Monday, November 8, 2010

Hercule’s Love’s Labors Not Lost

Should I have worried when my mother laughed?  Perhaps, but I was undertaking a task that seemed to me of Herculean proportions, and she concurred by saying, “Well, that will be a challenge.”  When I told Resident Spouse of the exchange and the subject, the result was a laugh as well, then the comment, “Well, she’s acknowledging the challenge.”

So what was the cause of all this hilarity?  Baklava.  That ambrosia of the Greeks that I enjoy hugely, but that I've been disappointed with in its commercial form.  And yes, I call it Greek, although they, of that ubiquitous they, say that it is of Turkish origin, I call it Greek, because in the fashion of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” I would have been pilloried in a previous life if I had tried to point to historical evidence that it stemmed from any other culture.  But the analogy of Hercule’s labors is apt.

I have long been intimidated by phyllo dough and the dishes that are made with it.  They seem so delicate and intricate - not two words that can typically be applied to my culinary endeavors.  I am also particularly fond of brie, and when I encountered a phyllo wrapped baked brie accompanied by fresh grapes, apple and crusty bread, I was in heaven.  But this particular delicacy was spendy in restaurants and didn’t fit the budget of a single-income family where one major wage earner was no longer employed.

I hemmed and hawed for many a month, but the wheel of brie found its way into my basket at Costco not long after I had found phyllo dough in the freezer section at the neighborhood grocery.  I figured if I could pull this off, I would have my gourmet experience for a tiny fraction of the cost of my favorite restaurant version (which was made even more spendy by virtue of being in Wyoming with a view of the Tetons at sunset adding to the culinary fireworks).

In short, the baked brie was quite the success, especially when paired with crisp, tart red grapes, pomegranate pearls and a crackly crusted artisan bread.  A full meal deal for less than $10 for the three of us.

But the unexpected star of this story is the baklava.  I used about a quarter of the dough for the brie, but had enough of the package remaining to make a respectable baklava.  And so I set about preparing for my task.

In hindsight there were two things I should have done first: (1) take the dough out of the freezer earlier, and (2) turn up the furnace.  The first, obviously, to ensure the dough was completely defrosted before trying to work with it.  Nothing feels worse than cracking a roll of sheets because you were too impatient to wait.  The second, because, while the packaging said “NO TRANS FATS - NO CHOLESTEROL” the preparation of all things phyllo is with large quantities of melted butter, as in “brush each sheet with melted butter.”  And what difference does the furnace make?  Well, in short, when the house is at 66 degrees F, the melted butter solidifies more quickly than is productive.

So, after separating little strips of broken dough and shredding a few more sheets with a butter brush that was not conveying a liquid, I managed to cover at least the top half of the baking dish with whole or almost whole sheets of dough to camouflage the earlier missteps.

The result?  It turns out that phyllo is much more fun and much more forgiving than I expected.  And my first attempt at baklava was, using my mom’s word, “Beautiful!”


I used the recipe from by Diana Rattray which is inexplicably in their "Southern Food" section along with bourbon balls.  Resident Spouse thinks this makes sense because it does come from the southern Mediterranean.  I added a whole clove in the center of each piece before baking.  Next time I think I will add more lemon.  For phyllo, I used Athens Regular (Thin) phyllo.

For the baked brie, I picked a recipe from  There are 40+ such recipes of various sorts and so there is lots of room for experimentation.  I only used about 1/4 pound of the phyllo because I was having "issues" during my first attempt at working with the stuff.  It seemed a respectable covering once baked...

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