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The Language of Baklava: A Memoir

reviewed by Diana Rosen

Novelist Diana Abu-Jaber is a tall, lanky, lovely woman who understands deeply the sensuous pleasures of good food and careful cooking and baking. She had great teachers, particularly a father whose raison d’etre is hospitality and aunts who spread their sage counsel about cooking –and life--as warmly as melted butter between the layers of phyllo dough.

The Language of Baklava  reflects both how the baklava maker “speaks” the tenderness of love as she adds the delicate ingredients and how this very astute family observer translates her dual cultural heritage for the reader's joy.

In one of many elements of irony, Ms. Abu-Jaber has not embraced the heavy aromatic ingredient of honey, standard in all Middle Eastern baklava. Instead, she uses an orange blossom infused sugar syrup to drench the pastry after baking her flaky glory for the palate. “I watched my aunts for a very long time before they allowed me to make the dough for baklava. It was very sacred to them; the ingredients couldn’t be handled too much or the resulting dough would be heavy and leaden. And, there’s something very sexy about it, too.” (RECIPE FOLLOWS)

Food and love are so intertwined for her that we fully understand why making baklava together with a boyfriend was Abu-Jaber’s personal test to determine whether or not the fellow is potential life-partnership material. When she does find the love of her life, she rushes out to the grocer, piles delectables in her arms, and returns amidst a stormy evening to cook for him, her immediate and inescapable way of demonstrating love.

Each chapter of Abu-Jaber’s book is a sumptuous course of experiences served with marvelous recipes. She tells tales of individuals and collective family legends with deep affection and a vivid truthfulness that readers of all backgrounds will recognize. Written with the specificity of her bi-country childhood of the U.S. and the Jordan of the early 1960s when that country was more donkeys and mules than Four Seasons hotels, she shares the effusiveness of immigrant uncles; the wise patience of aunties; the American tall mother, an elegant non-Arabic schoolteacher who thinks cooking is domestic servitude.

Her father faced familial discrimination and cultural scoffing about his passion for cooking, often slipping out into the night to work in hotel restaurants in an era when male professional chefs were rare and cooking itself was considered the pedestrian duty of the house-bound women in his native Jordan. In the U.S., he cooks freely and lovingly to connect his heritage to his children and to keep alive the simpler place of his own childhood. For him,  life and hospitality are the same, even today.

Following the wreckage of the hurricanes of 2005, he cooked for neighbors and friends who, like he and his wife, were without electricity. One can cook spaghetti sauce in a pot atop of an outdoor grill, he learned, to the delight and gratitude of many who made his home more of a local soup kitchen than a typical Florida condo unit.

Ms. Abu-Jaber and I meet in the sunny splash of California that is the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, a harpist playing on one side, a discreet fire burning on the other, and before us a bountiful tiered tray of afternoon tea treats. Here was another layer of ingredients that might find its way into her delicious short stories or baked into a new novel.


For when you need to serenade someone.

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

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!

THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA: A Memoir, by Diana Abu-Jaber, Anchor Books, 352 pages. ISBN 140077761, $14.95.



Diana Rosen (dianalrosen@aol.com) is a freelance writer  for eZines, web site copy, and print magazine articles on food, beverage, and other lifestyle topics. The veteran journalist is also the author of 10 nonfiction books and the co-author of three others. For more information, visit www.dianarosen.com


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