My Favorite Baklava

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Hello, readers! Sorry it’s been a while. I’m in the midst of finals at the moment (read: procrastinating on my philosophy paper), but I’ll be able to catch up on all the posting I’ve missed soon…and thank you ALL for your lovely comments (and emails)! I read all of them — they really do make my day, and I promise I will try to respond to everyone as soon as I can.

Here I’m posting my favorite baklava recipe. This stuff is so good that my aunt was sneaking it out in napkins during our family’s annual Christmas party. If you’ve never been a baklava fan, I hope you still give this a try — it’s made with walnuts and rosewater (as opposed to pistachios and honey) and is divine when served cold so that the sugars all have adequate time to soak in. I’m a bit of a connoisseur of baklava — I’ve tried baklava at every restaurant I’ve been to that serves it, and nothing has even come close to this.

This is a Lebanese recipe, and you can find it buried in this ancient New York Time’s article (1989 what up), but I’ve also reproduced it below, with a few edits that really help simplify the process. Making baklava may seem intimidating, but I promise — it’s one of the easiest things you’ll ever do. You need to be patient and thorough, but otherwise no special skills are required! See my pointers below before you begin if you’re hesitant.

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Some tips for making baklava:

  • Make sure you butter thoroughly between every layer of phyllo. There is no such thing as too much butter! (Also, if you don’t use enough, the pieces will flake apart). Also be sure to give the corners special attention.
  • Use a glass/pyrex dish — it makes baking and clean up super easy.
  • Baklava stores at room temperature for days — just be sure to cover with aluminum foil/cling-wrap/etc.
  • If you can’t find rose water, you can also substitute orange blossom water (although I don’t really see how that would be any easier to find). You can usually find both in specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods, etc. If all else fails, you can order online (I promise, it’s totally worth it).
  • To thaw the phyllo dough, simply place it in the fridge the night before you plan on making the baklava. This will ensure that the sheets are not too brittle or too thawed, and will be easiest to handle! Sometimes they can still become a little flaky, though — not to worry! Just patch up the layers as best you can (with butter, of course) and the baklava will be just as delicious.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist about clarifying the butter. It will taste the same in the end.

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Ingredients:

For the syrup:

  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons rose water

For the pastry:

  • 1 pound unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts
  • 2 tablespoons rose water
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 16-oz. package frozen phyllo pastry, thawed (should contain 2 separate rolls of pastry)

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Directions:

  1. To make sugar syrup, boil together sugar and water for about 2 minutes over high heat, being careful it does not burn or boil over. Just before removing from heat, stir in the rose water. Let cool slightly, then refrigerate until ready to use.
  2. To make the pastry, first clarify the butter. Melt in a pan over gentle heat. Spoon off the milky froth that rises to the top and the solid residue that settles to the bottom. One pound of butter should yield about 1 1/2 cups clarified butter. You can pour the butter into a mug for ease of use later on.
  3. Place walnuts and rose water in bowl of food processor and process in spurts until walnuts are minced. (The rose water helps keep walnuts from getting oily.) Add sugar and process briefly to mix well.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  5. Spread a sheet of plastic wrap or aluminum foil on a work surface. Open phyllo pastry and spread on the surface.
  6. Using the clarified butter and a pastry brush or clean paintbrush, butter a 10- by 14-inch baking pan liberally, bottom and sides. Place one sheet of phyllo pastry in bottom of pan. Butter surface of pastry. Proceed with the remaining sheets, buttering each one, until you have used about half the sheets in the box (aka one package). The phyllo sheets may be somewhat crowded in the pan, folded up a little along the sides and at each end. Be sure to butter the corners of the pastry.
  7. Distribute the walnut mixture over the pastry in an even layer.
  8. Place the remaining phyllo sheets over the walnut mixture, again buttering liberally between each layer. When all the sheets have been used, cut the pastry with a sharp knife lengthwise into strips about 1 inch wide, then on the diagonal to make diamonds. Be sure to cut right down through to the bottom of the pan. Pour any remaining clarified butter over the top of the pastry.
  9. Place in oven for 30 minutes, then raise temperature to 425 degrees and bake an additional 10 minutes, or until pastry is puffed and golden brown on top. Remove from oven and immediately pour cold syrup over hot pastry. Set aside to cool to room temperature before serving.

Let me know if you end up trying this recipe — it’s one of my favorites, and I’ve made it more times than I can count. If you like Middle Eastern/Greek food or simply awesome pastry desserts, you’ll love this stuff. (And sorry I don’t have more photos of the actual process…I realize in retrospect that would have been helpful for this recipe.)

Also, I’ll be posting more in a week or so…look out for some more DIY and travel posts next!

Abu Dhabi, Take Two

Sunset in the desert.

I just posted some photos from my visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque during my recent trip to Abu Dhabi, and am humbled and honored that my post was chosen for WordPress’s “Freshly Pressed” feature page. It has been such a whirlwind, and I want to thank everyone for taking the time to visit my blog and leave such wonderful comments. I read every last one, and they all make me so happy.

I also promised that I would post more pictures from my trip. These ones aren’t as organized, they are simply snapshots of some of the highlights/best photos I came out with.

On the first day we took a walk along the Corniche, a relatively new stretch of beachfront running along Corniche road. It was absolutely beautiful. Because it was winter in Abu Dhabi, the weather was quite temperate, in the high 70s (F), making it perfect for a quick trip to the beach.

Above is the view of the rising Abu Dhabi skyline from the Corniche. It was really interesting to see all the construction going on at the same time (if you look closely you can see the rightmost two skyscrapers are under construction). Also, sorry about the over-exposure on these; it was super bright out.

Good morning! The sun rises and sunsets in Abu Dhabi were so brilliant.

Just a few snapshots from the city…

I really like the detailing you can see in this shot.

The juxtaposition between the skyscraper and the minaret here really caught my eye.

Above is the Emirates Palace Hotel at night. This place is crazy — apparently, there’s a gold vending machine in the lobby. (There are actual videos of this on YouTube, I kid you not.)

Some more shots from the desert. This was my first time ever setting foot in a desert, and it was an unbelievable experience. I was simply blown away by it, and it’s difficult to put it all into words. It’s incredibly vast and expansive, and you can really feel that when you’re standing on top of a dune, soaking it all in. It is also a very peaceful experience. (Side note: climbing sand dunes is quite the workout.)

The sunset in the desert was stunning. That shade of pink is totally unedited. A closer look…

Beautiful.

You can see my first photo post about the trip here.

Photos taken by me, please request permission before use.

From the Shelves: “The Lemon Tree” by Sandy Tolan

I just recently finished reading The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan, a work of nonfiction that tells of the intertwined lives of two people who share a connection through the same land: Bashir Khairi, an Arab whose family was expelled from their home in the village of al-Ramla during the War of Independence (1948) in the country of what is now Israel, and Dalia Eshkenazi Landau, the Jewish daughter of Moshe and Solia Eshkenzazi, a couple who fled their home in Bulgaria during the Holocaust.

For those interested in the Middle East and especially the Israel-Palestine conflict, this is a poignant must-read. Tolan does a wonderful job of sharing an inspiring story that, above all, is a story of hope. It is a unique read in that it connects two “fighting” groups at a very personal level — the tale of two families, Arab and Jew, who both make an extraordinary effort to understand the side of the other. And they struggle, too, in a way that is very human and tears at the fundamentals of each side’s beliefs. Dalia and Bashir do not always agree, yet there is something that binds them together — a deep desire to truly understand the other.

Tolan’s work is a truly original piece of Middle Eastern literature, in the respect that he has unearthed an incredibly moving story and told it with a gracefulness that lends itself to the understanding of the reader. The story is well-paced and Tolan does a fantastic job of providing background for the events that take place in the book — although I do wish he had spent more time on the development and complexity of Dalia and Bashir’s relationship than on pure historical fact.  But overall he still gets the point across: peace is possible, but it won’t come easily and each side must make an honest effort to — and ultimately succeed in — understanding the other.

My only complaint with this book is that its objectivity is questionable, as this review on Amazon points out. While Tolan makes a great effort at highlighting the horrors of the Holocaust and the fear and discrimination Jews faced around the world, by the end of the story it is quite obvious that Tolan has favored the Palestinian side of the conflict, casting them as the victims in nearly every instance. And he is justified in this in the sense that, yes, the Palestinians were the ones forced from their land, but I still feel as though he could have been more sensitive to the Jewish point of view as well and gone into more depth about the side of Israel that really does want to achieve a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians.

In all, however, I must say that this is an excellent read, and a fairly well-written account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you’re familiar with the situation, this is a great way to enhance your understanding. If the Middle East is not an area that you are well-read in, this book is an essential story with which to introduce yourself to the conflict. It’s also a beautiful work of non-fiction that is easy to read for the most part and therefore perfect for those who, well, don’t read a whole lot of non-fiction. Just remember to keep an open mind when reading this book — especially if you haven’t read much about Israel-Palestine — so as not to fall for the author’s bias.

Have you read or are looking to read this book? Any other books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict you would recommend? Please share!

CURRENTLY READING:

How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

To view all “From the Shelves” posts click here.

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from the shelves: all-time favorites

Introducing a new blog series: “From the Shelves.” I love books and go for just about every genre of literature. (Except Young Adult Fiction, which is the one area of Border’s I avoid at all costs. No Twilight for me, thank you very much.) Although I’m not the most talented writer/book-reviewer, in this series of posts I will attempt to share with you some of my favorite books. I am quite the avid reader, and I am always ready to share my thoughts or opinions on literary works. I have probably read twice as many books as compared to the number of movies I’ve watched. (Of course, reading all 56 yellow hardcover Nancy Drew books multiple times back in middle school didn’t exactly help, either.)

Anyway, to kick of the series I wanted to introduce a few of my all-time favorite books to you. I’m sure you’ve heard of most (if not all) of them, but they’re such great reads it would be silly not to include them. In no particular order…

1. The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad. One of my favorite Middle East/Current Events books. If you know anything about me, you that that I have a slight obsession with the Middle East (especially Iran and the Israel/Palestine conflict). I’m not an expert by any means, but I read as much as I can about this region in an effort to steer away from ignorant mistakes and assumptions about Middle Eastern culture. There are many books I’ve read on the subject, but I like this one in particular because Seierstad takes you inside people’s daily lives and gives you a very intimate glimpse into Afghanistan. It’s also very easy to read, a major plus for nonfiction in my book.

2. Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. This is one of my more recent reads from this list, and I strongly recommend that everyone reads this book. It’s not in my immediate area of interest in terms of nonfiction, but I loved it all the same. The story is well-written (it’s told by a journalist) and truly inspiring. And I do not say “inspiring” lightly — this book has 100% deserved that title. It’s the perfect “one person can make a difference” story.

3. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. I can’t believe I had never read any Vonnegut before this summer. One of his earlier works (and, admittedly, the only one I’ve read as of yet), The Sirens of Titan is bursting with creativity, originality, and insight. It seemed to me to be a perfect mix of The War of the Worlds and 1984 (and probably some other book I haven’t read yet). It’s a very easy-to-read book, and Vonnegut’s simple, fuss-free prose is refreshing and spot-on.

4. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. This book is stunning. O’Brien’s writing style is very clear — like Vonnegut’s in the sense that it’s free of endless metaphors and heavy vocabulary words. Which serves this book quite well, because it takes you straight to the heart of the story as the author artfully blurs the line between the real truth and the “story truth” in this work of “fiction.” You really must read it to fully understand O’Brien’s genius.

5. A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I’ve heard mixed reviews about this book from people — many seem to not enjoy it, but I loved it. The story line is perfectly tragic — beginning as an innocent mistake and then snowballing into something evil and all-consuming. But it was also the writing itself that drew me in. I felt as though every sentence in the book was perfectly worded to show emotions and thoughts without an superfluous details.

6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. We all know it and we’ve all read it. (There would be serious issues if someone had never read To Kill a Mockingbird.) It’s a classic novel for many reasons, which I won’t bother describing here. But let’s just say this list would not be complete without this work.

7. Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This book is most beautiful in the original French version, but if you don’t know French, it’s available in English. It’s a classic children’s book, but every wonderfully illustrated chapter hides deeper meaning behind simple, innocent words. Saint-Exupéry’s novel is a staple of literature.

8. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. If I had to pick just one favorite book of all time, I would choose The Poisonwood Bible. I love Kingsolver’s eloquent writing style and the way she takes the time to develop each character. By alternating the telling of the story through the voices of the Price sisters, she paints a multi-dimensional portrait of the African Congo and the twisted ideology of the girls’ missionary father.

9. The Alchemist by Paul Coelho. I read this book every summer (this will be my fourth year running) because I learn something new every time. Truly, this book grows as you grow and you will see things differently every time you read it. The story itself is quite basic — a fundamental search for one’s purpose in life — but heavily laced with deeper meaning.

10. Macbeth by William Shakespeare. I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan (let’s be honest, his page-long metaphors can get quite annoying), but I somehow feel differently about Macbeth. It’s my favorite play of his, and I’ve enjoyed studying it multiple times. It’s definitely much easier to read than many of his other pieces (read: King Henry IV, Part One, etc, etc) so I would recommend it for anyone who wants to become more familiar with Shakespeare’s work.

What books are on your reading lists? Any you would recommend for me? I love getting new books!

CURRENTLY READING:

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan

How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein

{ Source: Images via Google Image Search. }

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