Saturday, November 05, 2005

Baklava with Crème Pâtissière

There are probably as many claims to the origin of baklava as there are Middle Eastern countries. Therefore, I will not argue here that it has Turkish origin. What I will say, however, is that it is probably the most popular dessert in Turkey, with many pastry shops specializing in different kinds of baklava in every Turkish city. My little research on the history of baklava revealed that this interest in baklava goes all the way back to the Ottoman times, and that Turks have a rightful claim to the perfection of baklava if not to its creation. In fact, for four hundred years from 16th Century on, until the decline of Ottoman Empire in 19th Century, the kitchens of Imperial Ottoman Palace in Constantinople became the ultimate culinary hub of the empire ... Armenian, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian and occasionally Serbian, Hungarian or even French chefs were brought to Constantinople, to be employed at the kitchens of the wealthy. These chefs contributed enormously to the interaction and to the refinement of the art of cooking and pastry-making. Towards the end of 19th Century, small pastry-shops started to appear in Constantinople and in major Provincial capitals, to cater the middle class, but the Ottoman Palace have always remained the top culinary "academy" of the Empire, until its end in 1923. It was in this environment that baklava evolved from its humble origins of Assyrian times to what it is today. (For more information on the history of baklava, refer to this link where the italicized text above was also taken from.)

Zooming back from Ottoman palaces to my house, Yurdaer, who is by no means a picky eater otherwise, is quite discriminating when it comes to his baklava. When we lived in California, I felt that my trials at home with store-purchased Phyllo dough did not really satisfy him; and surely enough, when interrogated, he confessed that there seemed to be something lacking in taste. After we moved to NY, he was happy to find out that he could buy baklava --the way he likes it-- from the Turkish bakeries in Paterson, NJ. Due to his lack of appreciation coupled with my lack of interest in syrupy desserts, I have not attempted to make baklava at home until I chanced upon this recipe (from Ayla Esen Algar's Turkish Cooking) with a twist: Instead of the traditional nut filling, this one comes with a crème pâtissière filling. You see, since it is not a traditional baklava, it can not be compared unfavorably to Paterson baklavas. Not surprisingly, Yurdaer loves this dessert, and it is one of my fallback recipes whenever I have to use up egg yolks left over from a baking project using only the whites.

Crème Pâtissière Filling:
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/4 c sugar
  • 2 c hot milk
  • 1/2 c flour
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 1/2 c sugar
  • 1 c water
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 c butter, melted
  • 1 lb thin phyllo pastry
For the filling, beat the egg yolks and sugar together until thick and pale yellow. Mix in the flour and blend well. Gradually stir in the hot milk and cook, whisking with a wire whisk, until the mixture is thick and bubbly. Reduce the heat to low and cook for a few minutes more. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla.

Make the syrup by mixing the water with the sugar and bringing it to a boil. Add the lemon juice and simmer for 5 minutes more. Cool.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Brush a 9"x13" pan with butter. Unfold the phyllo pastry. Take one sheet at a time, keeping the remaining shets covered to prevent them from drying out. Place half of one sheet in the baking pan and brush with melted butter. Fold the other half of pastry shhet over the first half. Brush it with melted butter. Continue this way to build up layers until you use up half the package. At this point, spread the filling evenly over the phyllo layers, and continue with the remaining phyllo sheets until they are all layered in the manner described earlier. When done, press the sheets gently with your hands, and cut the baklava into 30 or more rectangular pieces. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 300F, place a piece of aliminum foil loosely over the baklava, and continue baking for another 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and pour the cold syrup on the hot baklava. (Alternatively, you can pour the hot syrup on the cool baklava.) Let stand for several hours and recut the pieces before serving.