Wandering the Dessert

Photo by Jessica CalkinsAbout 80 years ago, millions of Armenians fled their country to escape the genocidal wrath of Turkey. They scattered across the globe, with about 200,000 settling in Lebanon. There, like many expatriate Armenians, the Kolanjians opened a bakery specializing in Middle Eastern pastries. The clan's wonderful confections soon earned them a reputation around Beirut as one of the city's best bakeries. But ethnic strife interfered with their lives again, this time in the form of the 1975 Lebanese civil war. The Armenian diaspora commenced anew, with many—the Kolanjians included—migrating to Glendale's already-established Armenian enclave. In this land of endless suburbia, brothers Vazken and Sarkis Kolanjian opened the Glendale chapter of their family business—now called Sarkis Pastry—in 1983.

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Years passed, and the Kolanjians moved again. But this time, it was to be a joyful relocation: Sarkis Pastry proved so successful that the brothers considered opening another location to appease its increasing clientele. Eyeing Anaheim's rapidly growing Middle Eastern community, they decided to set up shop in the city's Little Gaza, more specifically its Armenian Quarter (although what passes for Anaheim's Bourg Hamoud—the name of Beirut's Armenian section—is a strip mall anchored by Panoian Jewelry and the Lebanese/Armenian Zankou's Chicken). The brothers Kolanjian started the Anaheim chapter of Sarkis Pastry in 1995, and it has prospered, its army of bakers creating daily Sarkis' superb versions of some of the world's richest pastries.

Middle Eastern pastries are an anomaly in the dessert world. Frosting is unheard of; no sugar is immediately discernable in the universally bite-sized morsels. (Sugar plays a miniscule role in Middle Eastern cuisine, since sucrose is not native to the thundering heat of Arabia.) Instead, the region's baked goods rely on local flavors for their subtle sweetness: nutty pistachios, chewy dates, non-salty butter and the all-important rosewater, a liquid as lithe as water but with the flavor of . . . well, roses.

From these core ingredients, Sarkis creates little wonders that belie their simple appearance. An atayef, for instance, looks like a pie better suited for a preschool fund-raiser. But take a bite. A moist, deep-fried exterior doused with rosewater sheaths minced walnuts plus ashta (a cheesy cream filling that recalls Vitamin D milk). Even more rosewater along with a syrup flows inside, waiting to spout upon the palate directly to the endorphins. Sarkis also makes an unbaked style of atayefs on weekends: they're tastier, come six for three bucks, are garnished with pistachios along with red gel—and sell out by midafternoon.

A macaroon is even sweeter than either atayef, a baby-corn-looking cylinder bursting with deep-fried delight. Mushabbek is more of the same, a swirl of spongy dough more buttery than floury with a fruit-flavored exterior. If macaroons and mushabbek sound like a churro, it's actually the other way around: many moriscos (Moors from Spain) fled Catholic wrath to the New World, heavily influencing its Spanish culture. Sarkis' protean churros retake the culinary legacy of the Arabs away from those usurping vendors on Fourth Street.

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So much joy erupts from the several trays of Sarkis that it would take many root canals to try it all. Sarkis offers seven types of the mundane-everywhere-else baklava, crunchy, wheaty things made with layers of delicate filo dough and sprinkled with the elixir-like rosewater. Cookies called maamouls—a mass of farina flour filled with a warm date spread, condensed pistachios or walnuts—occupy the bottom right-corner tray, hidden for the knowing. Namoura would remind a Southerner of the cornbread they left in Dixie, except these small loaves feature a solitary almond rising from a syrupy sea of crust.

Yet the best Sarkis pastry might be the kunafa. Made with intricate kunafa dough (preparing the dough is an arduous craft, but Sarkis succumbed to technology by using a machine), any kunafa-based piece will satisfy. Kataif looks like a shredded-wheat biscuit but is actually a golden nugget of fried chopped pistachios. Bourma is better, a cross-section of a kataif with whole pistachios in the interior surrounded by innumerable sheets of buttery kunafa.

All that needs to be said about the kol-wa-shkor is that it translates from Arabic as "taste and give thanks to heaven." That describes Sarkis Pastry, for that matter.



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