Make Ahead

Mrs. Z's Secret-Ingredient Baklava

December 31, 2013
Photo by James Ransom
Author Notes

This is my mom's recipe. I don't know where she got the idea for her "secret ingredient," but it produces the best baklava EVER. If you like baklava but can't get past the cloying sweetness, this is the one to try -- you will never go back or be satisfied with the stuff you get in Greek restaurants again. When my soon-to-be father-in-law (not Greek) tasted a piece that I'd baked for his daughter's wedding, he held it up and said, "This -- THIS -- is marrying into the family!" —cookbookchick

Test Kitchen Notes

WHO: Cookbookchick is a news producer who has been hanging out at Food52 since 2009.
WHAT: Baklava -- only ten times better.
HOW: The method is familiar; the key here is all in the secret ingredient.
WHY WE LOVE IT: Cookbookchick asked us to put ground up graham crackers in our baklava, and now that we have, we’re not sure we’ll ever go back. The graham crackers round out the nuttiness of traditional baklava, and it give it a pleasant heft. Do not, under any circumstances, try to eat just one. —The Editors

  • Prep time 2 hours
  • Cook time 1 hour 20 minutes
  • Serves many!
  • Baklava Syrup:
  • 1/2 cup mild-tasting honey
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • Juice from 1/2 a lemon
  • Baklava:
  • 1 cup graham crackers, finely crushed (The secret ingredient!)
  • 1 1/2 pounds walnuts or almonds (I use walnuts, as did my Mom.)
  • 1 cup confectioner's sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 pound butter, melted and clarified (Skim off the milk solids and don't use the stuff in the bottom of the pan.)
  • 1 pound filo dough
  • Whole cloves
In This Recipe
  1. Combine all the syrup ingredients in a saucepan and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes until a thin syrup is formed—no longer. Allow to cool to room temperature while you build the baklava.
  2. Heat the oven to 350° F.
  3. Crush graham crackers into fine crumbs by putting them in a locked plastic bag and pounding them with a meat tenderizer, rolling with a rolling pin, or blitzing in a food processor—whichever works best for you.
  4. Grind the nuts finely with a manual nut grinder (best) or in a food processor (taking care not to go too far, or you will have nut butter).
  5. In a bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs, nuts, sugar, and cinnamon.
  6. Lay out the filo dough on a clean kitchen towel. (Of course—who would use a dirty one?) Lay another towel on top of the filo to help prevent it from drying out.
  7. In a roasting-type pan as close as possible to the size of the filo (the Food52 test kitchen used an 8 x 8-inch square), begin building the baklava. Layer 6 to 8 sheets of filo in the bottom of the pan, brushing each sheet lightly with butter before adding the next. I use a silicone brush to do this. (Many Greek cooks I've watched, including my mother—the aforementioned Mrs. Z—simply drizzle the butter from a teaspoon. So don't worry if you don't have a pastry brush.)
  8. Sprinkle the nut mixture in a thin layer over the filo dough. Cover with 3 to 4 more sheets, each brushed lightly with butter. Repeat until nut mixture is completely used up. Cover with 6 to 8 fila, brushing each layer lightly with butter. (No one has claimed this is a diet dessert!)
  9. Refrigerate the uncooked baklava for an hour or two until the butter solidifies. Then, cut with a sharp knife (before baking!) into small squares or diamond shapes. If you want the traditional diamond shapes, start with a corner-to-corner diagonal cut. Stick a whole clove into the center of each piece.
  10. Bake at 350° F for no longer than one hour. If the baklava dries out, it is ruined. It should get very lightly golden brown.
  11. As soon as you take it out of the oven, pour the room temperature syrup evenly over the hot pastry. The rule is hot pastry, cool syrup -- or you'll get a soggy dessert! Start with about half of the syrup, letting the pastry absorb it—you may not use it all. I like to serve baklava on a platter, each piece nestled in a pretty paper or foil cupcake cup.

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Recipe by: cookbookchick

I am retired from CBS News, having worked in both NYC and Washington DC, my native town. I'm married, mother of three, grandmother of two. I've been a passionate cook since I was a child, and have collected recipes since then. I am shamelessly addicted to cookbooks -- hence my moniker -- but I figure it's not only less harmful than other addictions, but also produces a better outcome for those around me. My family call me "the food lady," so I guess they agree!