Even with 70-odd Armenian bakeries in the L.A. area, it's a challenge to get someone to share the recipe.
By Charles Perry
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 18, 2007
The other day, a co-worker brought in some mysterious cookies from an Armenian bakery, a little sheepish about having polished off about a third of them on the way.
They were tan domes with a tight spiral pattern on top, making them look a bit like snail shells lying on their sides. The pastry had a distinctive taste, more wholesome than cookie dough, followed by a little blast of richness from that spiral, which turned out to be a filling of sesame tahini. It tasted like peanut butter without peanut butter's funky edge.
In other words, these were cookies we could eat a lot of, and we proceeded to do so. But not before I saved one or two to explore their mystery.
When you cut one in half, the interior turned out to be curving lines of pastry alternating with darker caverns of sesame filling, vaguely like the pattern of layers in a halved onion.
Whatever it was, the pastry was definitely not cookie dough. I had to know what was going on here.
This plunged me into the vortex of the 70-odd Armenian bakeries in the L.A. area. Some were bread bakeries, but a lot were filled with case after case of French patisserie and syrup-soaked baklavas — dangerous places to wander around in.
Only a couple of pastry shops made these tahini cookies. But how did this innocent cookie end up in these glittering palaces of seduction anyway?
It turned out that this "cookie" is considered to be a bread — not a pastry — because it's made with yeast-risen dough. It happens to be a clever variation on Middle Eastern tahini bread (in Arabic, khubz tahini; in Armenian, tahinov hats), which is usually made as a pita-size flatbread.
Some Armenian bakeries, such as Taron in east Hollywood, make this big, flat variety, but Maral's Pastry in Van Nuys and Sarkis Pastry in Glendale make the dome-cookie version.
To us, it was no contest: The dome shape is better. It's a more convenient size and easier to eat, and the balance of flavors is better.
But we wanted to know: How do you make these irresistible treats?
The only recipe I could find was in an obscure cookbook published 25 years ago in Saudi Arabia, and it didn't give the exact result we wanted, even after tweaking it nine ways.
So I asked some Armenian bakers, but they were reluctant to give out their recipes. One told me, "You ask about my business, you ask too many questions, my friend."
Uh-oh. I should have foreseen this — it's a Middle Eastern tradition, as I already knew: When I traveled around Syria in 1980, I naively asked bakers in every town from Damascus to Aleppo about the local pastries, and their answers were always incomprehensible.
Finally, my driver took me aside and darkly told me, "Not even to their own sons, not till they're on their death beds, will they tell their secrets."
Well, I understood. It's a bakery-eat-bakery world out there, and a pastry chef doesn't want to give up his edge. Still, that bread-cookie remained outside our grasp.
Finally, Hovsep Sarkozian of Maral's took pity on us and spelled it out. The secret seemed to be (as we should have known): This is a cross between a bread and a cookie, so it needs sugar and oil in the dough. Once it rises, you shape it and bake it right away without the sort of rests and additional rises that bread dough usually gets.
To tell the truth, even the versions that hadn't been exactly what we wanted — the ones with loose spirals or dough that was too puffy or the ones that didn't brown up enough — were quite good.
So finally the quest was over.
Not that I'm going to stop going to Armenian bakeries, mind you.
Man does not live by tahini bread alone.
Top 10 Armenian bakeries in Southern California
In the mood for unusual sweets? Here are our top 10 among the myriad local Armenian bakeries.
April 18, 2007
As home to one of the largest Armenian colonies in the world, Los Angeles supports about 70 Armenian bakeries. They suggest that Armenians may just have the biggest sweet tooth in the world.
And the most eclectic sweet tooth too. Beside their own ancient pastries such as a bread-y coffee cake called gata, they're into baklavas, Persian fritters and Russian doughnuts. On top of that, Armenia has cultural ties with France dating back to the Crusades, so a lot of the bakeries specialize in French pastry. Still, they usually sell some baklavas, gatas, perok (a coffee cake-like fruit tart) and the flaky cookie nazouk.
Though there are pastry shops in the older Armenian hotspots of north Pasadena and east Hollywood, Glendale is the place to go. It has 14 pastry shops — and there's plenty of spillover in Burbank, North Hollywood and elsewhere in the Valley.
We checked out nearly 50 Armenian bakeries. This is our selection of the top 10 for the non-French side of the Armenian pastry menu.
Baklava Factory, 1415 E. Colorado Ave., Suite K, Glendale, (818) 548-7070, also 17145 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 728-1600 and 12909 Sherman Way, North Hollywood, (818) 764-1011, www.baklavafactory.com. Well-made baklava, cookies and fritters, though not baked on the premises but in a central bakery in Sylmar.
Lord & Villa Bakery, 1120 N. Pacific Ave., No. 3, Glendale, (818) 500-8040. An upscale operation, mostly French, but it also has a large Armenian section that includes several varieties of fruit-filled gata. The cherry perok is positively overflowing with cherry filling.
Maggie's Bakery, 6530 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 506-6265. A big, gleaming pastry shop in an inconspicuous mall; three counters of French pastries and one of baklavas, gatas and walnut-filled cookies. Particularly notable for kul wushkur, a buttery, exceptionally flaky folded baklava (it looks like a tiny book with its pages fluttering open) enclosing a syrup-soaked walnut filling.
Maral's Pastry, 17654 Vanowen St., Van Nuys, (818) 705-8921. Excellent baklava-type pastries (of the tender, rather than the crisp, school), cheese pastry (halawat jibn), sesame-pistachio cookies (barazek) and those fabulous tahini cookies.
Movses Pastry, 1755 W. Glenoaks Blvd., No. 4, Glendale, (818) 545-0099; www.movsespastry.com. Half French, half Armenian. Good fresh baklava, several flavors of perok and gata, a number of nazouks.
Oasis Pastry (also known as Mary's Oasis or M. Shatila), 801 S. Glendale Blvd., Glendale, (818) 244-2255. It may be Lebanese-owned, but it's in the middle of Armenian Glendale and most of the employees speak Armenian. Very good pastries, including a remarkably flaky one that resembles kul wushkur but which they insist on calling almond baklava.
Panos Pastry Bakery, 5150 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 661-0335; also 418 S. Central Ave., Glendale, (818) 502-0549; www.panospastry.com. A grand pastry palace with marble floors and mirrors, a large selection of Armenian pastries and an even larger one of French pastries. Long the standard of Hollywood Armenian bakeries; the baklava is light and crisp but not terribly buttery.
Sarkis Pastry, 1111 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale, (818) 956-6636; www.sarkispastry.com. The pride of Glendale has one of the widest ranges of Middle Eastern pastries around, including osmanlia (layers of kadayif and nuts) and tahini cookies.
Van Bakery, 5409 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 466-2450; also 620 S. Glendale Ave., Suite H, Glendale, (818) 548-5253. In addition to the usual pastries, Van makes what looks like a baklava that's dribbled with a little chocolate. Inside, there's a layer of crisp kadayif pastry, making it lighter and crunchier than ordinary baklava.
Vrej Pastry, 1074 N. Allen Ave., Pasadena, (626) 797-2331; also 11148 Balboa Blvd., Granada Hills, (818) 366-2526; and 1791 East Route 66, Glendora, (626) 914-1940. Good for cheese pastry, barazek and dainty burma (kadayif nut rolls).
— Charles Perry
Added: Tuesday, April 17, 2007
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