Better together: Husband and wife team up to make baklava for the holidays

December 15, 2010 10:41:00 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Some things are just easier with four hands than two. Making baklava is one of them. It''s become a Christmas tradition for Vicky and Jimmie D. "Tuffy" Bourland, who live in northern Lowndes County. Constructed of layer after delicate layer of buttered phyllo dough, filled with nuts and topped with syrup, baklava (or baklawa in many middle eastern countries) is time-consuming and labor-intensive to make, but worth it in every mouth-watering bite. And for Vicky, whose parents both came to this country from Lebanon, making the rich, exotic dessert with Ottoman Empire origins is a connection to her family''s roots. 


"Is this right, Daddy?" she checks, confirming with her husband she''s correctly kept track of where the next paper-thin sheet of dough should go in the pan. "He has to keep me straight," grins Vicky, a former physical education teacher.  


Because the Bourlands want plenty of baklava for family and friends, they use an oversized 12-by-18-by-2-inch pan. As each dough layer is placed, then buttered, the sheets visually blend into one another; it takes concentration to keep up with where the next should go. Before she''s done, Vicky will put down dozens of sheets of phyllo dough, one by one. Altogether, making the dessert from start to finish will entail about 10 hours. (Using a smaller pan, of course, will require less time, fewer dough sheets and smaller quantities of other ingredients.) 




It takes two 


"This is not a dish to make alone," Vicky says, holding a sheet in place as her husband brushes it with melted clarified butter. The two have been married for 54 years; they make a good team. 


"You have to have a very light touch with the butter, light strokes," she cautions. "If you press the layers of dough together too much, it makes for a thick, rather than flaky, pastry." 


Once the process of layering begins, there''s no time for daydreaming. The phyllo dough, taken from the freezer and thawed overnight, works best when it retains a certain amount of moisture. It can dry out quickly and get crumbly. 


"This needs a little air, but not too much," Vicky says, carefully separating sheets of the unleavened flour dough and judging its moistness from experience. "If it gets too dry, you''re in trouble. If it''s too wet, you''re in trouble," she laughed. 




Back when 


As she works, Vicky shares a memory from her childhood in Vicksburg, where her father owned a grocery store for nearly 60 years: Her brother ran it for about 20 more after that. (The site is now home to Rusty''s Riverfront Grill.) 


"My mother used to make the thin sheets of dough herself," she recalled. "I''d come home from school, and it would be everywhere, even spread out on the sheets of the bed to dry." 


Tuffy may prefer cooking steaks, but his role in the making of baklava blossomed after he retired in the mid-1980s from his long career as a recognized sports coach, then principal of S.D. Lee High School and later Hamilton High School. 


"I''m glad to do it; I know how hard she worked before in preparing it," said the coach, who got his widely-known nickname when he was about 7. (When pressed, he summarized: "One day, a group of my brother''s friends came by in a T-model, and I jumped on the running board. I fell off, and the back tire ran over my shoulder." When he didn''t cry, the youngster earned high praise for being tough. The nickname was born -- and stuck.)  




Halfway there 


When half the phyllo sheets have been layered and buttered, Vicky spreads crushed pecans harvested from the family''s own trees over the entire surface.  


"Some recipes call for chopped pecans, but I pulverize mine," she says, noting that, in her experience, pecan pieces tend to fall out if they''re too large. "They should be finely chopped, at least," she recommends. After the nuts are evenly spread, the rest of the phyllo sheets are added and buttered. When complete -- and before baking -- the baklava is cut into diamond shapes. (Some cooks may find it easiser to cut squares.) 


After baking, the syrup is poured on, topping off this almost decadently sweet treat. 




Lebanese cuisine 


In addition to the Christmas baklava, Vicky enjoys cooking ethnic foods like kibbee (a meat dish) and tabbouleh (also spelled taboule, a salad). Many of her favorites can be found in "T''ai Bien," a collection of Lebanese recipes compiled by the Women of St. George''s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Vicksburg. It was Vicky''s church home growing up. St. George''s 50th annual Lebanese dinner fundraiser is featured in the October issue of Mississippi magazine. 


"I grew up eating Lebanese food," she said. "It''s basically healthy food, but there aren''t a lot of shortcuts, so if you''re looking for something quick, this usually isn''t it."  


Her husband, two sons, Jimmie Ray and John, and extended family are fans of the cuisine. "Oh, yes, indeed, I like it," said Tuffy. "I had to get acclimated to it, but it''s really good."  


At Thanksgiving, the Bourland''s eldest grandson, 27, helped an uncle make kibbee. It''s just the latest evidence the children and grandchildren appreciate the cultural heritage, which gratifies Vicky on a very personal level. 


For the holidays at least, the delectable baklava will take centerstage on the Bourland''s dessert table, testament to the hours and teamwork it took to create it. 


"It''s definitely a labor of love, believe me," says Vicky, with a soft smile. "I imagine our days of making it are very numbered ... but somehow it''s become a Christmas tradition." 








1 pound phyllo pastry sheets 


4 cups clarified butter, melted 




For the nut filling: 


1 pound pecans or walnuts, or a combination, finely chopped or ground 


1/4 to 3/4 cups sugar (optional) 




For the syrup: 


2 cups sugar 


1 cup water 


1 tablespoon lemon juice 




(Source: "T''ai Bien" cookbook of Lebanese recipes, Women of St. George''s Antiochian Orthodox Church, Vicksburg)

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.