Pastries filled with new ideas

Baklava: Cooks are putting tasty tidbits between the dessert's paper-thin layers.

August 04, 1999|By Charles Perry, | Charles Perry,,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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

Understandably. They'd made pan after pan of baklava and spanakopita. They invented all sorts of flaky brie balls and cunning hors d'oeuvre cups in their quest to take phyllo to the limit.

So when California cuisine exploded onto the scene in the '80s, phyllo was ungraciously ignored, like the guest who shows up at the party a couple of hours before the crowd. But foodies actually had 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 phyllo to butter itself. These days, you can buy flavored and colored phyllos, which expand the horizons further. Even in the tradition-minded Middle East, cooks have experimented with new ideas for baklava fillings.

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. Because this is the pistachio capital of Turkey, Cagdas' window (like the window of every other pastry shop in town) is 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 phyllo.

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.

It's fascinating to watch a traditional phyllo factory at work. Some workers make dough with a little oil in it, knead it hard and divide it into golf balls. 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. Phyllo also can 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 phyllo -- 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 delicate crispness of a perfect baklava.

However, novel fillings are being tried in that part of the world, including coconut, candied orange zest, candied cherries and even pineapple preserves.

And the availability of chocolate phyllo opens a whole new dimension in baklava. Chocolate with peanuts! Chocolate with coconut! In effect, you could re-create your favorite candy bar wrapped in an ethereal flaky pastry.

Packet Baklava (Bohca Baklava)

Makes 40 pieces

1 (26-sheet) package phyllo

3/4 cup crushed pistachios

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter


1 1/2 cups sugar

2 cups water

juice of 1 lemon

Thaw phyllo and unroll. Put 13 sheets on work surface and cover rest with very slightly dampened cloth. Using very sharp knife, cut phyllo 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 17-inch-by-12-inch jellyroll pan. Repeat with remaining 13 sheets phyllo. Divide pistachios among packets.

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