The Great Baklava Challenge
The Great Baklava Challenge
Why did her husband promise she made a delicious baklava? Was he crazy?
I couldn’t wait until my husband, Fehmi, got home from class. Not just because we were newlyweds, but also so I’d have someone to talk to. My English was so shaky, I hadn’t ventured out of our apartment on the Rutgers University campus in central New Jersey all day.
Fehmi and I grew up in the same tiny town in southeastern Turkey and went to the same church. We’d been friends since the first grade but lost touch after he went to America for college.
When he returned to Turkey one summer, on break from graduate school, our friendship blossomed into love. We got engaged.
I was excited about joining Fehmi in the United States. I’d stepped off the plane in a silk dress with matching white hat, gloves and heels, thinking life in America was like a Doris Day movie.
But when we got married, two weeks later, I couldn’t understand the toasts at my own reception. In Turkey, I’d had friends, family, a teaching career. Here I was lost.
Fehmi walked in and greeted me. “I saw Mrs. Kler,” he said. “She asked about the baklava.”
Not again. Dr. and Mrs. Kler were an older couple active in the Rutgers community. Fehmi met them as a freshman at an event for international students and they’d taken a liking to him. He was working on his Ph.D. now, but they still invited us over every Friday for Mrs. Kler’s famous London broil.
Mrs. Kler helped me find a wedding dress, drove me around town, even taught me how to bake brownies. “When we were in Istanbul, we had the best baklava,” she said. “It’s my favorite.”
I nodded. Finally a word I understood– baklava!
“Do you know how to make it?” Mrs. Kler said. I nodded again, thinking she’d asked if I liked baklava. Of course I did! Turkey was home to the best baklava bakeries in the world.
My friends and I would go to a movie–Doris Day, of course–then stop at a café for a diamond-shaped piece of Turkey’s most famous dessert.
“Well, you’ll have to make me some,” Mrs. Kler said.
Oh no. How could I explain that I’d misunderstood her? I’d never made baklava. It wasn’t a dessert you baked at home like brownies. Maybe Mrs. Kler would forget about it.
“She kept asking,” Fehmi said. “So I told her you’d bake some this weekend.”
Why did he promise that? I’d been a good cook in Turkey. But in America things were different, Fehmi’s brothers, who lived in New York City, had warned me. “Meat doesn’t cook the same,” they said. “Rice is different. Even tomatoes. They’re too watery here.”
Still, I couldn’t embarrass my husband or disappoint his mentors. I’d have to attempt baklava for the first time ever. And I’d need more than a good recipe. God, you’ve got to help me do this one thing right!
I started at the supermarket. Rows of labels I couldn’t read. I needed a spice called tarçın. I opened all the containers and sniffed. Aha. In English, it was cinnamon. When I got home, I wrote tarçın under the label. I did the same for the other spices in our pantry–my own Turkish-English food dictionary.
The only thing missing was the phyllo dough–the thin sheets of pastry that formed baklava’s trademark layers. Fehmi and I scoured every supermarket near Rutgers. No phyllo. I pictured Mrs. Kler smiling politely when I explained how I’d failed. No. We had to find it. Lord, I’m counting on you! Please.
“We could try Malko Brothers,” Fehmi said. It was a specialty Middle Eastern grocery in Brooklyn, a good two hours away. But I was desperate. We hopped in the car and, sure enough, Malko had boxes and boxes of phyllo.
In our apartment, I laid the first pastry sheet in the pan. It hung over the edge. I ripped it, forcing it to fit. That would have to do. I added more sheets, spread a layer of walnuts and then more dough. Then I popped the pan in the oven and waited, opening the door every two minutes to check.
Finally the pastry was golden brown. I drizzled syrup on top. It looked and smelled like baklava. But did it taste like it? I didn’t have time to find out. “Let’s go to the Klers,” Fehmi said. We pulled up to their house and rang the doorbell, the tray heavy in my hands.
I looked away as Mrs. Kler took the first bite. She chewed. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t cut out for American life. I didn’t belong here!
“Nursel,” she said, licking her fingers, “this is heaven!”
Was she just being polite? I tried a piece. A little salty. But not bad! Fehmi couldn’t stop smiling, his lips shiny from the syrup. I felt a huge wave of relief, and not just about the baklava. If I could bake baklava in America, what else could I do? With God’s help, I was up for the challenge.
Two weeks later, I made baklava again, using unsalted butter. Perfect. Fehmi’s brothers finished an entire tray in one sitting. That November, I tackled the Thanksgiving turkey. I started inviting Fehmi’s classmates over for dinner, so I could test new recipes and practice English.
I picked up the language, made friends, found a job, even learned how to make London broil.
Who would’ve guessed that I’d find myself through baklava? A dessert from back home that became my signature dish in my new home.
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