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

cardamom churros & orange blossom chocolate

cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate

The next six blog posts I have lined up are all desserts. I don’t know if that makes me the worst or best planner ever, but I guess you’re welcome/I’m sorry? If you’re already looking for a break from the holiday madness, feel free to check out my dinner archives, but if you’re excited for more holiday sweets, I’ve got these cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate sauce to kick things off.

While I’ll always love classic cinnamon churros with hot chocolate, cardamom and orange blossom water lend a flavor profile that reminds me of really good baklawa. The orange blossom chocolate sauce is sure to please both orange-chocolate fans and skeptics, with its subtly floral, less punchy flavor. In fact, I sometimes think orange blossom tastes more like ripe banana than orange peel—but either way, it goes great with chocolate and cardamom. This recipe is perfect for all your holiday celebrations, but I think I’m going to make these again in a couple weeks for Simon, whose family always celebrates Hanukah with fried food in all its forms.

cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate
cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate

piping churros directly into hot oil

I did a lot of churro research and tried several recipes before coming up with this one, and I found that there are many different ways to make this wonderful Latin American and Spanish pastry. While all churros are made with some variety of choux pastry (recipes vary dramatically), I found that most fall into two categories:

  1. Pastry with more eggs, which needs to be piped directly into hot oil

  2. Pastry with fewer eggs and more butter, which can be piped onto a parchment-lined sheet pan and refrigerated until firm

I personally prefer the first kind, because they get that eggy/very slightly custardy hollow center, and crisp edges, and they have a curvy, wild aesthetic, which I prefer over the perfectly straight lines that you get from chilling them first (and you’ll see that my recipe uses quite a few eggs to get a more pâte à choux-like texture). I think people usually assume that the directly-piped kind are more challenging than forming them on a sheet pan first, but I found the opposite to be true, at least for me. Here’s why:

Since you’ve got to have stiffer choux pastry to pre-pipe it, the dough will sometimes begin to set in the piping bag as it cools, which makes it really hard to pipe out if you don’t work quickly enough. But a piping bag full of eggier pastry (like this recipe) will never solidify, and can even be kept in a pastry bag in the refrigerator overnight without setting. When it comes to making churros ahead of time, I’d rather have a pastry bag in my tiny fridge than a big sheet pan taking up an entire shelf (but it’s a matter of preference, and I’ve linked to a great recipe in the notes below mine, in case you’d prefer the second kind of pastry).

It takes a little coordination to pipe churros directly into hot oil, but as long as you’re safe and careful, it’s a lot easier than it seems. Make sure to use a heavy dutch oven, which should have plenty of room above the oil so it doesn’t bubble over, and be sure to place it on the back burner. Also make sure there are no little kids or pets around when you fry. As long as you get a really good grip on the pastry bag (twist and tightly pinch the empty part of the bag in the U between your thumb and index finger, and cradle the big part of the bag in the palm of your hand), and pipe them from right above the surface of the oil, everything should go great.

a quick roundup

Before I get to my recipe, I wanted to include a roundup of a few related recipes I love. Some are varieties of churros, and some are classic Latin American dishes with Middle Eastern influences.

Esteban Castillo’s Vegan Churros
Abeer Najjar’s Rose Cardamom Tres Leches
Serious Eats’ Tacos Árabes
my Jerusalem salad pico de gallo
my mujadara-style tacos

cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate
cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate sauce

cardamom churros & orange blossom chocolate

yield: about 30 to 35 churros
active time: 45 minutes
total time: 1 hour
make ahead: the pastry can be made ahead and refrigerated in the unopened pastry bag overnight
download a PDF to print

orange blossom chocolate sauce

  • 3/4 cup whole milk (174 grams)

  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon orange blossom water (19 grams)

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (or less to taste) (3.5 grams)

  • 250 grams / 8 ounces dark chocolate

  1. Bring the milk to a simmer over medium-high heat. As soon as it starts to simmer, remove from heat, add the orange blossom water, salt, and chocolate, and immediately cover it. Let it sit for about 2 minutes, then whisk everything together until it forms a smooth chocolate sauce.

  2. Pour it into a serving bowl, and then right before serving, microwave it just until it warms up and thins out (it won't take long to reheat—just 15 to 45 seconds).

spiced sugar

  • 3/4 cup sugar (180 grams)

  • a big pinch salt (or to taste)

  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon (4.5 grams)

  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom (1.5 grams)

  1. Mix everything together and set aside (you'll need to have this ready as soon as the churros are fried).

making the churro pastry, and setting up your fry station

  • 1 cup whole milk (232 grams)

  • 1 cup water (227 grams)

  • 4 tablespoons butter (57 grams)

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar (21 grams)

  • 3/4 teaspoon salt (5 grams)

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (5 grams)

  • 2 cups all purpose flour (exactly 319 grams)

  • 8 eggs (395 grams)

  • 2 quarts/2 liters of oil for frying (I used canola, but you can use anything with a high smoke point)

  • special equipment: a piping bag, a large closed-star tip, a deep-fry/candy thermometer (or an instant-read thermometer will work in a pinch), scissors

  1. Combine the milk, water, butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla in a medium sauce pot. Set over high heat and bring to a simmer. Once it's simmering, turn off the heat, add the flour, and stir until it comes together into a dough. Keep stirring vigorously until the ball becomes smooth and pulls away from the sides of the pot.

  2. Move the dough to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or use a wooden spoon, then hand mixer). Mix on low speed for about 1 minute, until the dough ball smooths out. Add 1 egg to the bowl and turn the speed to low. Once the dough doesn't have loose pieces flying around, increase the speed to medium and mix until everything is totally combined. Continue in this way, adding 1 egg at a time, until all eggs are incorporated and the mixture is totally smooth. The final dough should slowly fall off the beaters in a V shape.

  3. Set up a safe fry station on the stove or in a dedicated deep fryer. Turn the heat to medium so that the oil slowly rises to 350° F (177° C) and keep an eye on it while you work. To keep your fry station safe, find a heavy dutch oven, make sure you have several inches of space above the oil line so that it doesn't bubble over, and keep the pot toward the back of the stove.

  4. While you're waiting on the oil to heat, fit a piping bag with a large star tip (but do not yet snip the end of the bag), and fold the top of the bag outward so that you can easily fill the part closest to the tip. Fill the bag with a few spoon-fulls of the pastry (try not to leave any gaps). Slightly uncuff the sides of the bag to leave a few more inches of space, and then fill it with a few more spoon-fulls. Continue in this way until the bag is full, leaving about 3 inches of empty space at the top. Uncuff the bag, twist the end shut several times, until there's a good amount of pressure. To set it down, keep it twisted shut, and place the top under the weight of the full bag. The bag can be stored like this in the refrigerator overnight, before snipping. It does not need to come to room temperature to pipe.

Frying the churros

  1. Get your spiced sugar ready (above), and line a medium bowl with a few layers of paper towels.

  2. Once the oil is 350° F (177° C), push the star tip back a tiny bit, and snip the end of the piping bag so the tip can pop out. Twist and tightly pinch the empty part of the bag in the U between your thumb and index finger, and cradle the big part of the bag in the palm of your hand (like this). Hold it in one hand and make sure you have a really good grip on it (do not let it fall into the oil!), and hold scissors in your other hand.*

  3. With the tip of the bag at a 45 degree angle about a half inch above the oil, pipe about 4 to 7 inches of pastry directly into the oil, and snip it off with the scissors, and then pipe one more, snipping it again. Twist the bag once or twice to create more pressure and immediately pipe out two more churros into the oil. Twist the bag, and pipe one or two more, depending on how much space there is. Do not let them plop into the oil from far above—just inject them into the surface of the oil.

  4. Let them cook for about 2 minutes on the first side, and then carefully flip them once they're golden brown. Cook the other side for about 2 more minutes, and remove them with tongs once they're done (about 4 to 5 minutes total).** To make sure they don't get greasy, lay them almost vertically against the sides of the paper-towel-lined bowl, so their oil runs down their sides instead of pooling in the grooves.

  5. Let the first batch of churros drain while you pipe the next batch. As soon as the next batch is frying, toss the drained batch in the cinnamon sugar to coat, and set them on a plate or sheet pan in a single layer. Don't let them drain and cool longer than a couple minutes, or the sugar will have trouble sticking to the churros. Repeat with the remaining pastry, until all the churros are fried and coated. Serve immediately.

* If you don't think you are coordinated enough to do this (safety first!!), try this recipe from Cook's Country, which uses fewer eggs for a thicker choux pastry, which means you can pipe the pastry onto a sheet pan while it is still warm and maleable, and then chill it until it's firm. The choux pastry in this recipe (like most) will not firm up enough to handle it if you refrigerate it. But the up-side is that you can refrigerate the pastry in this recipe overnight in a piping bag, and pipe directly from the refrigerator.
** Monitor the heat to make sure it stays around 350° F (never going below 340 or above 370). If you need to pause to refill the bag, make sure you turn off the heat on the oil so it doesn't overheat (it'll still be hot by the time you're ready).

cardamom churros with orange blossom chocolate sauce