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By Edwin Goei
Photo by Jessica CalkinsIn a race toward cultural indifference, rice pudding and rhubarb pie are dead even, unless your rice pudding is sholeh zard, Iran's literally breathtaking version of the simple dessert. Its secret is saffron. But it's not much of a secret: rice pudding is usually white and milky; sholeh zard is brilliantly yellow and so peppery you'll find yourself gasping. Really. It's like mace, but tasty—masty. A snort line of rich, dense cinnamon dissects the sholeh zard into two halves, one section sending up little twisters of pistachio dust when you touch it, the other studded with almonds. Together, sholeh zard is unspeakably good, the kind of stuff for which people name cities and write odes.
Sholeh zard is but one of the side dishes at Assal Pastry, a chic bakery in Irvine's Little Tehran enclave. It bustles throughout the day with hijab-bedecked and power-suit-sporting Persians. The primary attraction here is cookies: dozens of just-baked trays steam up brightly lit glass counters. These silver dollar-sized cookies rely on different types of flour and infinite pistachio presentations rather than sugar for their sweetness. Rice-flour berenjis are airy and crumbly, possessing the subtle snap of poppy seed granules. Nokhodchis, made of chickpea flour, are like a moist marzipan—wonderful! The walnut-based gerduis are topped with a whole pistachio and a rumor of chocolate. Purchase a pound of any cookie (cheap at $6), and Assal packages your order inside an emerald-green box that gives Tiffany's jewelry container a run for its color.
Assal also does a brisk pastry business. Above the cookie counters glisten plates of fried lavash—the Persian flatbread staple doused here with honey and sweet rosewater—and gooey zulbia and bamia, also dipped in Assal's honey/rosewater elixir and shaped like obese midget churros. Another display case features bulbous, spongy breads injected with unsweetened banana cream; banana's natural flavor tickles your palate with its sly sweetness. And Assal devotes an entire section to French-influenced pastries and wedding cakes—one delicious éclair in particular looks like a miniature hot dog bun squirted with pistachio-inflected whipped cream; it tastes better than it sounds or looks.
Assal bakes such non-Persian Middle Eastern staples as baklava and pumpkin seeds as well, but why bother? Concentrate on Iran's indigenous bounty of cookies, pastries and rice pudding—and don't smile too widely once the sholeh zard settles in your stomach and provokes its gentle, decadent heartburn.—Gustavo Arellano Assal Pastry, 14130 Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 733-3262.