Several years ago I found a letter from the early 1970's handwritten from my great-grandmother to my grandmother. The paragraphs alternated between Serbian and broken English, some expressing open joy that my uncle had returned safely from Vietnam and others asking when she'd be back for a visit. At the bottom of the letter was the elder's staple recipe for baklava, thankfully transcribed in English.
The following week was my first exercise in making baklava, an undeniably trying afternoon. My hatred of working with phyllo would most certainly embarrass my foremothers, all of whom made their own pastry from scratch, stretching it long and thin across dining room chairs. However difficult it was for me to work with the fragile ingredients, the outcome was inspiring. I found myself with a lightly sweet, lightly crunchy dessert - a stronghold of a diamond made up of delicate parts. And thus began my personal love affair with baklava. Honey and walnuts and phyllo, oh my!
But where can you get a fabulous baklava if you don't have a full day to donate to phyllo frustration and kitchen mayhem? Great question. This week's Food Fight pits Phoenicia (12141 Westheimer), the warehouse-like specialty supermarket and deli, against Fadi's (8383 Westheimer), a much loved local Mediterranean restaurant and grill.
Few groceries in Houston offer the incredible glimpse of diversity encapsulated in Phoenicia Foods. We must have heard six or seven different languages as we roamed the aisles. Even the people behind the counters represent various countries and continents. And the grocery brands, of course, mirror the myriad ethnicities.
The bakery case is a virtual rainbow of global desserts with cookies and cakes, tarts and puddings from Greece, turkey, Lebanon, Syria and more. But we only had eyes for the baklava. And baklava there was: tray after tray of pistachio and walnut fillings, some sugar-free, some Turkish-style with extra honey syrup.
These versions are definitely bakery-style. They go beyond the basic to highlight additional flavors. The pistachio baklava, for example, is flavored with orange blossom syrup, while the walnut version benefits from the addition of cinnamon. Flavors melded and sang, complimenting each other as if they were born to do just that. The result was an incredibly tender dessert with the essence of walnuts and pistachios, lightly sweetened with honey syrup.
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The line was still out the door when we arrived at Fadi's at 2 p.m. No matter, we side-stepped the whole thing and headed straight for the piles of baklava available near the crowd-free cash registers. I asked for one made with walnuts and another with pistachios, and the lady cheerfully said, "Just two? What a pity." She shook her head in open disapproval.
The baklava from Fadi's is straight traditional. While I like to imagine small Mediterranean women creating the secret dessert hunched over their phyllo, I'm guessing the trays are put together by whomever staffs the kitchen these days. The pastry is not so much flaky as it is brittle, making it fall apart too early, and, while it is pretty common to add a little orange essence or lemon rind into the mix, there was no trace of citrus here. That was the tiny puzzle piece I missed. The nutty flavor came through fine, of course, but there was nothing to cut or soften it. The result was decent in texture, but overly sweet.
The winner: Phoenicia takes this battle. While both versions were worthy of their heritage, and both left the tell-tale honey rings on their plates, the baklava at Phoenicia benefits from the added bakery flavors. Cinnamon and orange blossom add a light sweetness, not a sticky sweetness, making this a dessert delight. The version at Fadi's was slightly dry and overly sweet. Good? Yes, but not good enough to take the crown.