My friend Mike is turning 40 this month, and he has been making rumblings about baklava instead of birthday cake. “We used to have it as kids,” he recalled. “My aunt made it, and she’d bring it whenever she visited. It reminds me of my youth, and I want to be reminded of youth these days.”

I knew just who to call: Jeff and Sarka Ugur at the Baklava King in Santee (619-258-5464, baklavaking.com). “I’m from Turkey,” said Jeff. “There, baklava is the national dessert. There are baklava stores with 15 different kinds of baklava. Here, you see one kind, and it’s really thick and too sweet. People don’t know how to get it exactly right. But this is a crown dessert — it’s 1000 years old and popular from Bosnia all the way to the Great Wall of China. Our mission is to have baklava take its rightful place in American baking, to have it recognized as a world-class dessert — by making it correctly.”

Baklava, said Jeff, “is made primarily from thin sheets of phyllo dough in layers, nuts, and syrup. In the Middle East, the nuts are pistachios. In Greece, they are walnuts. We use only American nuts — it makes it easier to control the quality.” The pair use American phyllo as well. “I think that, as a nation, we make some of the best phyllo in the world. When we first started, we bought every dough out there and tested them in baklava. Some of them were too hard, some too salty. We kept trying until we found the perfect one, and one that would ship directly to us. We can keep [phyllo suppliers] posted if there are any fluctuations of quality. I have no problem with machine-made dough as opposed to hand-made. The ingredients are the same, it’s just that the machine does the rolling and the extruding.”

Sarka described the making: “You lay two sheets of dough down and then butter them…”

“With clarified butter,” added Jeff.

“And you do that up to 20 layers, with 2 layers of chopped nuts in between — some people like 1 layer, but we use 2. Proportion is crucial — if you change one thing, you have to change everything else, too, or it won’t cook correctly. Even the syrup has to have just the right proportion of water, sugar, and lemon juice — charcoal-filtered water, and fresh lemon juice, cooked in a huge kettle.”

The syrup, however, doesn’t go on until after the baking. “Once you have all your layers,” continued Sarka, “you cut it into the triangles and bake it for approximately half an hour. I have to watch every tray, even though we have precise electric ovens from Germany. You want it to be just the right shade of brown, top and bottom, and you must get this nice, rounded curve on the top. Then, as soon as it comes out of the oven, you pour the syrup. It should sizzle as you pour — the baklava is absorbing it. If the baklava is too cold, it won’t absorb the syrup.”

Jeff and Sarka also make burma (Turkish for “twisting”) baklava. “We like to call them baklava nut rolls,” said Jeff. “We’ll do hazelnut, cinnamon-walnut, chocolate, or pistachio.” Sarka said she can also blend the variations to order. “For the rolls,” she explained, “I take phyllo dough, butter it, add lots of nuts, and then roll it up on a long stick. Then I carefully push the roll off the stick. The layers build up as a roll, and I have to be careful to keep everything consistent — the dough must be of even thickness, with air pockets in it. That helps add crispness.”

Jeff said the burma baklava “has a large flavor profile, which works as a great flavor-pairing with coffee — not too heavy or sweet. You can get a gourmet dessert with coffee, and you can do it inexpensively. Most coffeehouses charge $2.75 apiece for them.”

Baklava King sells to about 30 coffeehouses and restaurants around San Diego — places such as the Living Room in La Jolla, Java Jones’s downtown location, Khyber Pass in Hillcrest, and the French Gourmet in Pacific Beach. While it functions primarily as a wholesale bakery, it is possible to place a retail order by phone for pickup or delivery — or you can order online. Triangles or rolls run $25 for 24 and $50 for 48. “We get most of our retail business around the holidays,” said Jeff. “We make everything to order — nothing sits around the shop. It is best eaten fresh, and it will be fine, unrefrigerated, for up to three days. After that, it will last up to three weeks in the refrigerator. But it is best fresh.”

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I've had many different types of baklava but nothing as good as the Baklava King. It's not too sweet!

I am addicted to their baklavas:) Whenever we have a family get together or an occasion to celebrate with friends, I order half an half via email and they deliver it right to your door. I highly recommend it!

Do they use rosewater syrup in their recipe?

Absolutely no rose water. Their recipe is an Americanized (fusion) version of the original Turkish recipe and Turkish baklava makers never use rose water. Totally gourmet stuff. These guys rock!

Ahh, guess I was thinking Persian style, then? Will have to check them out.

SD i get the feeling you are a fabulous cook...

mmm... baklava. This story made my mouth water.

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