Another Way to Baklava
Aissa Sweets offers unique products to Granite State
In his first few months outside of Syria, Ahmad Aissa is finding success as a baker. Aissa was a long-time cook for his own family when living in Damascus, but he never really baked until about a year ago, when he asked a friend to teach him the basics just for fun. Aissa is now living in Concord, and he opened Aissa Sweets in Dover in November to offer a taste of Middle Eastern baking traditions. “When we arrived here, I found that Syrian pasties weren’t really as good,” Aissa said.
He and his wife Evelyn Aissa, a Manchester native, were married in Damascus in 2011. Evelyn Aissa had been living in Syria for a couple of years working as a reporter and political analyst. Ahmad Aissa, who was working in imports and was a life-long resident of the city. Amidst the fighting in Syria, the couple decided to leave the country. “We had a pretty big emergency figuring out his visa and things. Then we came back to Manchester for a few months,” Evelyn Aissa said. “You can find some of the best ingredients to make Middle Eastern food around Manchester, but the pastries are often packaged, made using artificial flavors. And the amount of pistachios is shameful.”
The Aissas decided to create a bakery where foods would be made with love and care. Baklava is a familiar pastry in New Hampshire but most people here are familiar with the Greek version of the pastry, which is sweetened with honey. Syrians do them a little differently. Aissa’s Syrian baklava are made from hand-rolled phyllo dough. Imported Egyptian ghee, a type of clarified butter, and flower nectar water, for mixing with the nuts and syrup, help keep it authentic. There is no honey and there are no sweet spices like cinnamon; the toppings are largely cashews and pistachios. The couple makes a point of getting the highest quality nuts possible. “People around here don’t eat that many pistachios, and certainly not in a sweets context. We’ve managed to get these incredible pistachios which have a very subtle floral flavor, and that’s definitely part of what makes the sweets so special,” Evelyn Aissa said.
Aissa Sweets also carries ma’amoul, traditional Syrian stuffed cookie-cakes that are shortbread filled with pistachios or dates. Evelyn Aissa said they’re some of the store’s best-selling items, perhaps because of their authentic shapes, achieved with wooden, hand-carved molds they brought over from Damascus.
“The physical part, stretching, I love. People say it’s tiring, but I feel a kind of success in it, every day,” Ahmad Aissa said. “I love to get baking experience, and every time I bake I put myself and my traditions into it. These are the things I really love and believe the food is good.”
Seeking out ingredients is a huge focus, Ahmad Aissa said. Often nothing will come of days spent researching and traveling to places like Boston, where he sources most of his products, or elsewhere. “Sometimes I get unlucky and go somewhere for nothing. And there is sometimes one resource for one ingredient, but I do that to be sure they are the best ingredients. Things will get easier with time,” he said. Angela’s Pasta & Cheese Shop (Manchester) and On the Vine Marketplace (Exeter) picked up his products recently, as have several seacoast locations. For now, Ahmad Aissa is concentrating on selling boxes of their sweets. More baklavas are planned for 2013, including cream-filled ones, Ahmad Aissa said. “I didn’t think of making this my career,” he said. “But once I came here I felt sad that people only knew about Greek baklava and didn’t know what you can do with pistachios. I have to make this and provide a taste of my country and its traditions.”
By Luke Steere for The Hippo