Pop Culture

The Flaky Fame of Baklava, Featured on 'The Great British Bake Off'

This syrupy layered dessert was not-so-sweet for contestants last week.

November  1, 2021
Photo by Ty Mecham

Baklava is beloved for its sweet syrup, crunchy nut filling, and thin, flaky layers of phyllo dough. This layered dessert originated broadly in the Ottoman Empire, but has since been widely accepted as a Turkish or Greek specialty. The one group of people who aren’t a fan of baklava? The remaining contestants on The Great British Bake Off, who, this past week, were given the challenge of making baklava from scratch—including the phyllo pastry dough. “This particular recipe will push you to the limit. Don’t waste any time,” said co-judge Paul Hollywood. In just two hours and 45 minutes, contestants were expected to prepare baklava with phyllo pastry made using a traditional laminating technique and then layered with a pistachio-walnut filling and cut into a star design.

What Is Baklava?

There are always variations but traditional baklava is made with phyllo dough, honey-lemon simple syrup, and a spiced nut filling (usually walnuts, or walnuts and pistachios, as seen on GBBO). As the baklava bakes, typically in either a round or rectangular cake pan, the top of the pastry is brushed with melted butter, which helps it to become golden brown. It’s generally served slightly warm or at room temperature, but Food52’s Kristen Miglore finds that baklava straight out of the oven is life-changing.

How to Make Phyllo Pastry From Scratch

Phyllo (also spelled as filo) is an incredibly delicate pastry dough rolled into tissue paper-thin sheets. Whereas puff pastry is a thicker dough that, as the name implies, puffs up when baked, phyllo doesn’t change shape in the oven. It maintains its thin, nearly translucent appearance but becomes golden brown and super crispy as it bakes. Most home bakers, including the contestants on The Great British Bake Off use store-bought phyllo dough, which you can find in the freezer section of any grocery store. The reason is that making homemade phyllo pastry is notoriously difficult. “Who makes their own phyllo pastry? No one!,” said contestant Crystelle. But what kind of challenge would it be if GBBO contestants weren’t tasked with making their own? Not only is it tricky to make, but its delicate nature means that it’s also quite hard to work with. It’s not uncommon for bakers to tear a sheet of phyllo dough as they work with it.

Paul Hollywood’s recipe for phyllo dough calls for plain (aka all-purpose) flour, baking powder, salt, eggs, full-fat Greek yogurt, vegetable oil, butter, white wine vinegar, and cornflour for dusting. The initial steps of his phyllo dough recipe look like many other baked goods; combine the dry ingredients and in a separate bowl, combine the wet ingredients. Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and mix to form a dough. Easy enough, right? Not so fast.

From here, knead the dough for about 10 minutes until it all comes together in one smooth ball; divide the dough into six equal-sized smaller balls. Cover and let them rest for 15 minutes. After the dough has rested, the fun begins. Roll each ball out into a circle about 12 inches in diameter; dust with cornflour and fold the right side over to the center and repeat on the left side. Sprinkle more cornflour on top and then fold the top down to the center and the bottom up to meet in the middle, creating a square. More cornflour and then take each corner of the newly created square and fold them to meet in the middle. Repeat this one more time and then turn the dough over. Cover and let it rest for another 15 minutes and voila—you’ve just made your first phyllo dough! If you were wondering, this technique is known as laminating, and it’s the same layered magic that makes croissants so flakey.

Now repeat this with the remaining five dough balls (are you sweating yet?) for the baklava.

So, How Did the Contestants Do?

In The Great British Bake-Off,” the technical challenge is always assessed blind, so that the judges can remain completely unbiased. The winner of the baklava challenge was Jürgen, who was praised for presenting baklava that was cooked all of the way through, achieved an intricate diamond pattern, and had even, well-laminated layers of phyllo dough.

Other contestants were docked for being too messy or careless when cutting the signature star-shaped pattern and haphazardly sprinkled ground pistachios and rose petals, in an attempt to cover up any mistakes. The judges said that many of the baklavas served had a lovely flavor, but were undercooked, resulting in layers of phyllo dough that were doughy rather than crispy and flaky.

Have you ever tried baking baklava before? Share your baking tips in the comments below!
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1 Comment

Michael W. November 1, 2021
So, Paul Hollywood’s recipe for phyllo dough is quite interesting, and VERY non-conventional. His recipe calls for eggs, yogurt, and butter. Traditional Greek recipes are quite simple- flour, water, salt, and olive oil, and perhaps a pinch of baking soda for added crispiness. Traditional phyllo does NOT contain any fat, and adding it is just baking blasphemy! Furthermore, small balls of traditional phyllo dough are rolled into a thin, single sheet of pastry thin enough to read print through, using a skinny dowel rod. Traditional phyllo dough is NEVER folded and/or laminated. Single sheets of phyllo are laid one on top of the other after brushing each sheet with either butter or ghee. Paul Hollywood’s recipe is interesting, and may produce a multi-layered pastry, but it’s more like puff pastry than it is traditional phyllo. Paul’s method will NOT produce the same delicate flakiness characteristic of the baklava that we all know.