Melkite Greek Catholic Cook Lani Kanakry (and a Recipe for Baklava)
At Christmas and year-round, Kanakry’s Middle Eastern baking talents have become a hallmark of Holy Transfiguration Parish in McLean, Virginia
The annual end-of-summer Middle Eastern Food Festival at Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia, draws huge crowds over its two-day event. As a long-time parishioner, Lani Kanakry, said, “The festival brings so many visitors to us, and we have found that many people have become members of our church once they visit the festival. What we try to do at the festival is about sharing our faith, our culture and ourselves with the guests. The sense of that hospitality and love of Christ that we share makes them want to be part of it. … That is an essential part of our Middle Eastern culture.”
But not only do people come for the hospitality, fun, games and church tours, they also come for the Middle Eastern food treats: grilled meats including roasted lamb, hummus, pita breads, baba ghannouj (eggplant and garlic dip), stuffed grape leaves, kibbeh (ground beef with cracked wheat), falafel (chickpea sandwiches) and perhaps the biggest draw — a table covered with baked Middle Eastern sweets, including baklawa (or baklava).
But that is not the only food event the parish hosts: The Arabic Sweets Christmas Sale in the beginning of December is a special event. As Lani said, “We take orders for Middle Eastern sweets, and we bake all the sweets needed to fulfill these orders, and to have them available for pick up by the first Sunday in December.” She added that she and a friend bake more than 160 trays of just the baklava varieties before packaging the sweets.
For the past 17 years, she has been in charge of organizing this sale, from getting volunteers to doing all the baking to packaging the treats. “I get leaders who have this specialty to do most of the different varieties of sweets. But I do lead the making of the baklava pistachio bird’s nest myself,” she said. “I believe the Lord has given me a talent to organize and this holiday sweets sale is something I love doing, especially for the church.”
Born in Detroit and raised Catholic, she married her husband, who was already Melkite Greek Catholic. When the couple moved from California to Virginia, the priest from a Melkite Greek Catholic Church in California contacted the priest at Holy Transfiguration and asked him to reach out to the couple. A few years after they entered the parish — and Lani had already been volunteering for the baking sales — the couple took on an enormous task: “In 2003-2005 my husband and I decided to become co-chairs of Holy Transfiguration’s annual Middle Eastern Food Festival to help it to reach greater profit with all the work being done,” she said. After the festival ended in 2005, “I decided to take on the Arabic Sweets Christmas Sale.”
And just how did her baking talents begin? “I watched my mom bake lovely cakes when I was young,” she said. “I watched, read and experimented in the baking of cakes and cookies. The most consistent baking I have done is to bake and decorate cakes for all kinds of occasions — to celebrate the birthdays, baptisms, special events of my family and friends.
“My Syrian grandmother used to bake Arabic sweets when I was young but I never experimented with that on my own,” she said. “But then I got married and moved away. I was not baking Arabic sweets till my Syrian mother-in-law would make these Middle Eastern sweets when she came to visit us for a few weeks at a time. Then sometimes I would help her do these. I did learn to make baklava trays at Christmas time.”
Her baking talents have certainly appealed to visitors to Holy Transfiguration. And for everyone with a sweet tooth, Lani has contributed her recipe for baklawa (baklava) below.
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Lani Kanakry’s Baklava
As Kanakry notes: Baklava is made with filo dough so one can make many varieties, but the trays of squares or diamonds are the traditional variety made by individually layering one box of buttered filo sheets in a tray, then spreading a layer of sugared nuts, and finally layering another box layer of buttered filo sheets on top. For the Pistachio Bird’s Nests, take a triple square of filo, roll it up on a dowel, brushing with plenty of warm rendered butter, then compress inward to make crinkly effect, and remove it from dowel forming it into nest with a bottom to hold pistachios.
Yield: minimum 96 pieces or less per tray, depending on size of squares desired
(Make this the day before preparation and baking of Baklawa Tray).
- 8 cups sugar
- 4 cups water
- 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp. orange blossom water (optional)
Mix sugar and water and heat. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes. Add lemon juice and continue boiling for an additional 5 minutes. Remove from stove and cool. Orange blossom water can be added at this time and mixed thoroughly. Syrup must be cold or room temperature to pour over hot baklawa.
Needed for each tray:
- 2-3 cups warm rendered butter (ghee, about 3 pounds butter, rendered)
- 2 pounds of filo dough (2 boxes)
- 5 cups finely-chopped walnuts (mixed with about 1 cup sugar, vanilla and cinnamon) per each tray
- 4 cups prepared cold syrup (to be used after baking)
Brush the sides and bottom of a baking tray (10x13) with warm rendered butter. Open a whole package of filo dough, place it on a plastic sheet and cover it with another plastic sheet and then a damp towel (to keep dough from drying out). Then proceed to layer two filo sheets at a time inside the tray, fully brushing each sheet set with the rendered butter. Repeat layers till you complete one box of dough. Take 5 cups of the nut mixture and spread evenly over the bottom layer of dough. Compress and level out the nut layer filling in all gaps. Then open a second box of filo and proceed to layer 2 sheets at a time again, brushing each top sheet with rendered butter. When placing the first sheet over the nut layer, brush it with butter, then turn it over so it faces the nut layer, then proceed layering.
Finished trays must be carefully brushed with rendered butter on final top layer.
After completing layers, place a full size sheet of parchment paper over dough in tray and use a ruler or measuring device to cut the prepared tray into equal squares, (You can place trays in freezer for about 20-30 minutes before attempting to cut squares — this works better for cutting.)
Bake at 325 degrees for about 2 hours in regular oven until baked through and golden. Check a center square piece by carefully cutting it and lifting it up a little till you see if the bottom layers of dough are fully baked. Remove tray from the even, let it sit for about 1 minute and then evenly pour 4 cups of cold prepared syrup over the tray. Allow the tray to absorb the syrup fully.