“Easy baklava recipe” was the headline. It looked delicious.
I’d never made it before. We were having dinner with our Palestinian neighbor and I wanted to bring something from his side of the world. Of course, he’d lived here for many decades and is an American citizen, but still. Why not give it a try?
The ingredients were pretty straightforward: phyllo dough, honey, sugar, cinnamon, nuts and butter. The longer I perused the list, the tastier it sounded.
“I don’t know,” I said to M. “Do we want to risk offering to bring something to dinner we’ve never made before?”
M. shrugged it off. “How hard could it be? It says right here that it’s easy.”
We laid out all the appropriate tools. Mixed together the honey, water and sugar, brought it to a boil. Melted the butter. Put cinnamon in the ground nuts. And dampened some clean dishtowels to keep the phyllo moist.
Phyllo is paper-thin and we are not the most delicate two people in the world. M. thinks just about anything can be fixed with a little muscle and enthusiasm, and the only dainty thing about me is… well, nothing. Us and phyllo dough? A recipe, alright, a recipe for disaster.
But, there’s no harm in learning something new, right? RIGHT?
The phyllo had to be cut to fit our 13 x 9 pan and, well, let’s just say it tears easier than it cuts, and not evenly. My vision of perfectly-fitting the phyllo dough into the pan crashed and burned as the stuff ripped in ragged pieces. Pretty soon we had a stack of uneven pieces as well as some larger flat ones that survived our man-handling. They looked prettier.
“How do people work with this?” I asked M. as he handed me layer after layer of dough, some of it wrapped around itself, some wrapped around his hand and then, some wrapped around my hand. How did anyone work with this stuff?
Each layer had to be carefully cut, laid in place then brushed with melted butter. Have you tried to brush one layer of delicate phyllo with butter? Have you succeeded? You are more dextrous than I, then.
“There’s no way I can brush each layer,” I insisted. “It’s impossible. The dough just pulls up in folds. I’ll brush every few layers with butter instead.”
M. laughed. “Sure, Carol. They’ve been making this stuff for what, thousands of years? And you’re going to tell them there’s a better way?”
“Well, there is!”
After a couple layers our scrap pile of scraggy dough was heaping up. So, M suggested we use the ragged strips to augment those full sheets that had survived, like making lasagna. Four strips made one layer that covered the length and width of the pan and really, it wouldn’t even be noticeable, he reasoned, once we had it out of the oven.
Sounded good to me, less waste. He handed me some dough.
“Umm, that’s not dough,” I said. “It’s a piece of paper towel.”
“Just pour some honey over it, no one will know the difference,” he said.
I looked up from my dough. He looked back, we both looked at the pan and then we began laughing.
Hard. So hard that I could hardly hold myself together for laughing.
I tore another of what had been a pristine sheet of phyllo. I looked down again at the uneven mess that was my baklava-in-progress and so did he, as I tried to place a strip down and brush it with melted butter. We convulsed in more laughter.
“I have to take a photo,” I said, then texted it to my BFFs. I mean, that pan looked like a hot mess.
When we calmed down, I finished layering, brushing and sprinkling nuts and cinnamon and gave it a critical look.
It was pretty sloppy, especially around the edges. But, I figured we’d get enough pretty triangles from the better looking center to bring to dinner for six. I was fairly certain it contained no paper towel pieces.
This was the point that we were to cut the unbaked baklava so as to make those familiar little triangles. I looked at the recipe.
“We make four long cuts then cut on the diagonal,” I said.
M. looked puzzled. “How would that work?” He grabbed a pen and paper and sketched it out. We saw no little triangles.
“I can’t believe my geometry has left me,” he groused. M did his first year of college at the very difficult Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where budding engineers had to study six days a week just to get by. After noting that all his friends were partying at other schools, schools that required significantly less diligence and more partying, he transferred to Syracuse University, where I met him my freshman year.
So he used to know geometry pretty well. Until now.
Since I had no geometry at all (and have gotten along just fine without it) I was no help. So he went to his tool box. “They should be 1.5 inches wide,” he instructed, tape measure in hand.
I cut. Let’s just it didn’t look exactly right.
“Oh,” I said. “We don’t make four cuts, we make three, so that there are four columns. Oh well.”
See, that’s pretty much how I roll these days. The details of a recipe can sometimes be lost and I do what I think it says to do and not what it says, at all. Thank God I know my way around the kitchen enough to compensate for my glaring errors.
The cuts weren’t straight. The columns, therefore, weren’t even. But we powered on.
Next, we had to cut on the diagonal. Our discussion took about ten minutes, after which time we did it M’s way, which is to say we cut each square into two triangles. It was obvious I couldn’t be trusted with a knife so he cut. I held the dough down with my fingertips so the layers wouldn’t come apart.
And we popped it in the oven.
In the end, it turned out beautifully. The lopsided pieces weren’t noticeable in the final product, which was delicious.
I was reminded of counsel I have given my nephews from time to time and that is, life is pretty forgiving when you’re young. Things that don’t go particularly well become invisible in the fullness of time.
And in that way, making baklava is like life. Getting there might be messy, but in the end? The final product usually turns out okay.
Oh, you want a recipe? There are thousands online. Seek and ye shall find.
For Marilyn, who always had faith my life–and my recipes– would turn out fine.