Sunday, December 09, 2007

Layers of Meaning

Since I gave up giving Christmas gifts (aside from food-related presents) a few years ago, my holiday baking has become an even more important tradition, especially when it comes to sharing the joys of the season with friends who live in far-off cities. And though some of my recent cookie creations have become must-have items for certain people, one particular baked good remains at the top of most of my friends' lists: baklava.

I don't know if it's because baklava is not a traditional Christmas food in their pasts, or if it's because the baklava I make is so irresistibly honey- and nut-rich that it makes a nice change of pace from all the other holiday goodies, but come November, my friends start hinting about what they hope to find in their mailboxes by mid-December. (Yes, I'm talking about the Gentleman specifically, but others are equally adamant about getting their fair share.)

So what else can I do but live up to the name bestowed upon me (oh, so hopefully!) a number of years ago?

Late last week, I had hoped to spend an evening showing the faithful Persephone and my delightfully eccentric student assistant, She Who Cannot Be Labeled, how to make baklava. They both ended up being unable to visit, so we postponed our lesson for a week or two, and I made two pans of baklava on my own. With that, I could fill the last holes in the boxes I sent out over the weekend, and I had plenty left over to take to work and to share with friends in town.

Today, though, I had another lesson in baklava-making planned. The Gentleman Farmer's Wife -- henceforth to be known as the Lady Bountiful, for her generous habit of giving me more of her wonderful produce than I would dare hope for! -- had asked me to show her how to make it since it's her husband's favorite dessert. Since I had wanted her to visit once the growing season wrapped up, it worked out perfectly.

The Lady brought her lively five-year-old daughter, Miss Hilarious, along for the lesson, so we had a great time with everyone pitching in to make the perfect pan of baklava. And since I don't usually take photos of the different stages of making it -- I usually get into the zone and just whip through a pan with no thought of stopping -- they obliged me by letting me snap pictures while they worked.

I demonstrated brushing the first layer with melted butter, and both of them developed the knack of doing it right away, so I let them assemble the whole pan, stopping only to scatter the spiced nuts in between selected layers.

Once the pan was full, I showed the Lady how to cut through the very slippery filo without
pulling the layers askew. She decided to try half the pan cut as rectangles and half as diamonds to see which would work better for her in future (and her daughter willingly pointed out where to cut!).

After the pan went into the oven, we stirred together the honey-lemon syrup and then set it aside to cool while we headed out to the Hungarian pastry shop for a little treat of our own.

When the hour was up, we pulled the pan from the oven and poured the syrup on top of the pieces, enjoying the loud hiss of the liquid soaking into the hot layers. (I didn't get a good picture of their finished baklava, so here's mine from a few nights ago.)

While the baklava cooled enough to be carried to the car, we sat and talked a while longer, discussing the upcoming changes to the ever-expanding farmers' market and just enjoying being friends. And when the Lady left, she thanked me profusely, while all the while I felt as though I were the one to reap all the benefits from the day. (She brought several still-ripening tomatoes, half a dozen green peppers, a last onion, and a little Christmas present... how lucky I am! Plus I had the delightful company of a new friend... what could be better?)

It's not often I get to share the behind-the-scenes work of holiday baking with someone else, but I always enjoy it when I do. Traditions mean so much more when you can share the stories and the experiences behind them.

I hope this will be the start of an equally sweet Christmas tradition for them!


At 12/14/2007 2:58 PM, Blogger Bri said...

What fun! It's such a treat to share our gifts with each other. Especially multigenerationally. Hooray for starting a new tradition in another family!

At 12/14/2007 3:31 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

I suspect that if the tradition gets going for them, some of her other children will want to get involved, too... even better!

I'll have the fun of showing two more friends the process next week... who knows what other traditions could begin?


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