Moussa Salloukh shows off his baklava at the LaScola Italian Grill in Toledo.
(The Blade/Lori King)
Although today just about every Middle Eastern restaurant serves baklava to polish off a succulent meal, in Moussa Salloukh’s house, baklava was a nut-filled gift his mother, Sohame, bestowed upon loved ones primarily at Christmas.
“Growing up, being in a Middle Eastern family, that was what my mom would do. Around the holidays she would get a lot of small tins and make pan, after pan, after pan, and we would take it to our neighbors, to our friends’ parents, to our teachers at school,” he said. She even tied the tins with a bow.
She made so much, she would freeze it, he said.
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Lebanese born Mr. Salloukh, chef and co-owner of La Scola Italian Grill and owner of Burger Bar 419, along with his sisters, grew up helping their mother make baklava. Mrs. Salloukh recently died at the age of 70. The layered pastry has a special meaning for him and making it is a way to honor her.
“That’s how we learned, by helping her. It is tedious all the way until you put it in [the oven]. You have to cut it by hand. You have to cut the triangles. That is the most challenging part. When it comes out, you pour the syrup with rose water over it while it’s hot. It soaks in while it’s hot. That’s where it gets it syrupy sweet taste,” he said.
Tedious, but in the end you have a crunchy, syrupy treat.
He inherited an old recipe book of his mother’s. He took out the yellowed cookbook that was put together by his school. “That’s how old school it was; they put my dad’s name first and hers in parentheses,” he said about his parent’s names above the recipe submission. “I remember coming home and saying they were doing a cookbook and they wanted some recipes. The school did. All the moms and everybody contributed.”
A pastry as evocative as it is enticing, baklava reminds him of the moments around the baking pans.
“The most memories I have with her [entail times when] a lot of ladies would come over, my grandmother, and they would just sit and talk. It was almost like a social thing. They would sit and talk while brushing the phyllo. Mostly everything was in Arabic. I was fluent enough as a kid to understand the conversation. It was just gossip or some complaining,” he said.
Food to Mr. Salloukh is something that feeds both the soul and the body.
“For Mediterraneans, food is the most important thing in the house. It is a time to sit down, to laugh, to cry, to discuss,” he said.
So just as Mrs. Salloukh showered the special ones in her life with her family’s traditional recipe, we hope you will do the same.
A plate of baklava.
(The Blade/Lori King)
Yields 30-35 pieces
- 1 pound strudel dough, separated in half, a half pound for the top and the other for the bottom layer.
- 1pound shelled walnuts, chopped coarsely
- ½ cup sugar
- 1½ teaspoons rose water
- 1 pound unsalted butter at room temperature (see procedure for clarified butter)
- 3 cups sugar
- 1½ cup water
- 1½ teaspoon lemon juice
First prepare syrup. Combine ingredients and stir. Boil to soft-ball stage. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Combine chopped nuts, sugar, and rose water. With a spoon mix well until all ingredients are well blended.
For clarified butter, in a saucepan melt over medium heat until it foams and becomes clear. Do not allow butter to brown. Remove from heat and cool for 10 minutes. Pour through strainer into a stainless steel bowl.
Brush sides and bottom of 9-by-13 inch pan with butter. Place one sheet of strudel at a time in pan, brush the top generously with butter.
Continue this procedure until you have used a half pound of the dough. Spread the walnut mixture evenly over the bottom layer of dough.
Continue adding the remaining sheets of dough liberally brushing each with butter. With a very sharp knife cut into diamond shapes. Be sure to cut all the way to the bottom layer. Bake at 300 degrees for 1 to 1½ hours on center rack, or until the top and bottom are golden brown.
If any butter is left, it should be poured over the layers before it is baked.
Remove from oven and immediately, while the pastry is hot, pour the syrup over it slowly so that all the pieces are well coated. Let set and cool before serving.
Contact Natalie Trusso Cafarello at: 419-724-6133, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @natalietrusso.
This article first appeared in The Blade and toledoblade.com on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015.