How making baklava is like life

January 15, 2016

How making baklavais like life.“Easy baklava recipe” was the headline. It looked delicious.

I’d never made it before.  We were having dinner with our Palestinian neighbor and I wanted to bring something from his side of the world. Of course, he’d lived here for many decades and is an American citizen, but still. Why not give it a try?

The ingredients were pretty straightforward: phyllo dough, honey, sugar, cinnamon, nuts and butter.  The longer I perused the list, the tastier it sounded.

“I don’t know,” I said to M.  “Do we want to risk offering to bring something to dinner we’ve never made before?”

M. shrugged it off. “How hard could it be? It says right here that it’s easy.”

Prophetic words.

We laid out all the appropriate tools. Mixed together the honey, water and sugar, brought it to a boil.  Melted the butter. Put cinnamon in the ground nuts. And dampened some clean dishtowels to keep the phyllo moist.

Phyllo is paper-thin and we are not the most delicate two people in the world.  M. thinks just about anything can be fixed with a little muscle and enthusiasm, and the only dainty thing about me is… well, nothing. Us and phyllo dough? A recipe, alright, a recipe for disaster.

But, there’s no harm in learning something new, right?  RIGHT?

The phyllo had to be cut to fit our 13 x 9  pan and, well, let’s just say it tears easier than it cuts, and not evenly. My vision of perfectly-fitting the phyllo dough into the pan crashed and burned as the stuff ripped in ragged pieces.  Pretty soon we had a stack of uneven pieces as well as some larger flat ones that survived our man-handling. They  looked prettier.

baklava“How do people work with this?” I asked M. as he handed me layer after layer of dough, some of it wrapped around itself, some wrapped around his hand and then, some wrapped around my hand. How did anyone work with this stuff?

Each layer had to be carefully cut, laid in place then brushed with melted butter. Have you tried to brush one layer of delicate phyllo with butter? Have you succeeded? You are more dextrous than I, then.

“There’s no way I can brush each layer,” I insisted. “It’s impossible. The dough just pulls up in folds. I’ll brush every few layers with butter instead.”

M. laughed. “Sure, Carol. They’ve been making this stuff for what, thousands of years? And you’re going to tell them there’s a better way?”

“Well, there is!”

After a couple layers our scrap pile of scraggy dough was heaping up. So, M suggested we use the ragged strips to augment those full sheets that had survived, like making lasagna. Four strips made one layer that covered the length and width of the pan and really, it wouldn’t even be noticeable, he reasoned, once we had it out of the oven.

Sounded good to me, less waste. He handed me some dough.

“Umm, that’s not dough,” I said. “It’s a piece of paper towel.”

“Just pour some honey over it, no one will know the difference,” he said.

I looked up from my dough. He looked back, we both looked at the pan and then we began laughing.

Hard. So hard that I could hardly hold myself together for laughing.

baklavaI tore another of what had been a pristine sheet of phyllo. I looked down again at the uneven mess that was my baklava-in-progress and so did he, as I tried to place a strip down and brush it with melted butter. We convulsed in more laughter.

“I have to take a photo,” I said, then texted it to my BFFs. I mean, that pan looked like a hot mess.

When we calmed down,  I finished layering, brushing and sprinkling nuts and cinnamon and gave it a critical look.

It was pretty sloppy, especially around the edges. But, I figured we’d get enough pretty triangles from the better looking center to bring to dinner for six.  I was fairly certain it contained no paper towel pieces.

This was the point that we were to cut the unbaked baklava so as to make those familiar little triangles.  I looked at the recipe.

“We make four long cuts then cut on the diagonal,” I said.

M. looked puzzled.  “How would that work?” He grabbed a pen and paper and sketched it out. We saw no little triangles.

“I can’t believe my geometry has left me,” he groused.  M did his first year of college at the very difficult Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where budding engineers had to study six days a week just to get by. After noting that all his friends were partying at other schools, schools that required significantly less diligence and more partying, he transferred to Syracuse University, where I met him my freshman year.

So he used to know geometry pretty well. Until now.

baklava measureSince I had no geometry at all (and have gotten along just fine without it) I was no help.  So he went to his tool box. “They should be 1.5 inches wide,” he instructed, tape measure in hand.

I cut.  Let’s just it didn’t look exactly right.

“Oh,” I said. “We don’t make four cuts, we make three, so that there are four columns. Oh well.”

baklavaSee, that’s pretty much how I roll these days. The details of a recipe can sometimes be lost and I do what I think it says to do and not what it says, at all. Thank God I know my way around the kitchen enough to compensate for my glaring errors.

The cuts weren’t straight. The columns, therefore, weren’t even.  But we powered on.

Next, we had to cut on the diagonal. Our discussion took about ten minutes, after which time we did it M’s way, which is to say we cut each square into two triangles. It was obvious I couldn’t be trusted with a knife so he cut. I held the dough down with my fingertips so the layers wouldn’t come apart.


Not so bad, right?

And we popped it in the oven.

In the end, it turned out beautifully. The lopsided pieces weren’t noticeable in the final product, which was delicious.


Pronounced “delicious” by all who tasted it.

I was reminded of counsel I have given my nephews from time to time and that is, life is pretty forgiving when you’re young. Things that don’t go particularly well become invisible in the fullness of time.

And in that way, making baklava is like life.  Getting there might be messy, but in the end? The final product usually turns out okay.

Oh, you want a recipe? There are thousands online. Seek and ye shall find.

For Marilyn, who always had faith my life–and my recipes– would turn out fine.


23 comments on “How making baklava is like life
  1. Carol Graham says:

    Great analogy and so true. You are braver than I would be — but it sounds like it was fun and the end product looked awesome – HONEST!

  2. Baklava! I would never dream of trying to make it….it looks hard to me! But you are right…as long as it tastes good, who cares? And it looks good too. Did your friend love it?

  3. Great story and lesson too, Carol. For what it is worth I have had the same experience working with phyllo, truth be told I tend to avoid the recipes that call for it, but, you have inspired me to persevere next time.

  4. Very Funny, but it looks delicious! Wish I could taste it!~

  5. Wonderful analogy and I LOVE baklava!!!

  6. Wonderful! Baklava is a favourite of mine and I buy it found the corner at my local Algerian bake shop in North London, UK. Might have to give it a go myself now!

  7. Rev says:

    I can’t believe you made that! There are some things that I only get at a restaurant or from trained professionals and never consider making. Baklava is one of them. It could be that I also have no/little patience. You have inspired me to try! Thanks.

  8. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    You did a great job! Working with phyllo dough takes experience and patience. It will go easier next time. ????

  9. Hi Carol! “Making baklava is like life. Getting there might be messy, but in the end? The final product usually turns out okay.” This sounds like one of those things that we didn’t know we didn’t know when we are young. Love it! ~Kathy

  10. andrea says:

    this is the one time that i’m not looking at the life lesson – but at the recipe. It looks really good! 🙂

  11. Christy says:

    I love baklava! I’m going to have to try to make it.

  12. I love baklava and that actually looks delicious! I give you a lot of credit – I would be buying it, not making it!

  13. I’ve never had this nor do I think I’ve ever known of it’s existence. I would love to try this to serve my family so we all can see what we’ve been missing.

  14. Carolann says:

    I think it came out perfectly! Looks so yummy I’m having a craving now! I love Baklava and have to try to make this someday soon!

  15. brianna says:

    baklava is one of my favorite desserts. It is a TOUGH thing to make well, just like life. Sometimes we make thigns TOO hard for ourselves and everyone else around us.:)

  16. LOL..I fully enjoyed your successful attempt at making Baklava! This is how it would probably go in my kitchen too. It did come out looking bakery quality so as you said, in the end, it was how it should be. The challenge is pushing through the obstacles in the journey. 🙂

  17. Virginia says:

    Awesome analogy! I love baklava! Now I want to make some!

  18. OneDizzyBee says:

    The words “phyllo” and “easy” should never be placed in the same sentence except when separated by “not”. I feel you on the dough-handling. My mother was a virtuouso with the stuff. Unlike her daughter! I loved this post; it made me laugh, and it made me cheer a little in my head when it turned out so pretty (and tasty) after all. What a great story to share.

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