Every once in a while you meet artisans who put so much love into their craft that the results are extraordinary. Husband and wife team Ahmad and Evelyn Aissa of Aissa Sweets are two of those artisans. Imagine authentic, handmade baklava so fresh and delicious – it’s juicy. Considering that it’s made in an array of flavors, including dark chocolate and coconut, how can you go wrong? Now imagine Middle Eastern date cookies bursting with freshness and flavor.
Where can you find these truly authentic Middle Eastern desserts? Right here in New England.
We chatted with Evelyn Aissa, Manager, about their absolutely sensational baked goods. Happily, we were there while owner and sweet-maker Ahmad Aissa prepared his famous desserts from scratch.
Tell us a bit about your background. What led you into into the pastry business?
Traditional Middle Eastern sweets are extraordinarily delicious. Most require quite a lot of skill and pure, fresh ingredients to master. When we left Syria to make New Hampshire home, we could not find Syrian sweets that rivaled those to which we were accustomed. That’s what led us to start the business. We wanted to offer the same quality of sweets that we had enjoyed back in Syria.
You work as a team. What roles do each of you play in running the business?
We both bring different skills and backgrounds to the table, so when it comes to running the business, we try to capitalize on those strengths as much as possible. Ahmad is the baker and the true innovator. He leads in the kitchen – making the sweets, mastering the production of our core ingredients, and developing and evolving our recipes.
For years, he worked as a merchant in Syria. So we also tap into that background as we map out the logistics of getting our sweets out to our customers and work to make sure our customers are always happy. I play a more behind-the-scenes role in the business, focusing on branding, packaging, in short, how best to market our products and build up familiarity with our name.
What was it like to make the transition as business people in Syria to business people in New Hampshire?
It was hard! We we first arrived here, Ahmad’s English was meager at best. Though I was born and raised in New Hampshire, I had never worked in business. My background was in international law.
Between the two of us, we had a lot of ground to cover, from learning the rules and regs of making and distributing food, to understanding how to connect with our customers and get our sweets out there. We had a lot of fun figuring it out and certainly ate our share of humble pie!
You’re known for using authentic ingredients in your desserts. Describe some of the ingredients. Where are they from and how do they differ from those typically available in the US?
Ghee is one of the most important ingredients in our sweets. When we first started, we were importing it from Egypt. After a year, we began making the ghee ourselves. It is a long and somewhat laborious process, but the results are spectacular – the taste is rich and complex, infinitely better than anything we’ve ever found in the market.
For our date-stuffed mamoul, we use medjool dates imported from the UAE. Dates grown in such an intensely hot and dry climate become extraordinarily luscious and sweet – like natural candies. They are the perfect filling for mamoul.
In the states, it’s unusual to see filo being made by hand. How is it done?
The process of making filo by hand is best described as a labor of love. After mixing the dough, it is rolled out into several long, thin slabs to then rest overnight at room temperature. Covering it with a damp cloth helps to keep it fresh and supple as it rests. The next day, the stretching process begins.
The dough is rolled and stretched on repeat until it becomes paper thin, nearly translucent. There are no shortcuts to making perfect filo. The stretching process for one batch can take up to an hour. When it is made properly, filo dough strikes a perfect balance between being delicate and crispy. The entire process is truly an art.
What is Syrian food culture like? How important are desserts?
Syrian food culture celebrates long, elaborate shared meals and thoughtfully prepared, home cooked meals are valued beyond all. There is a popular saying that, “no matter how many stars a restaurant has, my mom’s cooking is a thousand times more delicious.” Sweets after a meal are given – but the enjoyment of them is certainly not limited to dessert.
Much like here in the US, sweets are shared at celebrations, given as gifts at house warmings, when visiting new parents, and so on. Sweets play such an important role in our collective cultural currency – this is true most anywhere in the world, and that is certainly part of the pleasure of making and sharing them.
How does Syrian baklava differ from Greek and Turkish baklava?
Syrian baklava is made with syrup and orange blossom nectar. Turkish baklava is often quite similar to the baklava you would find in Syria. Greek baklava is made with honey and oftentimes contains allspice and other similar spices. Syrian baklava is lighter, crispier and more subtle in flavor than its Greek counterpart.
Have you had to adapt your recipes to accommodate the American palate or are your desserts authentic to is available back home?
Our cashew and pistachio baklavas and date-stuffed mamoul are just as you would find them back in Syria. However, it is hard to resist the search for unexpected synergies between traditional methods and new ingredients.
Many of our sweets are the result of those explorations – from our chocolate baklava made with our signature chocolate filo and layered again with gourmet chocolate, to our vanilla creme-filled carrot cookies inspired by the traditional carrot-based candies of Syria.
What advice would you have for a home cook who wants to make their own baklava?
Baklava is only as delicious as each of its ingredients. Fresh, natural, high quality ingredients go a long way. After that, you need patience – and then, more patience. It takes a long time to really master the process of making good baklava.
Pay attention to the level of humidity in your kitchen – too much, and the dough will never achieve the right amount of crispiness. If you are buying pre-made dough, make sure it is fresh and supple and free of preservatives.
What’s your work philosophy?
We believe that food should be made with love and care, using only fresh, pure ingredients. That ethic shapes every aspect of Aissa Sweets – from the way we choose ingredients to how we prepare and bake them. We love what we do and the joy of sharing good food with others is at the very center of it.
We can certainly taste the love in their beautifully prepared desserts. You can order Aissa Sweets directly through their website or pick them up at area Whole Foods and local food shops all over New England. You can also order the sweets directly online and request catering by clicking on their link below.
Whatever you do, call or go online to order some baklava today. You’ll be so happy you did.
128 Hall Street, Unit H (new and bigger location!)
Concord, NH 03301
We have some great ideas sprouting up so watch this space for more delicious finds.