Nancy Frazee has one of the most beautiful families I've ever seen. Okay, I might be a tad biased since I am dating one of her grandsons, but I really do love the entire family. They gather for every holiday, birthday, and graduation, and though there's often an array of traditional American dishes on the dining table, there's always a Lebanese dish or two that Nancy has made. For Thanksgiving, she cooks stuffing studded with pomegranate seeds. For a special birthday party, she'll prepare kibbeh, a minced lamb and cracked wheat dish, or mahalabiya, a fragrant rose pudding. She sends care packages to her college-aged grandchildren and fills them with ghraybeh (butter cookies), kaaki (sweet, milky bread seasoned with anise seed), and Lebanese baklava.
When Nancy makes baklava, she gently peels back the gossamer-thin layers of phyllo dough, though she isn't afraid to trim away any edges that have gotten too tough. She takes the time to clarify the butter because her grandmother did it that way, and she generously brushes it across each layer, one at a time. "I don't know how people do this by themselves," she told me as she lifted the dough and I dipped the brush in the butter. "You really need four hands."
Nancy, or Sito ("sih-two") as her family calls her, was born and raised in Los Angeles. Her father left Lebanon when he was sixteen years old, reportedly as a stowaway on a boat, and found the warm, sunny climate of L.A. to be similar to that of his birthplace. He planted a mulberry tree, which Sito has transplanted to her backyard and lovingly cares for to this day. In addition to her fine cooking skills, she has an incredibly green thumb.
Nancy Frazee's Lebanese Baklava
Before assembling the baklava, make the clarified butter, orange blossom syrup, and sugared walnuts. It's essential that the syrup be chilled before it is poured over the hot baklava.
Makes about 60 pieces
1½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter
4 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons orange blossom water
8 cups (2 pounds) shelled walnuts
2 pounds (2 packages) frozen phyllo dough
To make the clarified butter, melt the butter in a small pot set over low heat. When it has melted completely, remove it from the heat and skim off all the foam that has risen to the top. Carefully pour the butter into a clean container, leaving behind the watery liquid in the bottom of the pan. (Clarified butter will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for months.)
To make the syrup, combine 1½ cups water, 3 cups sugar, and the lemon juice in a medium pot. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat so that the syrup simmers for about 10 minutes, or until it reaches a temperature of 225°F. Remove syrup from the heat and stir in 2 teaspoons orange blossom water. Pour into a clean jar and refrigerate until cold.
To make the sugared nuts, place the walnuts in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse just until coarsely chopped. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the remaining 1 cup sugar. Drizzle the remaining 3 tablespoons orange blossom water over the nut mixture and stir well to combine. Taste and add another tablespoon of orange blossom water, if you like.
The night before you plan to make the baklava, place the sealed packages of phyllo dough in the refrigerator to thaw overnight.
On the following day, carefully unwrap the phyllo, unroll it onto a sheet of wax paper, and immediately cover it with a dampened tea towel. Melt the clarified butter, then generously brush the bottom and sides of a rimmed 18 by 13-inch baking sheet with some of the butter. Lay one piece of phyllo in the bottom of the baking sheet. Gently brush the phyllo with a bit of butter, then lay another piece of phyllo on top. Continue brushing and layering until you've used one package (1 pound) of phyllo. Try to keep the phyllo covered with the towel as much as possible so that it doesn't dry out.
Spread the sugared nuts in an even layer on top of the layered phyllo, then layer the second package of phyllo on top of the nuts, using the same technique to butter between each piece of phyllo. Don't worry if the phyllo tears--it's very delicate stuff--but make sure that the top piece is unbroken and beautiful. Brush the top layer generously with butter, then place the baking sheet in the freezer to chill for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.
Using a very sharp knife, cut the baklava into small diamonds by cutting 6 rows lengthwise, then 10 rows crosswise on a diagonal. Bake for 30 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 250°F and bake for another 60 minutes. If the top isn't golden brown, you can carefully broil the baklava for a few minutes, but keep a close eye on it and make sure it doesn't burn.
Remove baklava from the oven and pour the chilled syrup between each piece, spooning it evenly along every row. Let the syrup soak in overnight.
Baklava will keep, loosely covered, in the baking sheet for weeks.
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