A Sweet Finish

Posted on March 25, 2013

This year’s Easter dinner will be all about the racks of local lamb I collected from Middle Earth Farm a few weeks ago, and an equally evocative-of-spring side dish of baby artichokes. We have had a long, snowy winter, and I hope the dinner will put us all in a spring state of mind. With a large pile of snow still in the front yard, we’re not there yet.

To honor spring, and to acknowledge the lighter meals ahead of us as we move into warmer weather, I plan to add just a small taste of something sweet to the end of the meal instead of making a more elaborate dessert. In keeping with the Mediterranean theme, baklava seems exactly right.

Classic baklava – layers of phyllo pastry and ground nuts baked and doused with a honey syrup – is a treat that comes to Greek tables following the most special of occasions. At Christmas (I learned while chatting with two shop clerks last December), many bakers construct a baklava with thirty-three layers of the flaky pastry to represent the age of Christ at his death. For Easter (I learned more recently while researching recipes for the confection), bakers will often make the dish with forty layers for the forty days of Lent. On any of the special occasions, the treat is cut into small squares or diamonds and enjoyed after a large meal, often lamb, one last sweet little bite with a cup of coffee.

Easter, though, wouldn’t be Easter without a bit of chocolate. The days of chocolate deliveries via  bunny are behind me, but I wondered if I could combine the taste of chocolate into a classic baklava to keep that spirit of the Easter basket alive.

I found a good starting place in a recipe from the archives of Food & Wine magazine. The recipe, Chocolate-Hazelnut Baklava, hails from the pastry chef at Oleana, Ana Sortun’s Cambridge, Massachusetts restaurant. I made some changes to Maura Kilpatrick’s recipe: I substituted easy-to-prepare and much more prevalent walnuts for the tough-skinned, sometimes hard-to-find whole hazelnuts; I concocted a syrup with less honey and sugar than what was called for; and I cut the large triangles in half again to achieve the smaller sweet bite I was looking for. One tip in the original recipe that I liked and followed was to infuse the soaking syrup with cocoa nibs, adding a few strips of fragrant orange peel for good measure. You can, of course, follow the link to the original recipe, but mine is less sweet and I like baklava this way.

Phyllo can be a bear to work with. Thawing the sheets completely inside their packaging kept them supple enough to unroll without tearing or breakage. Once laid flat, I found it best to keep the stack sandwiched between lightly dampened clean kitchen towels (too wet, and the pastry will begin to turn to mush). Work quickly and replace the towel after lifting off each sheet of phyllo.

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If a sheet does tear as you lift it or brush it with butter, it won’t matter much to the finished dish. Just fit the broken edges together and continue on.

Speaking of butter, a light olive oil can be used in place of the butter for a heart healthier version.

Chocolate Baklava for Easter

  • 1 pound walnuts
  • 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 2/3 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1 package phyllo dough
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
  • 5 strips of orange zest (optional)
  • ¼ cup cocoa nibs (optional)
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2/3 cup honey

Preheat the oven to 350°.

Place the walnuts in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse until coarsely chopped.

Add to the work bowl the chocolate, 2/3 cup of the sugar, and the cinnamon, and pulse until the chocolate and nuts are finely chopped and the same size. Set the filling aside.

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Unwrap the phyllo and cover place between lightly damp towels. Generously butter a 9-by-13-inch metal baking pan. Butter and stack 8 sheets of phyllo. Ease the stack into the pan. Sprinkle about 2 cups of the filling over the phyllo.

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Butter and stack 2 more phyllo sheets; fold them in half crosswise and place over the filling. Sprinkle on another 2 cups of the filling. Top with 2 more buttered, folded sheets and 2 cups of filling. Butter and stack 3 more phyllo sheets, fold them in half and place over the filling.

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Fold in the overhanging phyllo over the top and brush the entire surface generously with butter. Using a sharp knife or a bench knife, cut the baklava (through the top and bottom) into 3-inch squares (two cuts lengthwise, three cuts across) Cut each square in half, and then in half again to make small triangles.

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Bake the baklava for 25 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 300° and bake for 50 minutes longer, until golden.

As the baklava bakes, place the cocoa nibs and orange zest in a generous piece of cheesecloth. Gather up the corners to enclose these and tie with kitchen string to seal. Add the cheesecloth sachet to a medium sauce pan along with the water, honey and the remaining 2 cups of sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to combine. Simmer over moderate heat for 10 minutes. Remove the cheesecloth sachet.

Remove the finished baklava from the oven and immediately ladle the hot syrup over the hot baklava and let stand until completely cool, at least 4 hours and preferably overnight.

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©2013  Jane A. Ward