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One of the highlights of my holiday season is when I spend a day at George and Sue Economou’s house in my old Redding neighborhood off Magnolia Street.
I go there to help George make baklava, that baked, super-sweet Greek pastry that’s made with phyllo dough leaves and butter, layered with nuts and spices.
George learned how to make baklava from his father, a Greek immigrant who moved his family to Redding when George was 3.
I’ve been making baklava at the Economou’s house for many years now, and I couldn’t imagine a December without this fun day.
George doesn’t use a recipe. It’s all from memory and taste, which, I’ve noticed, varies from year to year.
I wrote the following recipe after watching George and estimating amounts. George isn’t a big believer in recipes. He says just wing it.
“Hell,” he says, “It’s just cooking. Do what you want.”
The Economou’s annual baklava event begins in the morning with eggnog to keep our strength up, offered by Sue Economou, who encourages generous glugs of rum, even as early as 10 a.m.
Come afternoon, we’ll have made two large trays of baklava, and eaten a Greek lunch prepared by George and Sue that includes the traditional Greek Avgolemono soup, a lemon soup made of chicken broth, lemon juice, eggs and orzo, and a Greek salad of feta cheese, kalamata olives, purple onions, tomato, olive oil, salt, pepper and finally, oregano (from George’s mother’s oregano plant, smuggled – I mean brought – from Greece).
But first we make baklava. George starts by using his Mouli French nut grater to ensure all the walnut pieces are exactly the same size. All our equipment is laid out: the same worn aluminum pan in which to prepare the baklava, the same tiny-but-sharp paring knife to score the baklava, the same small pastry brush to apply melted butter between each layer of phyllo, the same Pyrex pastel-colored mixing bowl that holds the mixture of walnut pieces, nutmeg, cinnamon and sugar.
There’s so much I love about this day at the Econoumou’s. I love George and Sue, both retired school teachers. (George taught me to drive a million years ago when I was a Shasta High School student.) I love their enthusiasm for life and community and friendship. They’re both in their 80s, but their schedules are filled with lunch dates and volunteer work, such as at Mercy Medical Center’s pharmacy. Plus, George tends bar at the Elk’s Club each Wednesday.
Their house is a whirlwind of activity. Friends come and go. The phone rings. The doorbell buzzes.
Baklava is delicious, but you may have heard that it’s absolutely not a diet food. In fact, I don’t even want to know the calorie count of one small piece of baklava. Even so, it’s something I usually make and indulge in at least once a year.
And if making and eating baklava means I can spend time with George and Sue Economou, I say it’s a worthy trade-off.
Mr. Economou’s Baklava
1- (1 lb.) package thawed phyllo dough
1 lb. melted butter (you might need more)
3 cups water
3 cups granulated sugar
Juice of lemon
1/2 corn syrup or honey
Add to about 6 cups finely chopped walnuts:
1/2 cup sugar (or to taste)
1/8 tsp. grated nutmeg (or to taste)
1 – 2 T. cinnamon (or to taste)
In a heavy saucepan, heat sugar and water at a low boil for 10 minutes. Add lemon juice and corn syrup (this helps prevent the mixture from crystallizing). Remove from heat. Set aside.
Thoroughly butter a large, rectangular pan. Lay a sheet of phyllo pastry inside the pan. Let edges drape over pan. (Prevent the waiting leaves from drying out by covering with a towel.) Brush sheet with melted butter. Lay another phyllo sheet over the melted butter. Repeat this step for 10 more phyllo leaves, but each time you lay a new sheet down, alternate its position of the sheets in the pan, so the leaves left to drape over the pan’s edge are evenly distributed.
Dump about a 1/2-inch layer of the nut mixture over the phyllo-leaf stack.
Repeat the phyllo-butter steps for another 10 leaf layers or so.
Again, dump another 1/2-inch or so of the walnut mixture onto the phyllo-leaf stack.
Finally, deal with the phyllo leaves that are draped over the pan’s edge by lifting them up and folding them over and on the last nut mixture. (If you’ve ever folded a cloth diaper, it’s sort of like that. Fold the long sides in first, and then the short ends over the long pieces.)
The center won’t be covered, and you’ll end up with a window in the center of the baklava where the nuts will peek out.
Repeat the phyllo, butter mixture for another 10 sheets or so over the folded edges, but this time, do not let the leaves drape. Instead, take a paring knife and cut any excess edges so each sheet fits exactly and neatly over the baklava. (Lay the skinny, trimmed pieces over the center place where the nuts are showing, brushing each layer with butter.)
Try to get the last few layers of phyllo leaves to be perfect rectangles fitted into the pan.
Before baking, score the baklava into long, 2-inch-wide strips, through the bottom of the pan, but DO NOT cut all the way to the pan’s edge, or the ends will curl.
Then cut diagonally through each strip, making little diamonds. (Again, no cutting through from side to side.)
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour, or until very golden brown.
Immediately pour the cooled syrup mixture over the hot baklava.
Let sit for at least 4 hours before cutting. Do not cover with plastic wrap or refrigerate.
Happy holidays. [/print]