Friday, January 29, 2010


When I was sixteen or seventeen, I got really, really thin.

My grandpa had suffered an aneurysm of his aorta, which was very serious indeed. Every day after work, my dad went to the hospital to visit his dad. The rhythm of life changed, and I was able to get by without eating. People were distracted. I did not feel neglected; that wasn't the problem. I just wanted to skip meals, or eat very little at meals, and I capitalized on my opportunity to do this without being noticed.

I ate breakfast... Grapenuts, I believe. I also ate a small sandwich and a piece of fruit for lunch. I learned how to stretch a few bites of dinner into twenty minutes of sitting at the table manipulating my fork. I never touched food after 6 p.m.

I skipped meals when I could, but I learned to eat when I was with people, so they would not hassle me about eating. When I was with people, I made sure always to have a piece of food in my hand. I became extremely skilled at carrying around food and not putting it into my mouth, but I associated with food when I was with people, and stayed completely away from it when I was alone. To this day, I have trouble eating when I am by myself, because it became so automatic for me to make the most of my solitude by fasting.

The pounds melted away until I became a little afraid to weigh myself without clothes on. I remember the feather-light feeling in my arms. I loved having my clothes be too big and the floaty way I felt when I moved.

When I was a junior (I think; maybe it was my senior year, but I think it was when I was a junior) I took a class period to be an aide to my French teacher, Madame Klohs. I do not clearly remember how this came about or whose idea it was. I don't think it was my idea, because I don't know how I would have thought of such a thing. I was supposed to help out with grading tests and papers, putting together visual aides, that sort of thing. In reality, she gave me very little to do. In retrospect, I wonder if she didn't orchestrate the whole arrangement because she thought I was overstressed and needed a break? I was a straight A student, and I was bent under the strain of it, very serious, very worried, very uptight. She may have thought this was related to how thin I had gotten.

I would sit in the area where the teachers had their desks, grade a few papers, and then I could use the time to do whatever I wanted. Usually I read. Sometimes I did homework, but usually I just read novels and relaxed. It was quiet, and I was alone except for the teachers who happened through and said a few kind words to me.

There was an English teacher; I wish I could remember his name. I think it started with an N. I never had him for a class, but I always wished I could have. He didn't teach the AP classes that I took, but you could hear his classes having discussions, and it always sounded incredibly interesting. In those days, "open" was the buzzword for school design, so there were no doors on the classrooms. I can remember sitting in an AP class with "Moby Dick" or "The Scarlet Letter" or something else equally dry open on the desk in front of me, hearing heated debates from Mr. N's classroom across the hall, wishing I were over there.

Mr. N had a prep period while I was supposed to be working for Mme Klohs. He often stopped over to chat with me, which I loved, not ever having had the benefit of engaging in a conversation in his classroom. He was Greek. One day he brought me a piece of baklava. I didn't really want it; I never ate between meals. But he was so pleased with himself that I obediently chewed and swallowed. It was pleasant, but I would not say that I loved it.

After that, every time I was in the teachers' office area, Mr. N brought me a piece of baklava. Every day. I remember vaguely worrying that it would make me fat, but I couldn't figure out how to avoid eating it. Usually he would sit and watch to make sure I ate it, and I was too polite to refuse. After awhile, it grew on me, and I started to look forward to my baklava. In retrospect, I wonder if he was purposefully trying to fatten me up a little bit?

I don't remember the last piece I ate, but I do remember missing baklava when those days were over. Now and then I'd get a craving for it, but in Minnesota, you can't just go down to the grocery store and find some baklava on a shelf; at least, in those days you couldn't.

This past Christmas, I bought a tray of baklava at Sam's Club. It wasn't as good as the homemade kind that Mr. N used to give me, but it was tasty. Shawn loved it. As we drew near the end of the tray, I purposed in my heart to learn how to make baklava.

A couple of weeks ago, I researched baklava on the internet, picked out some recipes, collected hints and tips, and ultimately made a batch based on a recipe I compiled from what sounded best about the different recipes I had found.

Not to brag... but it was amazing. Amazing. Delicious. Incredible.

I just made it again yesterday, and I have to share, so here goes:


(You can click on these pictures for a bigger, better view.)


1 (16 oz.) package phyllo dough (thawed in advance)
1 pound chopped nuts (walnuts are really good--some say to use a mixture of walnuts, pistachios and almonds)
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. cardamom (if you have it)
1/8 tsp. clove (no more than this! a little clove goes a long way!)
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup butter
1 lemon
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 tsp. vanilla


Make the syrup...
Grate the zest off the lemon and place in a medium saucepan.
Juice the lemon and put the juice into a measuring cup. Add enough water to total 1 cup liquid.
Add the lemon water to the zest in the saucepan.
Add 1 cup sugar and the honey.
Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to very low. Add vanilla and simmer for 14 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Assemble the baklava...
Put nuts, spices and 1/4 cup sugar into food processor. Pulse until nuts are chopped and mixture is kind of evenly mixed (don’t go for perfection or you will get mush).
Generously butter a 9x13 glass pan.
Unwrap phyllo dough and lay on counter. Cut to fit the pan. Cover with plastic... a bread bag cut to open flat is less frustrating than cling wrap. Just saying. You will probably have some sheets that fit and some you will need to piece together to make a layer. Plan so that you can use the full sheets on the top and the bottom. Use the pieced together sheets in the middle.
Melt the butter and put into a spray bottle. Set the spray bottle in a container of hot water to prevent the butter from firming up as you work.
Create a “tent” of plastic wrap over the 9x13 pan. This will contain the mess as you spray the butter. Have a friend hold the plastic wrap for you while you spray, if possible. You can skip this step, but you will have a much bigger mess at the end of your project if you do. The baklava will be fine; your kitchen might not be. I developed this step the second time I made this recipe. I liked it.
Lay two sheets of phyllo in the pan. Spray with butter. Repeat until you have used 6-8 sheets of phyllo.
Continue, but after spraying butter, sprinkle about 1/4 cup of nut mixture over each layer.
Set aside 6-8 sheets of phyllo for the top of the baklava. Make sure you use up all the nut mixture before you get to these sheets. Finish off the baklava by laying in the sheets, 2 at a time, with butter in between, finishing off with the last of the butter over the top layer.
Use a sharp knife and cut into 24 equal squares, but do not cut quite to the bottom of the pan.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.
Remove from oven and immediately pour cool syrup over hot baklava. Cool completely. Cut through to bottom of pan. Serve. Smile.

note to self: try with an orange sometime, instead of a lemon.


Ruth MacC said...

Very tasty.
Never heard of it before now.

I like your story. I felt like I was there. That teacher was a very thoughtful clever and wise man. Wish more teachers were like him.

Thanks for your recent visit and your encouragement Ruth.

AmyC65 said...

The baklava in Turkey is made with pistachios, and I had never had it any way but with walnuts. The pistachio baklava was the best stuff ever. Oh my goodness, we just ooohed and aaahhed over that sweet stuff. I don't know what form the pistachios were in - toasted? raw? Toasted, I imagine. I don't like walnuts, so this was especially wonderful for me. Walnuts make my teeth feel weird. Maybe you can try it sometime.

Ruth said...

Yes, pistachios are Shannon's favorite nut, so I should try it sometime. I don't relish the thought of shelling all those pistachios, though, and I rarely see them for sale already shelled. How fine were they chopped in the baklava you had, Ame?