We had an emotional night at our house on Friday. Our longtime babysitter/nanny/caregiver/PC term of the moment for surrogate grandmother and everything-to-our-two-children came over for dinner. Next week, she is moving back to Sofia, Bulgaria.
Veneta entered our lives when our now 15-year-old daughter was 10 weeks old. She took care of the baby -- and the new parents and the old dog -- and was there for all of us through everything. The move from our first apartment to our first house (which we chose in large part because it wasn't too far from her home), the move to our second house. Some frightening surgery. The birth of our son, now 12. Schools, sports, camps, friends and family. My various professional incarnations: lawyer, communications executive, development professional; full-time, part-time, consultant. Crazed working mom.
In short, she has been, and always will be, an integral part of our family. We can hardly imagine life without her. Even though she didn't work with us much over the past year or so, she was around the corner and we visited with her often.
We learned a lot about Bulgaria over the years with Veneta. We heard about the politics, about growing up behind the Iron Curtain and the bumpy road of progress in the post-USSR era. We learned about the beauty of the Black Sea and the mountains. We learned about Hitler's double crossing of the Bulgarian king during World War II. We learned about the cuisine, an interesting amalgam of Middle Eastern and Eastern European. We intend to visit her in Sofia and hope to see her next summer.
Her plan always was to move back to Bulgaria when she retired. Her grown son is already there and her daughter plans to move back soon as well. But reality is harsher than plans. On Friday night, we had our long-dreaded farewell dinner. We had a lovely evening together and a lot of tears. Change is always hard; and this one particularly so. It is also inevitable.
I spent a lot of time setting the table and planning the meal on Friday. We had our comforting and wonderful roast chicken. But the best part was dessert. In Veneta's honor, I made baklava. This is one of those dishes that I've always loved and decided to try several years ago. It seems daunting, but it really is fairly easy to make. By now, I've made it several times and it's always delicious.
Phyllo dough is not the easiest thing to work with because it is very fragile and tears readily. Just handle it carefully and remember the butter serves as glue and the whole thing is very forgiving. I have a zillion little patches and tears in my baklava, but once it's baked and syruped (is that a word?), you'd never know. Baklava also gets better with age (within reason of course). It is delicious the first day, but even better the second day, after the syrup has had more time to be absorbed.
This recipe is my revision of the recipe in The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook. I've altered it over the years based on my experience and preferences. This time, I added rosewater to the syrup, which gave the baklava a Persian flavor. If you don't have rosewater (orangewater would also be good), just use plain water.
3 1/2 cups very finely chopped nuts (I recommend walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, pistacios or best, a mix)
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 pound frozen phyllo pastry, preferably extra thin, thawed
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
2 cups sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the nuts, cinnamon, allspice and cloves in a bowl.
2. Unroll the phyllo. Immediately cover iwth plastic wrap and then a damp towel. Keep covered while working.
3. Brush a 9 x 13 x 2-inch baking pan with melted butter. Lay 1 sheet of the phyllo in the pan. Lightly brush with the melted butter; cover with another sheet of phyllo and butter again. Layer the phyllo, and butter 5 more times each, ending with the phyllo.
4. Sprinkle phyllo with 2 tablespoons (I usually use a little more than this) of the nut mixture; repeat layering iwth butter, phyllo and nuts until the filling is used up. Lay 1 sheet of phyllo over; bursh with butter. Layer phyllo and butter again until the phyllo is used up, about 6 more times.
5. Using a sharp knife, score surface of pastry (about 1/4 inch deep -- this can be tricky; you have to be gentle with the dough and hold it down while you use the knife so you don't rip up the whole thing) diagonally into diamonds (for some reason, I am geometrically challenged, but I score the pan diagonally both ways and end up with some diamonds, some squares and some trapezoids, which all taste the same). Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes. Cool on a rack at least 10 minutes.
6. Place the sugar and 1 cup water (if using scented water, use 1/4 cup of it and 3/4 cup of plain water) in a saucepan; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer about 4 minutes.
7. Pour the syrup over the surface of the baklave; let cool completely. To serve, use a sharp knife to cut into pieces along the scored lines.