Until just a few years ago when my Aunt Pat passed away, she and my Mom would get together about a week before Christmas and make three trays of pastry. Mom typically prepped everything the day before and then, they would spend the day putting it together and baking it. Each tray takes about 2 to 2 1/2 hours to assemble then nearly 3 hours to bake. We would come home from school and they would be in the kitchen making the bittlewa. They always joked about it being "hillbilly bittlewa" because my Mom's people were from the South. Situe (my Lebanese grandmother) made bittlewa when I was really little, but most of my memories are of my Mom and Aunt.
When Popue (my Lebanese grandfather and the family patriarch) was still alive, there was a whole ritual around the serving of the bittlewa after Christmas dinner. Popue, my Uncle Roni and Aunt Theresa and my Dad would have a piece on their dessert plate. They would examine the top to see the layers and the bottom for browning and the walnuts for moistness. They would then take that first bite. My grandfather in particular would compare the current year's bittlewa with the previous years. It's kinda funny to think back about it. My Mom took all of this in good humor!
The year or two after Aunt Pat passed away, her husband, my Uncle Harold, would come and help Mom make the bittlewa. They weren't able to make any for a couple of years, so I decided that it was my turn! I definitely do not want to lose this family tradition. So, here goes!
I bought the ingredients to make two trays but decided to do one before Christmas and one after. The night before I planned to assemble and bake, I clarifed 2 pounds of butter. Basically, you put the butter in a saucepot and let heat until it just begins to bubble. Skim off the white foam from the surface. Keep doing this until the butter is translucent. As a last step, pour the butter through a cheesecloth to remove any leftover bits.
For one tray of bittlewa, you will need about 2 1/2 pound of walnuts. The grinder below attaches to a chair and grinds the nuts in no time! Add about 1 heaping tablespoon of powdered sugar to the nuts and store in a sealed container until ready to use.
The third and final task for the night is to make the syrup. Five cups of sugar, four cups of water, 2 T. of fresh lemon juice and 2 t. of orange blossom water. Boil gently for about 50 minutes. The syrup should reduce and thicken.
The next day, take the clarified butter out of the refrigerator and heat through. Assemble the pan, butter, brush, sharp knife and dough. The phyllo comes in one pound packages and should not have been frozen. You need 1 1/4 lbs. for the bottom and the same amount for the top. Dampen a clean dish towel and lay the dough on top of it, then cover with a second damp dish towel.
Brush melted butter on the bottom of the pan, then begin laying the dough. Take one layer of dough and position it in the pan, trimming the edge as needed with the sharp knife. Brush with butter. Keep laying the dough and brushing with butter. As you work, keep the dough covered with the towel or it will dry out and crumble.
Once the bottom is assembled, put the butter on the stove to keep warm. Pour the ground walnuts on top, pressing them evenly in the pan.
Now, begin layering the dough and melted butter for the top. Once the top is assembled, it's time to cut the bittlewa. But first, set the oven to 350 degrees and make sure the rack is in the middle of the oven. Cut lengthwise first, into 8-10 columns then diagonally.
Bless the tray by sprinkling the top with water before putting it in the oven.
Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes, lower the oven to 275 degrees and bake for another 1 hour and 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and pour the syrup evenly over the whole tray.