Saturday, April 9, 2011

Warka and the Quest for Baklava

Baklava was my favorite dessert when I was a child and I grew up learning how to butter and fold the thin phyllo leaves with my mom, scattering some layers with nuts, while my dad concocted his Special Baklava Syrup. In the more than 10 years since I became gluten-free, baklava and I have shared only wistful glances at each other. Who makes gluten-free phyllo dough? I looked everywhere and found no one.

So it became my quest to make it myself. I tried the Greek method of rolling out the dough to paper-thin sheets, but nothing I made came even close to the real thing. Besides, my arms were tired! But what other method could I use?

One of the first. Note that it's a bit thick in areas.
A few days ago, my dad pointed out this recipe for warka from his favorite cookbook author, Paula Wolfert. Warka is the traditional Moroccan version of paper-thin pastry leaves used like phyllo dough. The method is quite different from Greek phyllo; instead of rolling out the pastry, you dab or brush a thin crêpe-like batter onto a hot skillet that's heated evenly by a pot of boiling water beneath it. (It's a bit like Filipino lumpia, but even thinner.) When the pastry is cooked on one side, pluck it off the hot skillet with your fingers and brush it all over with olive oil, layering them between pieces of parchment paper.

Time-consuming? Certainly. Worth it? YES.

I made two gluten-free batters, using Wolfert's recipe as a base. One worked spectacularly well. So well, in fact, I immediately used the pastry sheets for a spontaneous batch of baklava. Even so, this recipe is still under development and I'll wait to post it here until I'm satisfied with both the recipe and the method. I know there are a few improvements still to be made.

In the meantime, if you strike out on your own, I'll leave you with the lessons I learned while making warka:

1: Don't use a silicone brush. The "bristles" don't catch or spread the batter in a gentle enough fashion and you'll end up with cooked splatter instead of thin pastry sheets. (I used a wad of cheesecloth soaked in the batter and dabbed on gently all over in a circle; this is the Method in Development.)

2: Don't mix up the cooked side with the uncooked side!

3: Use your fingers to pluck the cooked pastry off the hot griddle. You may burn yourself, but no spatula will be gentle enough to get it off in one piece. It needs to be your fingers.

4: Use plenty of olive oil to coat both the sheets and the parchment paper between them. Being skimpy here leads to sticking.

5: Since plenty of olive oil was used to prevent sticking during storage, use less butter in the baklava than normal or it'll get a bit greasy.

6: Sit on a bench or tall chair while working or your feet will holler later.

Finished Baklava