Good friends, recently back from a trip to Greece and Turkey, had us over for dinner last Saturday night. In Istanbul they took a cooking class, and the night's menu took largely from that. After a true feast of lentil soup, courgette fritters, dolmas, and Imam Bayildi, us lucky folks were treated to one platter of pale lokum, and another tray of baklava, cut into quilted diamonds. Not ones to overlook any detail, our hosts prepared Turkish coffee alongside. For the coffee, Michael used the pot they'd brought home, beautiful and small, hammered copper with a long handle, and he scented the brew with cinnamon.
Christa's baklava was a masterwork. Baked to bronze and then lacquered with glaze, it was a marvel of texture. The top pastry shattering and light, the middle thick with nuts, and the bottommost strata solid with crunch. (And the whole far more beautiful than the rustic take I'm presenting.) While not a recipe from the class, Christa said the recipe was closest to Turkish baklava, which was the preferred of those they'd tried. The thing here it seems, is that the Turkish way uses a sugar syrup instead of one with honey, so while sweet, this baklava's flavour is clearer, brighter, more about delicacy and fragrance than tawny warmth. She'd used only cardamom in the filling; the spice rang high and bright, with an emphasis on its floral citrusy-ness. In using clarified butter, even the pastry and nuts came across as cleaner than expected. It was revelatory.
It was a wake up call.
Three days later, I was going over my notes. As I do, most mornings lately. After Sean is off and the boys are away, I click the kettle on for tea. While it steeps, I slice an apple, ideally one with lively crunch and generous juice, and settle the pieces in my bowl, leaving a space into which is nudged a spoon's worth of almond butter for dipping. Mug and bowl accompany me up the stairs, to the front of the house, where the computer sits on a desk beside a window that looks out to trees. The light is stained turmeric in October. Often I'll see a particular elderly couple walking on the street below. They both wear red coats. He is partial to flat caps that remind me of my dad's. They're part of this habit. Then, in between bites of apple, I settle in with my writing notebook.
The first notebook of any importance in my life was when I was a kid and used to keep an account of my dreams, as they happened, when still in that wild and woollen place of half-asleep. It was rarely effective, though I vaguely recall one from early elementary school involving a class trip, a UFO, and Duran Duran.
Most times I'd lose track of the dream as I was writing, or if I managed to get anything down, it would be indecipherable when I read it back. I once got a letter from someone that shared my first and maiden name, the signature looked familiar and foreign. My dreaming notes were often like that, like correspondence from not quite me.
Although the notebook failed me then, it's long been useful for writing.
I'm learning to move from one territory of work to another and back again. I've been writing a lot, for the book and other things, and then there's the rest of life, of the needs of the family, the children, the house and me, of the season, even. It's a stuttering grind, switching between languages of grams, ounces and measures to e-mail and appointments to laundry, raking the yard and volunteering at school on Halloween (and will that mean I'll need a costume?).
On their own, the words don't amount to much more than a disjointed list. That said, they represent an attempt to aid a future me, something to fill the gaps and lapses, and ease the transition when I return to it. Like setting out clothes the night before a big day, a move to prepare for what could be needed.
A selection of notes from Tuesday:
I sat close enough to the fire that its heat burrowed through the fabric of my shirt and was itchy the skin at the small of my back. I drank the soup in gulping mouthfuls prickly with ginger and garlic and black pepper. My lips felt lined with sparks.
On Saturday night, I had the finest baklava of my life. Our friend made it. It was terrific, as was the densely aromatic Turkish coffee they served, too.
Kids at the bus stops with shirt sleeves pulled down across the back of their hands, the cuff tight in their fists. A dancing shuffle of moving weight from foot to foot.
It's the pâté sandwiches we'd pack for train rides, eating them on the upper bunk of one of those sleeper cars with light blue walls. It's how the soft, whipped texture of the pâté melded into the softness of the bread, and both stuck to the back of my front teeth.
The realization then, heavy and thudding like a stack of books on a table.
Usually I'll hold these seeds In hibernating wait, until there's the thing, the sugar-instead-of-honey whatever wonderful thing that clicks to make them complete, and they spring to bountiful utility. For some endeavours, like the last 20 minutes spent watching Duran Duran videos on YouTube, fruition never comes. (Unless you count a renewed infatuation with John Taylor a gain.)
In this batch of notes, it's the baklava. The baklava is the takeaway.
PISTACHIO BAKLAVA WITH CARDAMOM
Recipe adapted, only barely, from Cook's Illustrated. Written in my words.
I won't pretend that baklava doesn't take planning, time, and fiddly (though not specifically difficult) work. That said, as one batch makes 40 or so pieces, and as it keeps so well (up to 10 days, covered tightly with foil, at room temperature), I'll make the bold proposal of stating that baklava is is not only doable, but should be done. In fact, next festive dinner, it could easily slide in to take the place of dessert. It ticks many of the same boxes as pie.
I've added a murmur of cinnamon to the filling , because while I don't have a pot for making Turkish coffee, I didn't want to miss out on the combination.
Makes 1 (9x13-inch) tray.
FOR THE FILLING
- 12 ounces shelled, raw pistachios
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- A generous 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1 cup clarified butter, melted but not hot
- 1 pound phyllo, defrosted according to manufacturer's instruction if frozen
FOR THE SUGAR SYRUP
- 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- A small piece of lemon rind, maybe 1-inch long
- 10 black peppercorns
- 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
To make the filling, place the pistachios in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse the motor in 1-second bursts until the nuts are finely chopped, maybe 10 to 15 times total. Pour the nuts into a bowl, then measure out 1 1/2 tablespoons for garnish and set aside. Stir the cardamom, cinnamon, sugar and salt into the rest.
Preheat an oven to 300 °F / 150 °C, with a rack in the lower middle.
Unfold the phyllo on a cutting board, with a damp, lint-free kitchen towel and a large piece of cling film nearby. Using a 9x13-inch steel (not non-stick) straight-sided cake pan or a 9x13-inch glass baking dish as a guide, cut the phyllo into two roughly-even stacks; one may be larger than the other. Cover both stacks with the cling film, then the damp cloth, so that the pastry doesn't dry out.
Brush the insides of the pan with butter. Fold back the damp towel and clingfilm covering the wider stack of phyllo. Take a sheet of phyllo and place it in the bottom of the pan. Gently brush the pastry with butter, then top with another sheet of phyllo, coating that one with butter, too. Repeat the process of layering and buttering with 6 more sheets, making 8 total. Replace the towel to cover the stack.
Scatter one-third of the chopped pistachios, about a scant 1 cup, over th phyllo. Pull the towel and film back over the thinner stack of pastry. Lay one piece of phyllo over the nuts, and carefully dab with butter until covered (brushing at this point would disturb the nuts). Cover with another piece of pastry, staggering if necessary to cover the filling, and butter again. Continue with 4 more pieces, making 6 total. Repeat process with half the remaining nuts, 6 more sheets phyllo, then the last of the nuts. For the top crust, use 8 to 10 of the neatest and most pristine sheets from the wider stack of phyllo. Layer and butter each, except for the last piece. Using clean and dry hands, gently compress the layers, working from the centre of the pan outwards. Spoon the rest of the clarified butter, approximately 1/4 cup, over the pastry, brushing to cover and coax the butter down the sides of the pan. Use a sharp-tipped serrated knife to portion the baklava into diamonds, making 8 slices each way on the diagonal. (Alternatively, cut the baklava into a grid pattern as seen here.)
Bake the baklava in the hot oven until deeply golden, around 90 minutes, making sure to rotate the pan halfway through the baking time.
While the baklava is baking, make the sugar syrup. Combine all the syrup ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often. Once at a full boil and the sugar has dissolved, pour syrup into a 2-cup measuring cup and set aside to cool. When room temperature, discard the lemon peel and peppercorns.
Immediately after pulling the baklava from the oven, pour all but 2 tablespoons of the syrup over the cut lines. Drizzle the remaining syrup over the surface of the baklava, then decorate with the reserved pistachios as desired. (The classic decoration is a pinch of nuts in the centre of each piece.) Set the baklava on a wire rack to cool completely, about 3 hours. The baklava can be eaten once cooled, but improves with age. If possible, wrap the tray in tin foil and let stand at room temperature for 8 hours before serving.
Any remaining baklava can be kept, wrapped, on the counter for 10 days.