Thanksgiving baklava

A Middle Eastern take on the American holiday.

Pumpkin custard baklava (photo credit: GEORGE MENZELOS)
Pumpkin custard baklava
(photo credit: GEORGE MENZELOS)
Last month was the 93rd birthday of Sam Menzelos, the father of our friend George Menzelos. To celebrate the event, George decided to prepare their treasured family pastry – pumpkin custard baklava – and invited us to his parents’ home in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, to learn how he makes it.
The baklava was delicious – buttery, flaky, crunchy, creamy and sweet, with a hint of spice.
The recipe was created by Sam’s mother, Hrisanthi Androutsos, who came to Los Angeles in 1920 from Corinth, Greece. George told us that she learned to make phyllo dough from Greek women from Smyrna and other parts of Asia Minor who were experts in fine Greek cuisine. Together they developed a special baklava for Thanksgiving to show their appreciation of their new homeland, the United States.
To make their Thanksgiving baklava, they layered phyllo dough with two fillings. For one filling they mixed pumpkin puree with traditional Greek semolina- based milk custard. For the second filling, they combined ground walnuts with sugar and cinnamon.
After baking the baklava, they moistened it with clove-scented syrup.
George has fond memories of learning to cook from his grandmother, and when he bakes this pastry, he uses her baking dish.
The process of putting the dessert together begins like classic baklava: First George lays a few sheets of phyllo dough in the baking dish and brushes each one with clarified butter. Next he alternates buttered sheets of phyllo dough and walnut filling in the dish.
George makes two batches of the walnut filling – one sweeter, to use in the lower layers of the baklava, because they absorb less syrup. To make the layer of pumpkin custard in the center of the dessert, he creates an “envelope” of phyllo dough so that the custard is enclosed in the pastry. Then he continues adding layers of buttered phyllo dough and walnut filling, and finishes with buttered phyllo sheets without filling.
Because it takes time to prepare the components and to assemble this Greek American baklava, the luxurious pastry is reserved for very special occasions.
“We usually make this baklava once a year,” said George, “for Thanksgiving.”
• If the phyllo package has two rolls of dough, work with one at a time, keeping the second one wrapped.
• Phyllo sheets vary in size, depending on the brand. You can either cut or fold the sheets so they will fit in the pan you are using. When assembling the pastry, you can add cut pieces of phyllo to keep the baklava level. Once the baklava is baked, you won’t see any patches.
• Keep the stack of phyllo sheets covered with plastic wrap or a damp towel to prevent them from drying.
• If the butter congeals while you are working with the phyllo, set the pan of butter over low heat and warm it until it is fluid but not hot.
• If two people work together to assemble the baklava, it takes less time and the phyllo dough is less likely to dry out.
Baklava, said George Menzelos, is made of equal weights of phyllo dough, sugar, nuts and butter. He uses salted butter, but you can use unsalted butter if you prefer. Whichever you use, Menzelos says that clarifying the butter (melting it to remove milk solids and water) is important so that there won’t be spots in the final pastry.
Menzelos uses fresh phyllo dough to make this baklava. If you are using frozen phyllo dough, thaw it overnight in the refrigerator. He keeps an extra box of phyllo dough on hand to have perfect phyllo sheets to finish the top. You can re-wrap and refrigerate or freeze the rest of the extra package.
It’s best to use a 7.5-cm. (3 in.) deep baking dish. If you use a baking dish of the same dimensions as the phyllo sheets, you won’t have to fold them.
You can keep the baked baklava at room temperature for serving the same day, or you can refrigerate it for up to two days.
Here’s a summary of the layers of this dessert, starting with the bottom layer:
■ 5 layers phyllo without filling
■ 7 or 8 layers phyllo with nuts
■ 3 layers of double phyllo sheets to form the envelope for the custard
■ 7 layers phyllo with nuts
■ 5 layers phyllo without filling
Makes about 30 pieces
■ 1 cup water
■ 1½ cups sugar
■ 3 whole cloves
■ Juice of ¼ lemon
Phyllo layers:
■ 570 gr. (1¼ lb.) salted butter
■ 450 gr. (1 lb.) phyllo dough, plus 2 or 3 sheets from an extra package of phyllo dough if necessary, thawed if frozen
Walnut filling:
■ 450 gr. (1 lb.) walnuts
■ 1½ cups sugar
■ ½ tsp. ground cinnamon Pumpkin custard:
■ 2 cups canned pumpkin or thick cooked pumpkin puree
■ 85 gr. (3 ounces) butter, soft
■ ½ cup cream of wheat, farina or white semolina
■ 4 cups whole milk
■ ¼ tsp. salt
■ 1 cup sugar
■ 8 eggs
■ 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Syrup: Combine water, sugar, cloves and lemon juice in a small saucepan.
Cook over medium-low heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil until syrup thickens and begins to form large bubbles. To check whether it is thick enough, remove pan from heat and cool for about five minutes. Spoon a few drops of syrup onto a saucer and tilt the saucer; the syrup should be thick enough so it doesn’t flow past the center of the saucer. Let syrup cool.
For phyllo layers: To clarify the butter, melt it in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Skim the white foam from the surface. Pour remaining clear butter into a bowl, leaving the white sediment behind in the saucepan. Let cool to lukewarm. The butter should be cool but not congealed.
Grind the walnuts with 1 cup sugar in a food processor, scraping mixture down occasionally, until walnut pieces are finely ground to about the size of rice. Stir in the cinnamon.
Divide walnut mixture in two portions.
To one portion add ½ cup sugar. Reserve this sweeter walnut mixture for the lower layers of the dessert.
Pumpkin custard: Heat pumpkin in a small saucepan until hot. Remove from heat and stir in the soft butter until blended.
Mix cream of wheat with 1 cup milk in a small bowl or cup. Heat remaining 3 cups milk in a medium-large saucepan until warm. Whisk in cream of wheat mixture and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring with whisk.
Cook mixture, stirring often, until mixture thickens. Add the salt and sugar. Cook, whisking often, until the mixture is thick. Remove from heat.
Add pumpkin mixture.
Beat eggs in mixer or blender. Transfer to a large bowl. Slowly whisk pumpkin mixture into eggs. Return mixture to saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until mixture is warm and slightly thickened; it should be thick enough to coat a spoon. Do not worry if the eggs curdle slightly. Remove from heat and transfer to a bowl.
Stir in vanilla. Set aside to cool.
Thoroughly butter a 25 x 33 cm. (10 x 13 in.) cake pan or baking dish, 7.5 cm. (3 in.) deep.
Unroll the phyllo pastry and spread it out on a piece of plastic wrap. Cover the stack of phyllo sheets with another piece of plastic wrap to prevent them from drying.
Remove a phyllo sheet from the pile. Put it in the pan. If it is too large to fit, leave some of it hanging over a side of the dish. Brush the phyllo sheet inside the pan with clarified butter. Fold overhanging piece inward so it fits in dish and brush it with butter. Repeat with 4 more sheets of phyllo dough, smoothing each one carefully to make an even layer in the pan.
Add another sheet of phyllo dough. Brush sheet in pan with butter and sprinkle it evenly with ¼ cup of the sweeter nut mixture. Fold the overhanging piece of the phyllo sheet over the nuts and brush it with butter. Repeat with 6 or 7 more layers of phyllo dough, buttering each and sprinkling it evenly with nuts.
To make the envelope for the custard: Top the nut layer with another phyllo sheet, covering only half the layer in the pan, and letting the rest of the phyllo sheet extend over two sides of the pan. Place another phyllo sheet, covering the other half of the layer in the pan, meeting the previous sheet in the center and overhanging the other two sides of the pan. At this point there should be about 5 to 7.5 cm. (2 to 3 in.) of phyllo extending beyond all four sides of the pan. Brush the phyllo inside the pan (but not the overhanging dough) with butter. Make two more layers in this fashion, using 2 phyllo sheets each time. Do not butter the top layer.
Pour all of the cooled pumpkin custard into the phyllo-lined pan. Fold a phyllo sheet in half and set it on top of the custard, covering the custard. Brush the phyllo sheet gently with butter.
Gently fold the innermost layer of overhanging phyllo dough inward toward the center of the pan. Brush this folded piece of phyllo with butter. Fold another phyllo sheet in half, place it in the pan and brush it with butter. Fold the second overhanging layer inward toward the center of the pan and brush the folded parts with butter.
Evenly sprinkle the phyllo layer with ¼ cup of the second (less sweet) nut mixture. Fold the last overhanging phyllo dough layer over the nut layer and brush it with butter.
Cover the nuts with a sheet of phyllo dough, brush it with butter and sprinkle it with ¼ cup nut mixture; if the sheet extends over the edge of the pan, fold it over the nuts and brush it with butter. At this point, cut pieces of phyllo if necessary to add to the edges of the pan so that the baklava has an even height. Add six more layers of phyllo dough, brushing each with butter and sprinkling it with ¼ cup nut mixture.
Preheat oven to 175°C (350°F). To finish, make five layers of phyllo dough without filling, buttering each one after you place it in the pan. The phyllo layers can go higher than the top of the pan. Tuck in the dough at the corners of the pan so the baklava won’t be too low at the corners. For the top 2 or 3 layers, use whole sheets that are not torn or dried out at the edges; if necessary take them from the extra package of phyllo. For the last layer, fold or cut a phyllo sheet so it covers the top of the pan exactly. Brush it with butter.
Using a sharp knife, cut through the phyllo to form diamond-shaped pieces by cutting parallel diagonal lines, then cutting across them in parallel lines.
Cut only as far as the upper nut layers (you should see some nuts when you cut) but not into the pumpkin custard.
Bake the baklava in the preheated oven. After 30 minutes, if the baklava has begun to brown, cover it loosely with foil, leaving the edges uncovered.
Continue baking for a total of 1 to 1¼ hours, or until the upper layers are separated and golden in color.
Remove from the oven. Gradually pour the cool syrup over the hot baklava.
Let the baklava stand for a few hours or until it reaches room temperature.
Use a sharp knife to cut the baklava into pieces through the lines that have been scored.
Run a metal spatula carefully around edges. Use a thin flexible pancake turner to lift out each piece.