Baklava truly is the dessert of the gods. One of my favorites! And a real treat for many people who are used to desserts that simply compete with one another to be as fatty and as sweet as possible, with as many different "types" of chocolate as can be reasonably crammed in. The rich flavor of nuts and the floral sweetness of honey and rose water can be a really refreshing change.
Phyllo is always tough to deal with. The two enemies, ironically, are getting it wet, and letting it dry out. Most phyllo in modern groceries is purchased frozen, and you have to somehow thaw it and make it usable. The method on the package recommends moving it to the fridge 24 hours before use to allow it to slowly thaw. I do not usually succeed at this, because my fridge seems to be too moist. An alternative method popularized by Alton Brown is to leave the phyllo frozen until you use it, and then right before use, microwave it on high for 60 seconds. This has worked wonders for me, but still seems to fail for others.
- Purchase phyllo from stores that sell a lot of it, so it hasn't been in the freezer long. This may be hard to judge, but "fancier" groceries will probably go through more of it.
- Keep it frozen in your shopping basket - it doesn't have much thermal mass and will thaw quickly. Put it in your basket last, pack it in the bags with other frozen foods, and get it home and into your freezer fast. If it partially thaws, moisture will build up in it, and cause you problems later.
- Keep it from drying out by draping a lightly damp cloth over it while you are working.
I've had the best success with clarified butter, because the water has been removed. It isn't necessary, but it is helpful if you are trying to get the most out of your baklava. You can buy clarified butter, or the very similar desi ghee at Indian markets. You can also clarify butter yourself.
I use my brush to drizzle hot (but not scalding) clarified butter over the sheet, then gently spread the drizzles out with the brush. Getting a good coat on the bottom of the pan, and on each successive layer will help the next layer stay in place while you brush.
Cutting and Syrup
I prefer to cut the baklava about half-way through the baking process. That has given it a chance to firm up a bit, but not get too crackley. After it has been removed from the oven, allow it to cool for 2 hours, then cut again, along the same lines.
For syrup, I like a mix of honey and sugar syrup (equal parts honey, water and sugar, plus desired spices, heated to fully dissolve and simmered for 10 minutes). Honey-only syrups don't set up as firmly, and can be a little "too honey" for some palates. The syrup should be hot when applied to the baklava, but the baklava must be fully cooled. After applying the syrup, cover, and allow the whole thing to cool fully, preferably overnight, before serving. It takes time for the hot syrup to penetrate the folds, and then even more time for it to set-up fully. Baklava is often best prepared a day or two before serving, not as a fresh pastry.