One of my fondest memories as an undergrad at the University of Cincinnati is the Biblica Hebrew class I audited at Hebrew Union College, the seminary of Judaism’s Reform Movement. The instructor was the hacham (sage) Professor Isaac Jerusalmi, a Turksih Jew who had grown up in Istanbul. The community was a particularly enlightened one; he attended a school run by the Alliance Israélite Universellewhere, in addition to the Turkish, Arabic, and Ladino that were spoken at home, he studied Hebrew and French. Inspired by the Muslim memorization of the Koran, he learned to chant the Book of Psalms and the Song of Songs from memory, in the distinctive musical tradition of the Turkish community (here's an example of that style, from the Book of Esther, complete with noise makers).
As a teacher, he was tremendously demanding, but also deeply caring. On exam days, he and his wife would stay up late the evening before, and prepare baklava. Upon arrival in class, he would announce, ‘The exam is quite difficult, and I am quite confident that, because of your skills, you will do poorly. This is only intended to show you how much you have to learn. But do not think I do not love you—and to prove it, I have made you baklava!”
This afternoon, I’m giving my Hebrew students at Lafayette their final, and so, at 5:00 AM this morning, I peeled apart leaves of filo dough, and dutifully brushed them with butter. I cut them precisely into diamonds, boiled sugar and water, added vanilla and lemon zest (Professor Jerusalmi eschewed nuts and cinnamon, ingredients which he felt made the Baklava “heavy,” and not Turkish at all), and poured it over the cooked pastry. I’ve written what I consider to be a difficult exam, but I want to make sure my students know I love them.
Professor Jerusalmi’s recipe—in his own words—is below. I make only two small changes: I add the zest of the lemon I have juiced, and scrape out half of a vanilla bean in place of the extract. I drop the bean in the syrup as I spoon it over the top. You smell great after baking this—like lemon, vanilla, and butter.
There are 2 parts in making a BAKLAVA.
1) The baklava itself and
2) the syrup which is poured gradually over the baklava as it comes out of the oven after it is baked..
1) The BAKLAVA ITSELF:
You need to buy from the frozen foods section (usually where desserts, cakes or whipping cream are found) of a supermarket, such as KROGERS or BIGGS, etc., a package of FILLO leaves. We like ATHENS brand FILLO leaves. There is also APOLLO brand FILLO leaves, but they seem to have more flour and that creates sometimes a problem.
It is very important that before you begin to do anything the package of FILLO leaves is totally defrosted. The easiest way is to move the package from the freezer to the refrigerator the night before. That way, the FILLO is ready to be worked on the next morning out of the refrigerator.
Occasionally, the package you buy may have been in the frozen section of the supermarket for quite a while which lets some humidity into it with the result that after you defrost it, the FILLO leaves stick to each other. In such a case, it is better to give up and start all over again with a new package.
I assume you have a metal "JELLY ROLL PAN". If you don't have one, you can buy it from any Supermarket or Wall Mart, their size is approx. 12" x 18".
You open the FILLO package,unroll the FILLO leaves and with a sharp knife, trim them to fit the Jelly Roll Pan at about 12"x18". You do that by trimming ONE LENGTH and ONE WIDTH, so that now each FILLO leaf will fit nicely into the JELLY ROLL PAN.
You melt 1 stick and 1/2 of UNsalted butter. Now you are ready to lay the FILLO leaves into the PAN.
Get yourself a PASTRY BRUSH about 1" to 1 1/4" wide. Using this PASTRY BRUSH spread some melted butter over the PAN brushing it well. Place now ONE fillo leaf inside the pan. Repeat this operation, with every one of the FILLO leaves, as you brush BUTTER generously over every single leaf, until all leaves have been used.
Now you want to be able to cut the BAKLAVA into diamonds. In order for the leaves NOT TO MOVE as you are cutting them, it is best to place the BAKLAVA pan into the refrigerator for about 1/2 hour. This will harden the butter and make the leaves stick to each other for more even and deeper cuts.
Now you are ready to remove the pan from the frig. and to cut the diamonds. Get a long, sharp knife and make one cut lengthwise dividing the pan into 2 parts. Then cut each of these parts also in 1/2, pressing your knife and being sure to touch the metal part of the pan. In this fashion, the diamonds will not stick to each other after they are baked. So, now your PAN has 4 parallel, long strips (for smaller strips, you can further reduce these 4 strips to 8 strips). To finish the cutting, turn the PAN from 60 to 90 degrees and starting from one corner move progressively from that corner to the center of the pan and ultimately to the opposite corner. At first, your lines are small; then they increase, and finally they decrease again. This forms the diamonds, and the distance you leave between these lines is responsible for the size of the diamonds you wish to get.
Baking the Baklava:
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and place your BAKLAVA pan when you have reached this temperature. Normally the baking takes from 20 to 30 minutes, or until GOLDEN BROWN.
2) The SYRUP:
As you place the BAKLAVA in the oven for baking, get a small, one quart size pan, about 4" deep. Pour into it 1 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water, place your candy thermometer on the edge of the pan and let it come to a boil, then REDUCE the temperature to avoid splashing and let it cook until it reaches 226 degrees. At that point the SYRUP has the right consistency. Remove it from the stove and add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of REAL vanilla.
By then the baklava should be ready to come out of the oven and while both are warm, you can start drizzling the syrup over the baklava with a tablespoon, being sure that you pour the syrup gently over each and every one the rows. If there is extra syrup, you can go back and finish pouring whatever is left.
The BAKLAVA is finished, and is ready to eat as soon as it cools and the FILLO leaves are allowed to stick to each other in about 3 to 4 hours.