When author Diana Abu-Jaber (Crescent, Arabian Jazz) decided to tell her own story of growing up Jordanian-American, she chose this Middle Eastern delicacy as her metaphor. The Language of Baklava, a memoir released this spring from Pantheon Books, speaks the language of contrasts, with recipes woven into each chapter. It's the story of being American in the schoolyard and Arab at home -- of moving from upstate New York to Amman and back again, and of a slowly emerging literary life. But mostly, it's the story of Abu-Jaber's father, Ghassan, who immerses his all-too-American children in Arab culture through his love of food.
"My childhood was made up of stories," Abu-Jaber writes in the book's foreword. "The stories were often in some way about food, and the food always turned out to be about something much larger: grace, difference, faith, love."
Hospitality is paramount in Arab culture, and food is the way to make that connection. As a child, Abu-Jaber hung draped over her father's shoulder as he prepared the savory mjeddrah and threaded cubes of lamb onto skewers for shish kabob. She absorbed the aromas and flavors of Arab culture through her pores. Along the way, she came to understand the bittersweet complexity of home.
I met Abu-Jaber at the Fishtrap writers' gathering three summers ago, and we've stayed in touch ever since. I'm eager to learn this language, to hear the baklava speaking, but the paper-thin sheets of phyllo dough intimidate me. They dry quickly into brittle wisps, and yet they can't be too moist either. I confess my worries to her.
"You can't think about it," she tells me from her home near Miami. "It's like diving out of an airplane. Just yell, 'Geronimo!' and take the leap."
Since I don't have a food processor, I grind the walnuts and sugar in my blender, where they promptly gum up the blades while leaving several large walnut chunks untouched. I find that if I do it in very small batches, I can control the consistency better. It's my first lesson in the Zen of baklava: patience.
While working on the filling, I put the butter in a pan over low heat to melt. Slowly, slowly, it turns to golden liquid, with the creamy milk solids rising to the top. I skim the solids off, but little bits evade my efforts. I go back with a smaller spoon to get the rest. My second lesson: perseverance.
With all the ingredients ready to go, it's time to assemble. Meticulously, I lift the first sheet from the pile and drape it in the buttered pan. I think I'm holding my breath. I brush the sheet oh-so-slowly and deliberately with melted butter.
After a while, I develop a rhythm: remove a sheet, place it in the pan; cover the remaining sheets; pick up the melted butter and brush on liberally; put the butter pan down, and repeat. I work quickly, but I must temper my pace even as I gain confidence lest I mishandle it. The stack of dough seems endless. I will always be lifting and buttering dough. Time passes: 10 minutes, 20. Assembly becomes meditation. I receive my next lesson: mindfulness.
With half of the sheets in the pan, I add the filling. Then it's back to more layering. My wrist begins to ache as I hold the butter pan. My shoulders and back are getting stiff. Lift dough, place, and butter. Lift dough, place, and butter. Time marches on. Then suddenly, I'm done. I slice through all the layers to form diamonds and place my creation in the oven. Assembly has taken more than an hour.
Marvelous scents begin to emerge. My neighbor knocks on the door with a question, then lifts her nose, inhaling deeply, and says, "What are you cooking? That smells incredible!" I promise her a piece when it's done.
When I remove the pastry from the oven, the top layers have lifted like wings of ancient parchment. I take the cold syrup and hold it as an offering above the pan, then I begin to pour. The hot pastry hisses and crackles as it meets the cold sugar syrup, and the textures merge in a strange and wonderful alchemy.
Tentatively, I lift a small corner piece out of the pan and bite down through layers, through crunch and sweet and the meatiness of nuts. I taste dough and filling, yes, but also time and work, the efforts of farmers and bakers and Bedouins before me who've brought these ingredients to my table and made this ineffable delight possible. I hear their words, their stories; it is poetry. It is the language of the baklava.
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
Splash of lemon juice
1 teaspoon orange blossom water (available at the Oriental Market on Trent Avenue)
1 pound walnuts
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 box phyllo dough, defrosted
1 pound butter, clarified (melted and with the top layer skimmed off)
In a sauce pan, boil all the syrup ingredients until the mixture turns clear. Cover and set aside in the refrigerator to cool.
In a food processor, grind together the walnuts, sugar, and cinnamon to a fine, sandy consistency. Set aside.
Carefully unfold the phyllo dough, making sure not to crack or tear it. Keep it covered with a piece of waxed paper to help prevent it from drying out.
Butter the bottom of a shallow baking pan. Carefully unpeel the first sheet of phyllo and lay it flat and smooth in the bottom of the pan. Brush with the clarified butter. Continue layering sheets of phyllo dough and brushing each sheet with butter until you've finished half the dough.
Spread the nuts and sugar mixture over the dough.
Place another sheet of dough on the mixture and butter it. Continue layering and buttering dough until you've used up the rest.
Using a sharp knife, carefully cut through the baklava in long, straight lines to form diamonds or squares (about two inches long). Bake for about 50 minutes at 300 degrees or until golden brown. Pour the cooled syrup over the hot baklava. Eat when ready!
Reprinted with permission of Diana Abu-Jaber from her book, The Language of Baklava.