THE GROUP assembled around the table looks ready for a history lesson, although probably not one so culturally biased.
"Who actually invented it is up for debate," explained Abd Ghazzawi, half-academically. "We just know the Lebanese perfected it."
Necks draped with crinkly plastic aprons, the amateur bakers chuckle. It's not a surprise that the general manager of Lebanese-owned Manakeesh Cafe, who's leading off this small, informal Friday-afternoon course on the subtle art of baklava-making, feels that his people's take is the dreamiest.
But, while national pride in sweetened phyllo dough - it's eaten throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean - might be fierce, it played no role in curtailing the makeup of students with a singular goal: Leaving Spruce Hill with more dessert-making prowess than they arrived with.
Open since early 2011, Manakeesh (plural for mankoushe, their flatbread specialty) has grown into a community hub at the intersection of 45th and Walnut. The corner is informally referred to as "Little Beirut" by some, given the surrounding population, businesses and Association of Islamic Charitable Projects mosque across the road, where Ghazzawi's father, Ali, is imam.
Manakeesh's clientele, however, is far from exclusive. "On any given day, you just find the most random selection of people," said Ghazzawi, describing the crush of students and neighbors commingling with Arabic speakers, all with an eye for fresh pastry.
Led by chef Fouad Aoudia, who's happy to point out that he is in fact Algerian, not Lebanese, Manakeesh's kitchen produces around 20 separate varieties, not including traditional French pastry. There are ma'amoul, date- or nut-stuffed Lebanese shortbread cookies; basboosa, a cornbread-like semolina syrup cake; and kol w'Shkor, a nut-stuffed dessert whose name translates to "eat and say thank you." (Thanks!)
The baklava, however, seems to garner the most attention. The Lebanese version relies on a soak in sugar syrup in lieu of the honey used more readily by the Greeks. The diversity of fillings, toppings and shapes further distinguish the style.
"Every culture puts their own stamp on it," Ghazzawi said.
Customers to students
Aoudia, a lawyer turned chef, negotiates the oven space for dozens upon dozens of baking sheets every morning to keep up with customer demand. And, in fact, it was a customer who first suggested that Manakeesh organize a class to educate the unfamiliar on how to make the stuff by hand. They began the series last May; the next one should take place in August.
"Typically, our [class] attendees tend to be our most enthusiastic customers," said Ghazzawi. It seemed that way during the most recent installment, as the group huddled around a table wedged into the rear of Bliss, Manakeesh's adjacent ice cream and juice bar.
Husband and wife Ron Pedelty and Tienfong Ho drove to Manakeesh from Phoenixville; they often stop in for dessert after dinner in the neighborhood.
Rosa Chen, an LA native who just graduated from Penn with a degree in neurobiology, was joined by her visiting sister, Julia, and classmate Stefan Zhelyazkov, a native of Bulgaria.
Luna Furstenberg, originally from Würzburg, Germany, shared her table space with Alina Yakubova, who hails from Turkmenistan. Diane Adler's from right around the corner. James Ehlers came over from Fairmount.
Fatima El-Mekki, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was confused when she began receiving blasts about Manakeesh's classes, as she didn't remember signing up for email alerts. Turns out her husband loves baklava and provided his wife's address in the hopes of getting some at home.
Aoudia starts the instruction off with bracelets, which, when constructed properly, look like you could show them off on your wrist if not for the crispy dough curtain and crushed pistachio in the middle.
Taking an 8-inch sheet of the cornstarch-dusted "top of the line" phyllo that Manakeesh imports from Canada, each student places a wooden dowel across the rectangular-shaped dough, pulling the bottom edge over top.
A light application of crushed cashew - "not too little, not too much . . . a dusting, but a little more than a dusting," Ghazzawi explained - precedes each phyllo sheet being rolled up like a scroll, the dowel as its guide. The raw bracelets then get pinched, squeezed, slid off the dowel and formed into a circle for baking. It's not a complicated process, but it's a technique you should watch before you attempt it - exactly what Manakeesh intends, as the café sends its students home with the proper tools and recipes.
Making roses, the second baklava variety broken down by Aoudia, requires the students to slice a seven-sheet-thick stack of phyllo into 2 1/2-inch squares with giant "Game of Thrones"-sized knives. Each square's then filled with the same crushed cashew, the most commonly used nut in Lebanese sweets, before its corners are pulled up and pinched in the middle, a bit like a dumpling.
Both baklava types bake for about half an hour, but not before what Ghazzawi and Aoudia identify as a vital step - absolutely drenching the pastry in samnah, or clarified butter. "Don't worry about overbuttering," Ghazzawi reassures the crowd. "If you don't get butter on everything, the nonbuttered spots won't bake right."
Everyone emphatically crashes waves of the stuff down on the pastries as if it's heart-healthy.
Once the baklava are baked and out of the oven, it's time to apply the syrup, the rose-water-tinged touch that solidifies it as Lebanese. This process, with a little practice, is not exceedingly difficult. Not devouring the bracelets and roses right out of the oven is, but Aoudia assures the class that waiting several hours for them to cool and settle will provide the ideal experience.
"One of the reasons we do this is so we can scout future bakers, if Fouad's papers ever get rejected," Ghazzawi joked at the outset. He was kidding, but the smiles and sticky fingers by the class' end suggest that they might've created a few new baklava obsessives - or at least new customers.