Nut-free Baklava!

Living in Watertown, home of all the Armenian and Greek supermarkets EVER, it's not hard to find good baklava. What is hard, though, is finding nut-free baklava; and a friend's recent laments about this (nuts are deadly to her), inspired some research. This recipe is a mashup of a few different things: the basic recipe (semolina custard, filo and syrup) was given to me by Sophia at Sophia's Greek Pantry in Belmont, where I also got many of the ingredients; the rest of the filling was inspired by a couple of recipes that I found online and my own thoughts on what would create the texture I was looking for.

You can modify this any way you like, actually; another thought for the "nut" filling is pumpkin seeds and dried Calmyrna figs pulsed with a bit of candied ginger and orange zest for zing.

To make it: 

1 pound filo dough (#4 or #7 - #4 is harder to work with, but gives much crispier layers)

1-2 sticks butter, melted (start with 1 and melt more if needed)

Semolina custard

2 cups milk

1/2 cup sugar

3 tbsp sweet butter

1 cup semolina flour

5 eggs

Vanilla to taste

Melt sugar and milk together with vanilla in a medium saucepan. When it just comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low and add semolina, whisking briskly until there are no lumps. Beat eggs briefly and add to semolina mixture, whisking again until incorporated. Add butter and whisk again until incorporated.

"Nut" filling

about 1-1/2 cups raw pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

1 cup candied citrus

1 tbsp pomegranate molasses (or honey)

1 tbsp cardamom seeds

1 tsp cinnamon

Pulse pumpkin seeds in a mini-chopper until just broken up a bit. Mix seeds and the rest of ingredients in a large bowl until everything's coated with the molasses.


3 cups sugar

1-1/2 cups filtered water

zest of 1 lemon and juice of 1/2 lemon

2 tbsp brandy or cognac (optional)

Bring all ingredients to just boiling, whisking the whole while.

Putting it together:

Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Lay out the filo dough, and work quickly to avoid it drying out. Lay down 1/3 of the filo, brushing each with melted butter. After the first layer is down, spread the semolina mixture across the whole sheet, taking care not to break the filo.

Lay down another 1/3 of the filo, brushing each with melted butter. Lay out seed mixture in a single layer and top with the last 1/3 of filo, brushing each layer with butter. Bake at 375°F in a preheated oven for about 20-25 minutes until golden brown.

When done, remove from oven and let cool for 20 minutes. When cooled a bit, brush the top layer with syrup, cut the baklava into squares, and then pour the syrup over the whole mess and let it soak in.

For the most part, I'm pretty sure that this keeps for a while, which is good because it makes a ton of dessert. Keep in a Tupperware container with sheets of parchment between layers.

Borek with Chicken, Fennel and Leeks

Recently I was treated to a cooking class at Sofra in Watertown, where we learned a variey of savory pies from various Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. The first one I tried when I got home was Borek - it's made with layers of Yuftka pastry (a very thin crepe, available at many of the Armenian groceries in Watertown). While the basic recipe is much more simple than this, this version that I made last night was delightful, and the braising liquid makes a great soup. You do want to braise the chicken legs beforehand, and it's very worth the effort; however, if you're really short on time, you could also do this with a supermarket rotisserie chicken.

Note: this recipe is not for those watching their weight. It's a lot of eggs and butter, but oh so very good.

To make it: 


1 package yuftka pastry

1 stick butter, melted

3 cups milk (1% is fine)

3 eggs

3 egg yolks

1/2 cup flour

1/2 pound domestic feta cheese

1/4 cup shredded haloumi cheese (you can also use romano; just cut the salt)

4 braised chicken legs (see below), shredded

2 heads fennel, sliced thin

1 leek, sliced thin

a pinch each oregano, mint, cinnamon, and Aleppo chile

1 tbsp olive oil

salt and pepper to taste


Preheat oven to 425°F.

In a large sauté pan, combine fennel, olive oil, leeks and herbs and sauté for about 10-15 minutes until soft. Add shredded chicken and set aside.

Meanwhile, brush the bottom of a 13 by 9 Pyrex baking sheet with some of the melted butter. Whisk milk and eggs into the melted butter with a bit of salt and pepper.

Unwrap the Yuftka and start ripping it into sheets to make a layer at the bottom of the dish. Start with four layers of the pastry, brushing each layer generously with the milk and egg mixture. Spread chicken mixture in an even layer over the dish, and add crumbled feta and haloumi in an even layer. Create four more layers (should be the rest of the package), brushing each layer generously with the milk/egg mixture. When last layer is finished, score the whole dish vigorously with a knife, whisk egg yolks and flour into the remaining milk/egg mixture and pour it over the dish, pressing the casserole down so the custard completely covers the layers of pastry.

Place in the oven at 425°F, then turn heat down to 350° and bake for 30-45 minutes until golden brown. Check it after about half an hour to see how it's going, and bring it back up to 425°F for a few minutes towards the end of cooking time to give it a bit of extra color.

Serve with simple dressed greens and a dollop of Greek Yogurt. Best enjoyed with friends.

Braised Chicken Legs

4 chicken legs, salted and peppered

6 cups of filtered water

2 carrots, washed and cut into big chunks

2 heads of fennel (tops only), cut into big chunks - reserve the bulb for later

1 leek, cut into big chunks

pinch each dried mint, oregano, grains of paradise, Aleppo chile

salt and pepper to taste

1tbsp olive oil

1/2-1 cup dry white wine

1/2 lemon


Heat olive oil over a high heat in a medium stockpot. Place chicken legs, skin side down, on the hot oil and sear until the skin is a golden brown color; you may have to do this in two batches. Remove once the tops have been seared and drain excess fat into a Ball jar with a couple of paper towels stuffed in it (it helps you catch the oil so you can throw it away more easily). Add wine and scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon, getting the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Add vegetables and turn heat to medium; give them a stir just to moisten, then layer chicken legs on top. Throw in herbs, the juice and the rind of the 1/2 lemon, and cover with water. Reduce heat to the lowest possible setting, cover, and let simmer for 1-1/2 hours or so, taking care not to let the pot rise above a simmer.

Once the hour and a half is up, remove the chicken into a bowl with tongs and line a sieve over a large bowl with paper towels (I use two layers). Drain the braising liquid into the bowl and reserve for another use. The veggies can go into the compost. When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the skin from the legs and shred chicken off the bone into the bowl. Skin and bones can be thrown away.

Leek/Potato chowder with Pumpkin and Turkey

Thanksgiving leftovers: ah, who can forget them? This recipe, made for last night's dinner, accomplished an important goal: it used up about a third of various leftovers that I had hanging around from Thanksgiving dinner. Plus, it's very filling, and it's rich without being *too* high in fat.

NOTE: The pumpkin purée I used in this recipe is actually homemade. I took two small pie pumpkins, scooped out the seeds and stabbed them a bunch of times with a knife, then roasted at 375°F for about an hour until they were really well cooked. Then, I scooped out the flesh and whizzed it up in a blender until smooth. If you're using canned purée, you want to add more veggie stock than what's used here; the home made stuff was pretty watery.

To make it: 

To start the soup, add:

  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 slices of good-quality bacon, cut into chunks

into a soup pot and begin cooking until the bacon begins to brown. Then add:

  • 1 leek, white and pale green parts only, sliced
  • 2 small carrots, diced
  • 6 small potatoes, cubed
  • 1 tsp dried sage
  • salt and pepper to taste

To the pan and cook for about 5-10 minutes until the leeks are good and soft. Then add:

  • 2 tbsp all-purpose flour (or 1 tbsp potato flour for Gluten-Free)

and stir into the mixture, letting it brown a bit. Now, add:

  • 3 cups pumpkin purée (or 1 can packed pumpkin)
  • 2 pints veggie stock (use 2.5 pints for canned pumpkin)

Stir until everything is incorporated and cook on low heat, covered, for about 20 minutes until veggies are soft. Lastly, add:

  • 1-1/2 cans evaporated skim milk
  • 2 cups cubed cooked turkey

Stir to incorporate, heat through and serve immediately.

Stuffies (stuffed quahogs)

This is my take on a classic Rhode Island dish, that uses quahogs, a large variety of clam native to Rhode Island. I know that it’s available in other states in New England, but if you can’t find them in your area, you can also use regular clams for this dish if they’re a bit bigger - you just need more of them. It’s got a lot more vegetables, and a lot more lemon, and it’s PERFECT with Newcastle. Seriously—get some Newcastle before you eat these. You won’t regret it.

To make it: 
  • 5 quahogs (very large clams), rinsed of dirt
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 1 green pepper, chopped coursely
  • 3 celery stalks, chopped coursely (about a cup)
  • 1/2 red onion, chopped coursely
  • 1/2 piece turkey kielbasa (about 6-7 inches), chopped coursely
  • 1 cup bread crumbs (I use multi-grain, but you can use any kind you like)
  • 1 tsp dry thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 lemons, zested and juiced
  • 2 tsp tabasco sauce
  • 2 oz. shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat your oven to 425. Put about a gallon of salted water on to boil. When it boils, put the clams in and cover. Boil 6-8 minutes, until shells open. When they’re done, take them out, rinse in cold water, and take the meat out of the shells (making sure to remove the tough muscly bits—there’s usually 2 or 3). Chop the meat finely and put aside. Break the shells in half, rinse them and lay them out on a baking sheet while you prepare the filling.

To prepare the filling, melt the butter in a large frying pan and add pepper, celery, red onion and kielbasa. Sauté for about 10 minutes, until the veggies are very cooked. Take off the heat. Add the thyme, bread crumbs, lemon juice and zest, minced clam meat and tabasco. Mix together until bread crumbs are moistened. Use the quahog shells to scoop up enough of the mixture to fill the shell. Pack the shell tightly with the mixture (don’t be afraid to use your hands here) and set down on the tray. Continue until all the shells are filled or all the mixture is used up. Sprinkle shredded cheddar on top. Put the filled shells in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until cheese is melted and brown. Serve with lemon, tabasco sauce, and a Newcastle.

Tomato and White Bean Bruschetta

The great thing about this dish is that you can make it WAY ahead of time, and it doesn’t need constant chilling. This is a really terrific dish to take along on a picnic. In addition, any leftovers can be combined with veggie broth and rice or spelt to make a very hearty side dish.

To make it: 


  • 1 Baguette (white or multi-grain), sliced into 1/2″ thick rounds
  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Arrange baguette slices on a sheet pan (or pizza pan, with holes in it), and brush each side with olive oil. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden-brown and crunchy.


  • 3 large tomatoes, cut into smallish chunks
  • 1 15-oz. can cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
  • about 15 kalamata olives, pitted and chopped coursely
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped finely
  • 1 tbsp capers, along with 1 tsp of the vinegar in the caper jar
  • fresh black pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a Tupperware bowl, cover it and give it a good shake. Chill in the refrigerator for about an hour to let the flavors meld together. When it’s time to serve, spoon about a tablespoon of the salad onto each crostini.