The Language of Baklava
330 Pages, Softcover, no pictures
By Diana Abu-Jaber
Crescent Books, Random House, NY, NY, 2005
$14.95 US/$21.00 CAN
Reviewed by: Chef John Vyhnanek, June 2006

The Language of Baklava is not a cookbook for chefs, it's a cookbook for those fond of recipes that come from the heart and from memories. At first I thought I would be reviewing many different baklava recipes. I was all pumped up because I have made many a pan with walnuts, some with pistachios and even some with pine nuts. Some had sugar, some honey and some lemon juice; others had cinnamon and even orange blossom water. So where are the baklava recipes, I asked? On page 192, one recipe: Poetic Baklava! In fact the recipe is very close to one of my favorites from a Middle Eastern friend. So if there is only one recipe for baklava what else is there?

The book, written by Diana Abu-Jaber, is a story of life, food and family. Childhood memories of parochial school, mother writing a letter, sisters, Bennett a best friend and father working at a malt shop called Cosmos fill the pages. Diana's mom was Irish and father Lebanese, and a good cook too! It's all about stories and remembering. Throughout the book are references to Middle Eastern cooking and recipes such as Magloubeh, a casserole of lamb, rice, onions, eggplant and cauliflower which after baking is inverted like an upside down cake. There is a recipe for pita bread and remembrances of going to Jordan and eating fresh pita bread and washing it down with fresh apricot juice. That sounds good to me!

I enjoyed the light-hearted recollections and tidbits of useful information sprinkled throughout the book. Baba ghanouj and a bottle of Araq, a Lebanese anise liquor, reminded me of my first encounter with Araq, it's amazing how a clear liquor turned white when poured on ice and mixed with a little water. It's just perfect with Mezza and friend to talk with!

I really enjoyed the book and for me it brought back memories as well. I have had quite a bit of experience cooking and serving Middle Eastern food and have many a story too! I couldn't leave without trying a recipe or two, so the Garlic-Stuffed Roasted Luxurious Leg of Lamb on page 283 and the salad Fattoush, (bread salad) were my choices. Delicious, just delicious, although I put powdered Sumac in my salad Fattoush.

The language of Baklava is thoroughly enjoyable. Read it again and again for the recipes, the stories and yes, the Baklava!

Poetic Baklava
For when you need to serenade someone.

Syrup Ingredients:
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
splash of lemon juice
1 teaspoon orange blossom water

Pastry Ingredients:
1 pound walnuts
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 box phyllo dough, defrosted
1 pound butter, clarified (melted and with the top layer skimmed off)

In a saucepan, boil all the syrup ingredients until the mixture turns clear. Cover the syrup 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.
Preheat the oven to 300 F. degrees.

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. You can also use a cookie sheet that has at least an inch-high lip.

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 used half the dough.

Spread the nuts-and-sugar mixture over the dough. Place another sheet of dough on the mixture and butter it. Continue to layer and butter dough until you've used up the rest of the phyllo sheets.

Using a sharp knife, carefully cut through the baklava in long, straight lines to form diamonds or squares (about 2 inches long).

Bake for about 50 minutes or until golden brown. Pour the cooled syrup over the hot baklava. Eat when ready!