Baking sesame baklava (Μπακλαβάς Σουσαμένιος) on Christmas Eve is an old custom in Thrace and other parts of Greece.
Sesame was once regarded as a highly-prized commodity worth its weight in gold. When used in the Christmas baklava, it is symbolic of the invaluable gift of Christ who comes into the world.
12 sheets of phyllo dough
1 2/3 to 2 ½ cups of toasted sesame seeds
¾ cup of olive oil
ground cinnamon (optional)
2 cups of water
2 cups of sugar
3 slices of lemon peel (about 1 inch x ¼ inch)
Note: Use a non-stick or oiled deep baking or roasting pan measuring approximately 14.5 x 10.5 inches.
1. Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F).
2. Place 3 sheets of phyllo in the bottom of the pan. Trim or fold in to fit. Brush the top sheet with 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, paying attention to edges.
3. Sprinkle evenly with 1/3 – 1/2 cup of toasted sesame seeds. Sprinkle with a very little cinnamon (small pinch) if desired.
4. Place 2 sheets of phyllo on top, brush the top sheet with 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, and sprinkle with 1/3 – 1/2 cup of sesame seeds (and optional cinnamon). Repeat until 3 sheets of phyllo remain for the top.
5. Place 3 remaining phyllo sheets on top, brush with 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, and sprinkle with 1/3 – 1/2 cup of sesame seeds. Score the top, without cutting all the way through to the bottom, into 8 pieces (down the middle and into 4 parts down the length of the pan).
6. Bake on the rack just below the middle of the oven at 180°C (350°F) for about 40 minutes, until top is nicely golden.
7. When the pastry is almost finished, make the syrup. Combine water, sugar, and lemon peel in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to make sure the sugar dissolves completely. Boil for 6-7 minutes, remove from heat, and set aside.
8. As soon as the baklava comes out of the oven, remove lemon peel from syrup and pour evenly over the pastry, making sure to get the edges.
Note: When pouring the syrup over the baklava, the sesame seeds on top may get displaced. As soon as the syrup is in the pan, gently redistribute them evenly, taking care not to disturb the phyllo. When the syrup has been absorbed and cools, the seeds will remain in place.
9. With a sharp knife, cut the pastry all the way through to the bottom of the pan, and set aside to give the syrup time to absorb and for the baklava to come to room temperature. This takes 3 to 4 hours. When cooled, cut each of the 8 large pieces into 4 small pieces, either in strips or squares, to make 32 pieces.
Photo by Chris Vlahonasios, used with permission.
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