Essay Baklava

What Can We Steal From Diana Abu-Jaber’s The Language of Baklava?

June 6, 2013 / GreatWritersSteal / 0 comments

Title of Work and its Form:  The Language of Baklava, creative nonfiction
Author: Diana Abu-Jaber (on Twitter @dabujaber)
Date of Work: 2005
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The book was released in hardcover and paperback.  You can purchase it online or at your favorite local bookstore.  If you live in Oswego, New York, consider buying the book from The River’s End.

Bonuses:Here is a very sweet interview in which Ms. Abu-Jaber discusses cooking for children.  Here is a 2004 interview that is very interesting in spite of its age.  Here is a Washington Post review of her most recent novel, Birds of Paradise.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Ms. Abu-Jaber’s book is a particularly pure example of one of the primary uses of literature.  As you read The Language of Baklava, you learn all about Jordanian culture and how a second-generation Jordanian American reconciles the two traditions in her own life.  More importantly, this kind of literature teaches us that we’re all pretty much the same, no matter where we grew up.  Ms. Abu-Jaber tells the story of her childhood in a chronological manner, from the time she was approximately six through her adulthood.  Ms. Abu-Jaber spends a great deal of time introducing you to her close relatives and extended family and even describes her own experience living in Jordan.  The book is not jam-packed with extreme experiences or heartbreaking trauma.  Instead, Ms. Abu-Jaber weaves a comforting tapestry of memory and emotion that truly add up to a meaningful expression of her identity.

The book and its author hold a special place in my heart.  Ms. Abu-Jaber attended Oswego State University…just like I did!  (Am I the only one who admires the successful writers in whose footsteps I hope to follow?)  When I was in grad school, The Language of Baklava was chosen as the Ohio State freshman book, so I had the pleasure of leading a brief discussion with some randomly chosen young people who read the book.  While I got the occasional thrill out of recognizing some of the places described in Baklava, you certainly don’t need to know the Central New York area in order to enjoy the book.

Ms. Abu-Jaber begins the book in a felicitous manner.  When she was a small child, Ms. Abu-Jaber sat in the audience of The Baron Daemon Show, a local children’s show that aired on Channel 9 in Syracuse.  (I happen to have grown up in the Syracuse area, but slightly later than Ms. Abu-Jaber did.)  These kinds of programs once dominated Saturday mornings across the country.  A local host—a vampire, a clown, a railroad conductor—would entertain a live studio audience of children and kids across the viewing area would join in on the fun from their living rooms.  The hosts, of course, would interact with the children in the studio.  Well, Baron Daemon (portayed by newsman Mike Price) greeted the children in the audience.  Immediately deciding the proper pronunciation of the name was easy for the host when the children were named Bobby Smith or Debbie Anderson.  Then the Baron got to Ms. Abu-Jaber and her family: “Farouq, Ibtissam, Jaipur, Matussem.”  Upon seeing “Diana” on the name tag, the Baron must have felt relief.  Then he “crashed” into Ms. Abu-Jaber’s last name.  Not surprisingly, the Baron chose to speak to the author: “Now Diana, tell me, what kind of a last name is that?”  Ms. Abu-Jaber laughed as she shouted, “English, you silly!”  The one-page anecdote establishes the tone of the book.  Ms. Abu-Jaber and her family were and are both American and something else.  The host of the show certainly didn’t mean any offense in being unable to work through the Jordanian names, but the incident, especially in retrospect, is a reminder that cultural identity is not as simple a thing as we might think.

Here is the Baron in action, in case you’re curious:

So the opening scene introduces the theme in an entertaining manner.  Immediately thereafter, Ms. Abu-Jaber tells the scene of a family picnic in a Central New York park.  The reader meets all of the characters and learns about the food, the family conflicts (both internal and external) and allows Ms. Abu-Jaber to insert the first of several recipes that form the backbone of the book’s structure.  In the space of a few pages, the author has immersed the reader in the world of Jordanian Americans and in that of her family.  (If only it were that easy to be comfortable when you meet a significant other’s family!)

When I first read the book, it didn’t take me long to realize that Ms. Abu-Jaber, well, she is the protagonist of the book and she isn’t.  By necessity, this memoir is structured around her memories and her life, but I love that the author, at times, allows herself to be a part of the ensemble instead of the star.  This seems like a strange thought, doesn’t it?  If you pick up Amanda Knox’s memoir, you darn well better read about how she was arrested for murder in Italy, right?  She better be the focal character.  Baklava is about family and culture, both institutions that are focused on the intersection between the individual and the whole, so it makes sense to modulate the importance of the author in the narrative.

Let’s talk about those recipes.  Each chapter features at least one recipe drawn from Ms. Abu-Jaber’s life.  When we experiment with form, we must ask ourselves whether we are serving the overall story.  Shouldn’t this be our top priority?  While the reader may not rush out to Wegmans to pick up all of the ingredients, the recipes in the book certainly do contribute to the narrative.  Food is a fascinating element of culture; people all over the world have pretty much the same ideas about food, but the little differences in climate and population and so on have resulted in culinary diversity. (Every culture has something resembling a dumpling.  Every culture combines sweet and savory in different ways.)  Ms. Abu-Jaber also ensures that the recipes have a meaningful purpose.  For example, Chapter Seven begins with a family party and lots of people are on their way.  Therefore, Ms. Abu-Jaber introduces the reader to “Start the Party” hummus, the same food that is likely being prepared in the kitchen.  (It’s also interesting to think about hummus as an “ethnic” food; is it just me, or has that changed over the past couple decades?  Remember, dear reader, that spaghetti was once considered an “ethnic” food and is now as American as apple pie.  Which I suppose is pretty much a tart, the likes of which have been made in Europe for centuries. See how the recipes in the book relate so heavily to its theme?)

What Should We Steal?

  • Immerse your reader in your unique world as quickly as you can.  Ms. Abu-Jaber hits you with an anecdote that relates to theme (a person straddling two cultures) and introduces the vast cast of characters…all in the first dozen pages.
  • Allow yourself to take the back seat, even in your own story.  Depending on the scene, you may wonder: is this YOUR STORY, or a story ABOUT YOU?
  • Augment stories with tangential elements if they will help you accomplish your goals.Storybooks have pictures for a reason, not just because the pictures are pretty.  They make it easier for the young reader to understand the story.  Business biographies often have sections filled with photographs.  These are not only fun, but they can help you keep the “characters” straight in your head.


Creative Nonfiction

2005, Baklava, Diana Abu-Jaber, Narrative Structure, Oswego State

Baklava with Cardamom, Honey and Pistachios

Ask anyone from the Eastern Mediterranean who makes the best baklava, and chances are they will answer "we do" (that is, if they don’t answer "my grandmother"). Apart from bread, there is probably no single foodstuff in the world that engenders as much loyalty to regional versions across so many countries as this iconic pastry. The specifics may vary, of course – some use walnuts, others pistachios; the flavoring can run through the gamut of the spice rack and beyond; the form can be triangular, cylindrical, diamond or square, but the principle is the same: tissue-thin layers of dough, brushed with butter and stacked with nuts, baked until crisp and golden, and then drenched with fragrant syrup which seeps through the cracks, penetrating the layers until every bite is a wildly alluring interplay of crunchy and soft, spicy and sweet, rich and, well, richer. Though wars may be waged over the finer points of its construction, in my opinion the differences are academic, since no matter what form it takes, baklava is one of the most unbelievably delicious things ever to grace a dessert plate.

Baklava is also one of the most well-documented and ancient desserts ever to grace a plate, with a timeline traceable back nearly three millennia. The story of baklava begins around the 8th century BC in northern Mesopotamia, when the Assyrians are reported to have layered crude pieces of bread dough with nuts and honey before baking them in wood-burning ovens. We can thank the Greeks, however, for inventing a method of rolling the pastry dough into paper thin sheets appropriately called filo, meaning “leaf”. By the 3rd century BC, there are records of baklava being served in wealthy Greek households for all kinds of special occasions, as well as being prescribed as an aphrodisiac, for the walnuts and honey they filled it with were believed to incite more than just gastronomic passions. The sweet also spread into the wealthy households of the ancient Persians and Romans, and then journeyed to what is now Turkey when the Roman Empire moved east to Constantinople. Many believe, however, that it was during the four hundred years that the Ottomans controlled Constantinople that baklava reached its apogee, as the kitchens of the Imperial Palace became the ultimate culinary hub of the empire, and Armenian, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Hungarian and French chefs were brought in to add their particular touches to the refinement of the sultans’ favorite dessert.

These days you could easily draw a map of countries from Sofia to Tehran based on recipes for baklava. In the Balkans the recipe usually calls for walnuts, and particularly in Greece they like honey, cinnamon and cloves spicing up the mix, whereas in the Levant pistachios and a touch of lemon or orange blossom water are more to people’s taste. Turkey, straddling Europe and the Middle East, is home to many different variations including a famous hazelnut version that many are partial to; likewise the pastry chefs in the southern city of Gaziantep are particularly renowned for their version incorporating a thick paste made from milk and semolina. Moving deeper into the Arab world and Iran, the recipes call for heavy doses of rosewater and cardamom, and almonds are often the nut of choice; here the shapes and sizes are also much more variable. In all these places the baklava can be preferred ‘wet’ or ‘dry’, thick or thin – the only thing people seem to agree on is what it shouldn’t be: soggy, greasy or overpoweringly sweet (though this last one is, naturally, often subject to creative interpretation).

Baklava is surprisingly easy to make, and even more surprisingly easy to eat. It is, for example, one of the few foods that cause my tastebuds to short circuit my other cognitive functions – at least, that’s the only explanation I can give as to why my fullness receptors and calorie concern seem mysteriously out of order whenever it’s placed in front of me. In my version of this irresistible sweet, which doesn’t adhere to any particular tradition but my own tastes, simplicity is the key to perfection. Without heavy spicing or additional fillers, the rich voices of the butter and nuts sing clearly, supported only by a subtle and well-trained chorus of fragrant cardamom and the barest hint of honey. You’re welcome, however, to treat this recipe as a blueprint for your own favorite flavors. For example, you could easily substitute another nut for the pistachios if you prefer; likewise, the syrup can be customized to your taste, perhaps with more or less honey, with other spices or with flower essences. And who’s to say you can’t go completely untraditional and put some dried fruit, vanilla or liqueur inside? The only thing I would not recommend is skimping on the butter or the sugar – even if you have to diet for a week before and after eating it, the taste will be worth it.

I will, however, give you one piece of dietary advice: do as I do and insure you have plenty of people around when you pull this out of the oven. Not that the thought of others witnessing my lack of self-restraint actually deters me where baklava is concerned – on the contrary, I just count on baklava having an equally compelling effect on everyone else so that it disappears before my own gluttony can cause too many heads to turn.

Baklava with Cardamom, Honey and Pistachios

Yield: Makes about 24 pieces, depending on how you cut them.
Source: inspired by recipes in Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food and, to a lesser extent, Paula Wolfert’s Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean
Note: Although baklava is best made in a heavy metal pan, you can use glass or ceramic as well – however reduce the oven temperatures by 25 degrees if you do. 

1 lb (450g) filo pastry (about 24 fine sheets), defrosted if frozen
1 1/4 cups (2.5 sticks or 300g) unsalted butter, clarified (instructions follow)
12 oz (300g) shelled, unsalted pistachios
2 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 cups (325g) sugar
1 cup (250ml) water
4 tablespoons flavorful honey
1 tablespoon cardamom pods, lightly crushed with the back of a knife
2 teaspoons lemon juice

Prepare the syrup first. Put the sugar, water, honey and cardamom in a pan and boil gently for 5-10 minutes until the syrup thickens just enough to coat a spoon. Stir in the lemon juice and simmer for a few seconds more. Allow to cool, then chill in the refrigerator. Look at the syrup when it has cooled – it should be thick but still flow easily. If it is too viscous and sticky, add a little water, warming it if necessary, and letting it cool again. Fish (or strain) out the cardamom pods.

To clarify the butter, melt it in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring it to a gentle boil. Boil without stirring until a layer of foam has risen to the surface and the white solids have sunk to the bottom (don’t let the solids brown). Skim off the foam as best you can, then decant the golden liquid into another container, leaving the solids behind (I normally strain it through a cheesecloth while doing this). Discard the solids. Keep the clarified butter warm.

Pulse the pistachios and sugar together in a food processor until finely chopped but not pasty. Set aside 1/3 cup of the nuts for garnish, if desired.

While you’re working with the filo, keep the stack covered with a damp towel so it doesn’t dry out. Brush a large square or circular baking pan, a little smaller than the sheets of filo, with butter. If the sheets are much bigger than the pan, trim them to fit (a little too big is better than too small – just let them come up the sides of the pan). Lay twelve sheets, one at a time, one on top of the other, in the tin, brushing each generously with clarified butter, pressing the filo into the corners of the pan.

Spread the nuts evenly over the sheets. Fold over any pastry that extends over the top of the nuts. Then cover with the remaining sheets, brushing each, including the top one, with melted butter. With a sharp-pointed knife, trim the top layers so they fit perfectly in the pan. Cut parallel lines about an inch and a half apart, then cut other parallel lines diagonally so as to have diamond-shaped pastries. Cut right through to the bottom.

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C (see note above). Bake the baklava for 10-12 minutes, or until it begins to brown slightly. Remove the baklava from the oven and pour over any remaining butter (reheat it if it’s not still liquid). Reduce the oven temperature to 325F/150C and bake for about 1 hour more, or until it is puffed up and golden all the way through. Remove from the oven and immediately pour the cold syrup all over the top of the hot pastry, concentrating on the gaps. Return the pan to the turned off oven and let sit, with the door closed, until most of the syrup has been absorbed, about half an hour. Sprinkle on the reserved pistachios, if desired.

Cool completely to room temperature before serving. It actually tastes best if you leave it out to ‘ripen’ overnight, covered with foil.

Due to the use of clarified butter, this will keep well for at least a week at room temperature. It has never lasted that long around me, however.


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