turtle baklava

turtle baklava

It’s nearly Valentine’s Day! To get in the spirit, I’ve got a bunch of new recipes on the horizon: two of my favorite Valentine’s desserts, two lovely breakfasts, and one recipe that’s actually kind of both, plus a round-up of some delightfully pretty pink sweets. Keep an eye out these next couple weeks. Today, I’m sharing my turtle baklava, inspired by the boxes of chocolate turtles I’ve been known to tear through every 14th of February, as well as my favorite dessert of all time, baklava (or baklawa/baqlawa as my family pronounces it).

I’m so excited for all this upcoming Valentine’s Day content, because I think it’s one of the best holidays for dining in. When Simon and I first moved in together (almost ten years ago! Which feels crazy to actually type), we would always treat ourselves to a prix fixe menu every year. We’d end up in a loud room with thirty other couples, all neatly lined up in tightly packed rows of identical two-seaters, eating identical food.

Eventually, we got sick of feeling like cattle, and started cooking at home for Valentine’s Day, reserving anniversaries and birthdays for dining out. This year, we’ll probably make my favorite, linguine with clams, and watch a corny rom com while talking through the whole thing like we always do. This baklava is perfect for such a dinner in with your partner, but you’re definitely going to have some leftover, so you might want to make it the night before to bring in to the office.

turtle baklava
turtle baklava
turtle baklava
turtle baklava

But before I get to the recipe, I’ll just share a few notes and reasons why I love it:

This recipe is a mash-up of two of my favorites, but it combines qualities of both in a way that makes sense. I’ve swapped baklava’s walnuts and pistachios for pecans, an essential part of chocolate turtles. I’ve incorporated chocolate into the filling, but also drizzled some on top so you get that tempered chocolate snap when you take a bite.

And while turtles are full of gooey caramel, a soaking syrup is essential to good baklava, so I’ve swapped simple syrup for caramel sauce here. This substitution was a little tricky to get just right, because syrup (whether it’s traditional simple syrup, honey, or this much less traditional caramel sauce) is not just something that gives baklava its sweetness, but the main binding agent, and the thing that keeps those layers of filo from flaking apart. So the caramel sauce had to be the perfect consistency.

Once I figured out the right proportions and timings, it was super easy to get consistent results, which I’ve included in the recipe below. Most importantly, you’ve got to pour the syrup on while it’s still hot—otherwise, it will just sit on top and never seep into the layers. While you would normally pour a chilled or room temperature simple syrup over hot baklava, this caramel sauce has quite a bite of fat and protein, and it’s far too viscous at room temperature. So make sure you follow the instructions carefully, and use the caramel while it’s still hot.

In some ways, this recipe is super forgiving. For picture-perfect baklava, you’ve normally got to make sure the top layer of filo dough is flawless. But it’s ok if that doesn’t happen with this recipe, because at the end of the day it’s just going to get doused in chocolate. Sometimes, you get a batch of filo dough that’s just a nightmare to work with, you make it on a super dry day, or you don’t thaw it properly (as you can see from the photo above, it happens to everyone), but it’ll all look great once the chocolate goes on.

turtle baklava
turtle baklava

turtle baklava

yield: about 6 dozen pieces, depending on how you slice them
active time: about 40 minutes
total time: about 3 1/2 hours
download a
PDF to print

baking the baklava

  • Butter for greasing the pan

  • 1 heaping cup milk chocolate chips for the filling (170g)

  • 16 ounces pecans (454g)

  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (1g)

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (2.5g)

  • 16 oz filo dough sheets (454g), thawed at room temperature for 4 hours

  • 6.25 ounces hot melted clarified butter (177 grams, or 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons by volume)*

  • hot caramel syrup (below)

  • 2/3 cup milk chocolate chips for the topping (100g)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F/177°C convection**, and grease a rimmed sheet pan.

  2. Place the chocolate chips in a food processor and blend until they’re very finely chopped (or chop by hand). Add the pecans, cinnamon, and salt, and pulse a few times, until they’re very finely chopped/coarsely ground (but careful not to over-process them into pecan butter!)

  3. Make sure you have all your ingredients (including the clarified butter) ready before you open the filo dough. Place half of the filo dough on the sheet pan, spread the pecan mixture evenly over it, and place the rest of the filo dough on top of the pecan mixture.

  4. Cut the baklava into diamonds by slicing straight across in the short direction, then diagonally (see photos in my original baklava post). It's best to work with a very sharp knife so that you don't tear, stretch, or dishevel the filo. It's alright if a few of the pieces go a little awry, but you want everything to stay pretty lined up.

  5. Slowly and evenly drizzle the hot clarified butter over the sliced baklava.

  6. Bake for about 25 minutes, until it has lightly browned. Make the caramel (below) while you wait. Make sure the caramel is hot right as the baklava comes out of the oven, and rewarm if necessary.***

  7. As soon as the baklava comes out of the oven, slowly pour the hot caramel sauce over the surface. If the pan is wider than the filo, some of the caramel will pool at the sides. Simply scoop it up with a small spoon and drizzle back over the top.

  8. Let it sit until it comes to room temperature, at least 2 hours, and then temper the 2/3 cup (100g) chocolate (gradually melt 1/3 cup of chocolate chips in the microwave, 15-30 seconds at a time, stirring between each zap. Once melted, add the other 1/3 cup, and stir until they melt without microwaving, or microwaving 5 seconds at a time if they don’t melt after a couple minutes). Drizzle the chocolate over the room temperature baklava (with a piping bag or spoon). Wait until the chocolate hardens. Cut through the lines you made before baking, and then serve. Store in the refrigerator for up to 6 days, or the freezer for longer. It’s even better the next day.

caramel syrup

  • 2 1/2 cups sugar (500g)

  • 3/4 teaspoon salt

  • 3/4 cup water (170g)

  • 1 1/2 cups whipping cream (350g)

  1. Get all your ingredients ready, because things will move very quickly.

  2. Place the sugar and salt in a large saucepan with lots of room to prevent bubbling over. Pour the water down the sides of the saucepan, to make sure that none of the sugar is stuck to the sides (this will prevent crystallization****). Turn the heat to high, and bring to a boil without stirring.

  3. Once it comes to a boil, give it a gentle stir with a wooden spoon to help it circulate (but do not let it slosh around, or your caramel might crystalize), and then do not stir it again. The sugar will dissolve after a couple minutes. Once the bubbles become tighter and smaller (after about 5 to 10 minutes), keep a close eye on it—it will start to turn amber, and will quickly progress to clear brown. You can decide how dark you’d like it to be—I like to wait for it to get a tiny bit smokey.

  4. As soon as the syrup caramelizes to your liking, remove from heat and slowly pour in the heavy cream while stirring. Watch out, because it will bubble violently, and make sure your pot has plenty of room so it doesn’t bubble over. Once all the cream is added, keep carefully stirring the mixture, which will continue boiling dramatically. After a minute or so of stirring, everything will come together a little, and it will calm down.

  5. Set it back over medium heat, and cook stirring constantly for about 2 minutes, just until the caramel comes together and then thickens very slightly (adjust the heat to prevent boiling over). Do not let it continuously boil or it will become too thick.

  6. Pour over the baked baklava immediately (or remove from heat, keep covered for up to 30 minutes, and rewarm over low once you’re ready).

* Clarified butter is really easy to make, and I’ve got a video and recipe here. This amount of clarified butter comes from about 8 ounces / 227 grams sweet cream butter (which is conveniently the amount in my clarified butter recipe).
** If you don’t have convection, no worries—you might need to slightly increase the temperature and/or bake it for slightly longer. If your convection fan is particularly strong, you might want to bake without convection, otherwise the pieces of filo might go flying. I’ve only had this problem baking in commercial kitchens, and most home ovens won’t actually blow things around.
*** The syrup will be much more pourable when hot, and it will more easily soak through the layers of filo. Usually, chilled or room temperature syrup is poured over baklava, but this caramel works better when warm (because the fat and protein from the cream will make it set up too much at room temperature).
**** Crystallization happens when grains of sugar fall into a concentrated sugar solution. If a grain of sugar sticks to the side of the pan in the beginning, and then finds its way back into the syrup halfway through boiling, it will set off a crazy chain reaction where the whole thing will seize up and get grainy. If you follow these instructions, you should be fine, but you can also brush the sides of the pot down with water while it boils if you want to be totally cautious (I don’t like doing this, because it makes it take longer to boil off, and I’ve never had a problem with crystallization with the above method).

turtle baklava
turtle baklava

rosemary cornmeal fig ma'amoul (gluten free)

rosemary cornmeal fig ma'amoul (gluten free)

Now that there are so many excellent flour blends on the market, gluten free baking has become much more straightforward. But when you need to replace something like semolina, all purpose flour blends don’t really cut it. If you’re not sure exactly what I mean, take ma’amoul for instance. Ma’amoul showcases semolina’s distinctive texture—when hydrated and kneaded, it becomes simultaneously chewy, buttery, and just a tiny bit gritty. So to make ma’amoul gluten free, you can’t simply replace the semolina with a standard gluten free flour blend.

When I first started brainstorming a replacement, I immediately thought of almond meal and cornmeal grits/polenta, the two grittiest gluten free flours out there. In the end, I settled on cornmeal, because it tends to have that simultaneously gritty and moist texture (while almond meal mostly just adds crumbliness when it’s not in an eggy batter).

rosemary cornmeal fig ma'amoul (gluten free)
rosemary cornmeal fig ma'amoul (gluten free)

I posted a little bit about developing this recipe on instagram, and if you were following along, you might’ve noticed that I was really excited about my first try making these with cornmeal, which went pretty well. And I knew I was onto something good when Yasmeen from Wandering Spice messaged me to say she’s used polenta to make gluten free ma’amoul before.

As you might expect, usually when something goes well on the first try, it only takes one or two more experiments to get it perfect. But for some reason this one took a lot more trial and error to really get it right. I initially had a lot of trouble hydrating my cornmeal enough to create the right texture, and I worried that doing much more than soaking the cornmeal would lose that little bit of grittiness.

Eventually I figured out a method that works really well, which I’ve detailed in the recipe below. Or feel free to read on if you want to hear more about my cornmeal experiments.

rosemary cornmeal fig ma'amoul (gluten free)
rosemary cornmeal fig ma'amoul (gluten free)

While semolina hydrates after a quick soak, I learned first hand that grits/polenta absolutely does not. I tried an overnight soak, I tried a hot milk soak, I tried soaking them for an entire 24 hours, and nothing quite did the trick. The resulting ma’amoul were always a little too gritty. Cooking the cornmeal beforehand seemed like the only way to proceed, but I didn’t want to cook it so much that it lost all texture, and I also didn’t want to cook it in too much liquid, or else the dough wouldn’t be the right consistency (but grits need a lot of liquid otherwise they quickly seize up and become difficult to work with).

The solution lied in the clarified butter, a key ma’amoul ingredient. By cooking the grits for 3-5 minutes in a big pool of clarified butter and milk, they absorb just the right amount of moisture without seizing or turning to mush (plus you don’t have to worry about an overnight soak). The butter lets them stay relatively liquid without setting up, and by the time they plump up as much as they should, you add some cold milk to slow the cooking process. Mix in the gluten free flour until it forms a dough, and you’ve got the perfect texture for ma’amoul.

rosemary cornmeal fig ma'amoul (gluten free)
rosemary cornmeal fig ma'amoul (gluten free)

Also, I’m so excited to share these cookies as part of Cosette’s virtual cookie exchange! Check out the hash tag on instagram (#virtualcookieparty2018) for more, and be sure to check out the recipes below for more holiday baking inspiration, including Cosette’s classic ma’amoul. Some of the links will go live later today, and I’ll keep adding links as more are added throughout the day.

Ma’amoul Cookies by Cosette’s Kitchen
Fruit Cake Shortbread by Amisha from the Jam Lab
Star anise dark muscvado sugar shortbread by Majed Ali
Pistachio and Rose Shortbread by Mai from Almond and Fig
White Chocolate Cherry Macadamia Cookie by Healthy Little Vittles
Gingerbread Coconut Llama Cookies by Baking The Goods
Sans Rival Macaron by Rezel Kealoha
Ginger Cardamom Tea Cookies by Candice Walker
Chocolate Dipped Lace Oatmeal Cookies by Emily Baird
Ghoraybeh cookies by Heifa Odeh
Spicy Chile Gingerbread Cookies by Kate Ramos
Brown Sugar Macaroons by Katherine Turro
Mint chocolate sandwich cookies with bourbon-vanilla cream by Well Seasoned (Ari Laing)
Gingerbread Cardamom Cookies by Sift & Simmer
Chocolate Pistachio Biscotti by Ashley Cuoco
Chocolate Ginger Cookies by Georgie
Biscochitos (New Mexican Sugar Cookies) by Bebe Carminito
Chocolate dipped orange shortbread cookies by Mimi Newman

rosemary cornmeal fig ma'amoul (gluten free)
rosemary cornmeal fig ma'amoul (gluten free)

rosemary cornmeal fig ma’amoul

yield: about 40 cookies
active time: 60 minutes
total time: 90 minutes
download a PDF to print

dough

  • 140 grams (1 1/4 sticks/5 ounces) unsalted butter (to make 110g clarified butter/ghee)

  • 518g (2 1/4 cups) cold whole milk, split into 288g (1 1/4 cup) and 230g (1 cup)

  • 125g (3/4 cup) cornmeal grits or polenta*

  • 70g (1/3 cup) sugar

  • 270g (2 cups) gluten free all purpose flour blend**

  • 2g minced rosemary (1 teaspoon)

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (2.5g)

  1. Clarify the butter (see my clarified butter post for specific instructions and a video—use less butter than the video says, since this recipe only calls for starting out with 1 1/4 sticks). Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to simmer. Keep an eye on the temperature and adjust it as necessary, so that the butter solids don't brown. Remove from heat as soon as the simmering has quieted down a bit, but before it goes silent (about 7 minutes). Use a spoon to carefully skim off any solids from the surface, and then slowly pour the liquid into a measuring cup, leaving behind any of the solids left at the bottom of the pot. You should end up with 110g clarified butter (or feel free to skip this step and start out with 110g store-bought ghee).

  2. Bring the 288g (1 1/4 cup) milk to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn’t scorch.

  3. Once the milk comes to a simmer, pour in the hot clarified butter, cornmeal, and sugar. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring frequently, until it thickens significantly and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. The polenta should be unpleasantly al dente, and there should be no completely hard grains.

  4. Remove the saucepan from heat, add the second addition of milk (230g/1 cup) and stir into the cornmeal dough until it is fully incorporated and thinned out. Move it to a mixing bowl, and then stir in the gluten free all purpose flour, rosemary, and salt, and knead together with a wooden spoon until it forms a tender dough. Let the dough rest for about 20 to 30 minutes to make sure it’s totally hydrated (while you work on the filling). If it’s too wet after resting, add a little more gluten free flour. If it’s too dry, make little indentations with your fingers across the surface, add a bit more milk, and let it soak it up for a few more minutes (using a scale to measure ingredients takes out a lot of the guesswork, but all flour blends work a little differently, so make sure you keep an eye on the dough).

filling

  • 580g (1 lb 4.5 oz) dried figs

  • 14g (1 tablespoons) butter, broken into 10 to 15 small pieces

  • 58g (1/4 cup) water (divided in half)

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1g (1/2 teaspoon) rosemary

  1. Preheat the oven to 400° F (204° C)

  2. Prep the figs by trimming away any stems.

  3. Place the figs in a skillet, dot with butter, and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons water. Roast for 10 minutes, just until they soften slightly and take on a little more color.

  4. Let cool for a few minutes, and then transfer to a food processor, add the salt, rosemary, and 2 more tablespoons water (if necessary) and purée. If your dried figs are very moist, you may not need all the water, but I find that most brands need it—add it gradually if you’re unsure.

  5. Roll the date paste into about 40 balls. Oil your hands as you work to keep the dates from sticking to you.

shaping

  • the dough

  • the filling

  • a ma’amoul mold***

  • powdered sugar

  1. Roll the ma’amoul dough into the same number of balls as the filling (about 40). If it seems a little dry, feel free to add a tablespoon of milk at a time until it’s a nice consistency.

  2. Preheat the oven to 450° F (230° C) convection.****

  3. Stuff the dough: Flatten a dough ball in the palm of your hand. Place a filling ball in the center, and fold the sides up over it. Make sure the whole thing is covered pretty evenly, then roll the whole thing into a smooth ball. Repeat with the remaining ones.

  4. Lightly oil your ma’amoul press (re-oil if necessary, but you’ll usually only need to do this once). Press a stuffed ball into the mold, and gently flatten it, making sure you work it into the nooks of the mold. Once it’s flattened, release it from the mold by pressing the release button, or whacking it against a cutting board (I slam it on a cutting board once, then rock it back and forth once or twice until it falls into my hand). Place the ma’amoul on parchment-lined sheetpans.

  5. Bake for about 12 minutes, just until they turn golden all over and brown in spots. Let them cool, dust with powdered sugar, and then serve. These are best the day you make them, but can be made a few hours ahead of time. They freeze pretty well, if you have any left over.

* Either polenta or grits will work here, but don’t use precooked/quick-cooking polenta or grits. You can tell if it’s precooked by the amount of time the package says it will take to cook. If it says they take about 30 minutes, they’re the right kind. If it says they take 3 minutes, the texture won’t be quite right.
** The one I used to develop and test this recipe was Bob’s Red Bill gluten free 1-to-1 baking flour. Namaste also makes a good all purpose gluten free flour. Make sure you find a flour that has xanthan gum in the blend, which will give the dough enough elasticity to hold together without crumbling or cracking. You’ll also want to make sure it’s neutral-flavored (stay away from blends with a lot of chickpea flour, which has a more distinctive flavor than rice flour).
*** If you don’t have a ma’amoul mold, no worries. Shape them into a ball with your hands, and then carefully flatten them between your two palms, patting the sides to make sure they stay closed and don’t crack. Then you can get creative decorating them with forks, tongs, and other objects. If you are using a mold, the best one to use is the flat round one. The ones that form tall mounds are usually used for walnut and pistachio-filled ma’amoul, and the flat ones are usually for dried fruit paste filled ma’amoul.
**** If you’re not using a convection oven, you may need to slightly increase the temperature and/or cook them just a minute longer.

rosemary cornmeal fig ma'amoul (gluten free)