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Celebrity chef Carla Hall took a circuitous route to the kitchen. She studied accounting at Howard University and spent some years as a runway model in Europe before returning to this region to pursue a food career. After years as a caterer, she shot to fame on two seasons of reality television series "Top Chef" and she now co-hosts ABC's "The Chew." We talk to Hall about comfort food and D.C.'s culinary culture
Carla Hall On Her New Restaurant At Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
Carla Hall On What Bring To A Potluck
Where Does Carla Hall Eat In DC?
Caponata: Eggplant, Tomato, and Raisin Relish
Copyright © 2014 by Carla Hall from CARLA'S COMFORT FOODS published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Kojo Nnamdi Show producer Tayla Burney decided to try making Carla Hall’s baklava recipe in advance of Hall's appearance on the show. Here’s how it went.
Baklava. The word has a kind of musical ring to it. And the pastry of flaky filo dough layered with nuts and doused in honey has long been one of my favorite treats.
Growing up in a city with a large Greek community, Greek cuisine has always been part of my life even though it’s not part of my family’s own heritage. The idea that foods from different cultures can unite people from all backgrounds is the driving force behind Chef Carla Hall’s new cookbook and one of the reasons the book appealed to me. As she told our friends at Morning Edition, "Your nose doesn't have to look like mine. Your skin doesn't have to look like mine, but I can still celebrate you."
So it was in that spirit that I decided to finally make baklava myself when I came across the recipe in Hall’s new cookbook. The idea of making the dish has long intimidated me--with all those layers and that oozy, but crisp structure--and I’d never attempted it myself.
On a gray Sunday afternoon I assembled the ingredients. First up was making the syrup, which was a snap. Next, chopping the nuts, which I did by hand, following Hall’s advice, even though my Cuisinart was sitting nearby practically begging to be used.
Then, it was time to put together the pastry.
Now, I’ve been cooking for a decade and have tackled some ambitious recipes, so I’d like to think I’m not quite a novice. Yet all that experience didn’t stop me from making a rookie mistake.
Filo dough comes in more than one size. Did you know that? Because I didn’t. Logically, it makes sense. Of course it would come in multiple sizes to suit different needs. Did I think about this before grabbing the first package I saw in my grocer’s freezer? No.
Sure enough, on second glance, the recipe calls for 18x13-inch sheets. Mine were 9x14 inches which I didn’t realize until I was in the process of assembling the dish.
Fine, no biggie! I swapped out the pan I had prepared for a smaller baking sheet and carried on. Now, again, if I had stopped to think about it, I would have reduced the amount of filling I put between the layers to adjust the proportions for the smaller size. But I was so wrapped up in the process and focused on not screwing up with the filo dough, I didn’t do that either. Which means the final result was a bit precarious and overstuffed.
Also, given the smaller size, I probably should have completely rethought the cutting process (which comes across as WAY more intimidating than it was – if you have a decent serrated bread knife you’re fine). The intended trapezoids and triangles ended up mostly just being misshaped parallelograms. (Hey … I never said I was good at math and spatial relations). If I attempt this again I’ll probably just cut rectangles or squares and call it a day.
Filo dough, while delicate, turns out to be no more frustrating and difficult to work with than rice paper wrappers. In fact, I found it less trying. The hardest thing for me to get used to was that each sheet feels like more than one when you handle it. Hall’s advice to toss any sheets that tear or are otherwise mussed was valuable and sanity saving. But overall, if you have your ingredients prepped, assembled and ready to roll at the start of this, executing her recipe should be pretty smooth sailing.
The results, when all was said and done, were yummy. Colleagues who served as taste-testers appreciated that the syrup wasn’t overly sweet, toned down by simple syrup and given some zip with citrus and spice. Several favored the packed-to-the-brim dough and actually appreciated my ratio mix-up, saying the recipe should be made with extra filling henceforth. Sometimes a mistake turns into a win.
And, as a bonus, I’m not afraid of filo dough any more.