It was Cinco de Mayo, and I was in Rokan’s hot and steamy kitchen, waiting for the last pan of baklava to come out of the hot oven. Since three other pans were already baked and cooling, I unloaded my gear—the camera, tripod, lighting kit, reflector—because a very delicious shot was right in front of me.
A showcase of delicious-looking, traditional Syrian sweet pastries made with flaky, buttery, fragile layers of fillo dough—Americans call sheets—cut into squares, supporting a layer of ground walnuts, golden sugar syrup ladled on top, then finished with a pinch or two of ground pistachios.
Is there any other sweet more associated with Middle Eastern cooking and culture?
Rokan is the younger of the two Syrian refugee sisters, Rokan and Rokhash, of Fig & Honey: Eastern Mediterranean Catering, a new Illinois business thanks to a congregant from the synagogue that welcomed them.
The baklava would feed 125 people who would gather the following day for a GirlForward event. According to the website, the non-profit is dedicated to creating opportunities for girls who have been displaced globally by conflict and persecution.
Rokan’s kitchen was looking more like a cottage food business than the apartment kitchen it is, with pans of cooked sweets stacked on an upright commercial shelving unit that I found for fifty bucks at a wholesale warehouse, Restaurant Depot. They cleared off the kitchen table for our food shot.
“Do you have a platter, like something Syrian-looking?” They both stare at me. Stupid question. I pull a demitasse cup and saucer off a shelf. “Like this plate, this design, but (hand motion) much bigger?” As if they have a prop closet stuffed with tabletop accessories they dragged across the Syrian border into Turkey. I set up the light, Rokhash held the reflector, I rotated the squares of baklava until a good angle appeared.
After a dozen food shots, the digital images were loaded onto my laptop so that they could immediately see their work. Baklava was their signature dessert. Rokan called for her husband to come look, and he gazed at the tasty dessert with the two cooks. They were all smiles, a flashcube of happiness.
Time to eat. They gave me a perfectly cut piece from the cooling rack, a mouthwatering square of five layers of filo dough, sprinkled with a layer of ground and very expensive walnuts (I glanced at the package, Kosher walnuts, $6.99/lb. Made a note to discuss that.) Next, a spoonful of melted butter to moisten the ground nuts, five more sheets of filo, patted gently down by hand, then carefully cut into squares. Into the hot oven, twenty minutes at 385˚F. Rokhash put her hand on my watch. It’s 4:10pm. I didn’t see a timer anywhere. I was it.
I mentioned that I’d seen filo pastries sliced on an angle, making diamond shapes, or rolled into cones or cigars.
“I can do that,” Rokhash emphasized, which I took as a wonderfully aggressive attitude to please, because she is going to make this foray into catering work. As if her future depends on it. With a husband healing at home from an unexpected surgery and out of work for a while, and two kids in elementary school, she needs to carry the family with her cooking. Immigration, again, has come with a price.
While the last pan was in the oven, I went over my notes, without any measurements because of course there was no recipe—I asked for one, yes, another stupid question—and Rokhash pointed to her head. I should’ve known, cooking instructions were in her head.
But there’s a prep detail I observed, and it’s worth sharing.
Filo pastry sheets sold in grocery stores in America come in a rectangular box and are kept frozen until ready to use, then they’re thawed. They had a few standard size 12” X 17” baking sheets. Rokhash took out the filo sheets wrapped in plastic, laid the rolled sheets across the twelve-inch width of the baking sheet, demonstrating to me that the filo sheets were about two inches longer than her pan. With a kitchen scissors she clipped off two-inches. She wanted larger cookie sheets. Could I find some?
“I don’t know, I’ll see,” was all I could say. The two-inch end of the filo roll, tossed into the garbage, made the point clear. She hates waste.
And now these refugees live in America, where people leave furniture at the curb. Leather sofas, cherry bookcases that were someone’s built-in library, garden furniture. You name it.
It was time for the baklava to slide out of the oven. Rokan ladled the sugar syrup mixture on top, and Rokhash repeated to me so that I’d get my notes right: Hot out of the oven, then sugar syrup splash. Hot, then cool. Don’t warm the syrup. Got it.
“Easy,” I said, after watching the prep for one tray, “I could do this too.”
“Easy peasy,” Rokhash said, smiling broadly. Her son learned that at school. A nonsensical phrase with a lyrical tune that’s apparently gone around the world since the British TV commercial aired in the 1970s for Lemon Squeezy detergent. Easy peasy, Lemon Squeezy. It made dirty, grimy plates clean.
They packaged a half dozen baklava squares to go. I did not share them with my husband. I hid them. After our Irish pub dinner with good friends from Rome, I happily sat watching SNL that same night and ate them all myself.