Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

A Cooking Lesson

Some days are just more fun than others, and today was definitely one of them. At about 4:30 in the afternoon, I went down to Small World, a little falafel restaurant in downtown Napa, just a few blocks from my house. The owner, my friend Michael Alimusa, had promised to teach me how to make baklava, quite possibly the world's most sticky-sweet and sinfully delicious dessert. Michael makes a honey-golden baklava that will melt-in-your-mouth and turn your knees to water.

All you baklava lovers out there know exactly what I'm talking about, and your mouths are probably already watering as you picture yourselves wrapping your lips around a piece of its flaky perfection. For those of you poor souls who have never had the guilty pleasure...alas, you have no idea what little squares of heaven you're missing. Of course, all you chocolate lovers out there are probably growling and shaking your heads in disagreement, and no doubt, you far outnumber us baklavian non-conformists, but I'd gladly trade a single square of Michael Alimusa's baklava for a whole box of Godiva.

When I arrived at Small World, Michael was just closing up for the day, and we had the whole place to ourselves. We headed back to his tiny kitchen, where he had all the ingredients waiting: a box of ready-made phylo dough, a large bag of almonds, a half pound of butter, a shaker of ground cinnamon, a canister of sugar, and a jar of honey. I took notes as he ground up the almonds in a food processor, mixed them with sugar and cinnamon, and lined a large baking sheet with thin layers of phylo dough, drizzling generous amounts of melted butter on each one. About halfway through, he spread the almond mixture over the pan, topped it with several more layers of phylo dough and sealed the whole thing with the rest of the melted butter. Next, he precut the unbaked baklava into uniform squares, and then made a thin, golden syrup from honey, sugar, lemon juice and water.

While the baklava baked in the oven, we sat down at one of the tables in the empty restaurant for a glass of wine and a chat. Twenty minutes later, we went back to the kitchen, where Michael retrieved a perfect batch of his flaky, golden baklava from the oven. While it was still hot, he spooned a generous portion of the honey syrup over each square, back and forth, and then up and down in the other direction, making sure each square was fully saturated.

While the baklava cooled and soaked up all that honey-sweetness, we returned to our table to catch up on all the local gossip. By seven o'clock the baklava was cool enough to transport in my car. And knowing that Michael would refuse to let me pay him for his time and the cost of the ingredients, I presented him with some pretty gifts for his two darling baby daughters. How could he say no. :>)

After a brief stop at home, I headed to Rene's house for the night, with a whole tray of still-warm, nearly irresistible baklava in hand. However, Michael had warned me that the baklava should be left to sit overnight to soak up the remaining syrup, and wouldn't be ready to eat until the morning. It took all the willpower I could muster to resist devouring the whole thing at once. Rene took a picture of it for my 'Children of Heaven' photo essay, and for dessert, we enjoyed a jicama-orange salad instead. It was crunchy-sweet and delightful...but it wasn't baklava.

I'm definitely going to have a taste of it first thing tomorrow, but I have vowed to leave enough to enjoy for dessert after my 'Children of Heaven' Iranian dinner.