclaimed domestic goddess shared her recipe for Christmas rocky road bars.  I enjoyed making them and have adapted them each year since to suit my own taste.  This year, I’ve been most happy with the addition of glace ginger.  I knew it would come in handy at some point!  The following recipe is extremely simple, in the same way that the no bake chocolate cake was.  A great one to make with children and so quick to put together.  With only a day or so before the big day, you could easily empty your cupboard of fun stuff and combine it in syrup, butter and chocolate!

Festive rocky road bars (Adapted from Nigella Lawson)

300g dark chocolate

170g butter

125g milk chocolate

100g glace cherrries

100g glace ginger

100g amaretti biscuits

100g almonds

100g marsh mallows

4 tblspoons golden syrup

1 tspoon vanilla extract

Melt the butter and chocolate in a deep saucepan over a low heat.  Stir in the vanilla and the syrup.  Pour in the almonds, cherries and ginger and stir until coated.  Next, crush the biscuits, but not too finely, and mix into the chocolate.

Take the pan off the heat and stir in the marsh mallows.  Tip the mixture into a tin lined with baking paper and refrigerate for a couple of hours until set.  Cut into bars and dust with icing sugar.  Sneak into the kitchen at every opportunity to stuff one into your mouth.

Tomorrow, my sausage and apricot terrine!

Where’s the treacle?

Is the following recipe any good?  Well, put it this way; it’s so good, that my wife went back for a secret slice and accidentally destroyed my beautiful, sugary creation.  It slid off the plate as N was putting it back (with an unnoticable slither missing) and was sadly reduced to a crumpled wreck.  It wasn’t intentional, but the fact remains: this is a treacle tart you’ll go back to again and (if it’s still in tact) again.

As a child, treacle tart held no appeal for me.  It was always served hot (a no-no for Dimitri) and didn’t look particularly exciting.  Nothing looks as exciting as chocolate cake.  Even the name of this super-sweet pudding seemed strange to me.  What on Earth is treacle and why would anyone eat it? 

As an adult, I’ve spent time discovering the food that I rejected at earlier intervals in my youth.  The dishes eaten by my parents and grandparents, the food that was popular before the advent of television chefs and giant supermarkets.  My mum is the Queen of Puddings and describes her favourites with delight and a wonderfully descriptive style.  Listening to her describe a good treacle tart is enough to inspire anyone to make this classic pudding.  The ingredients are simple, widely available and for me, surprising.  For a start, where’s the treacle?

Perfect treacle tart

350g golden syrup

250g shortcrust pastry

125g wholemeal breadcrumbs

125g double cream

1 tspoon vanilla extract

Roll out the pastry and use it to line a 20cm cake tin.  Trim the edges and prick the base with a fork repeatedly.  Put the tin into the fridge for half an hour and set aside the pastry trimmings.

Meanwhile, put the breadcrumbs into a medium bowl and pour in the syrup.  Add the cream and the vanilla extract and mix well.

Use the pastry trimmings to make some shapes that you can place on top of the tart before baking.

After thirty minutes, take the cake tin out of the fridge, pour the mixture into it and place your pastry shapes on top.  Bake on the middle shelf of the oven at 190 degrees Celsius for about thirty-five minutes.  The tart will be golden and just set when ready.

If you value your tongue, let the tart cool for some time before attempting to taste it.  When baking, the tart itself is hotter than the surface of the sun.  I like to serve it with ice-cream, but some double cream would be good too.

If you decide to get a sneaky slice when nobody is looking, be careful not to let the tart slide off the plate.  I forgave my lovely wife, but I got the impression that she felt the loss of the tart more deeply than the pang of guilt.  I don’t blame her!