How Simurgh Bakery makes Bay Area baklava with fresh phyllo dough
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How Simurgh Bakery makes Bay Area baklava with fresh phyllo dough

May 27, 2023

Before starting her own business, Simurgh Bakery, where she expertly layers crispy, crackling phyllo dough pastries, former academic Hatice Yildiz had never made baklava in her entire life. But she fell in love with the intricate process by watching YouTube videos.

Maybe she was craving the pastries she used to eat in her native Turkey. Back home, her mother only rolled out baklava for special occasions. But suddenly, Yildiz was staying up until 3 a.m., stretching sheets and sheets of fresh phyllo over the kitchen table. "There was cornstarch all over the place," Yildiz said.

Seven years later, Yildiz has grown from selling her wares at a couple of farmers’ markets to a permanent Emeryville storefront, a kiosk in San Francisco's Ferry Building, and a production kitchen in Richmond supplying pastries to Bi-Rite Market and Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco and Real Produce Market in Palo Alto. To her knowledge, Simurgh is the only dedicated Turkish bakery in the Bay Area, and one of only a few Middle Eastern bakeries. Even more rare, she's tackling the task most other bakers would outsource: making fresh phyllo dough from scratch, then layering it into sweet baklava and savory bourek.

Top: Baklava from the Simurgh Bakery production kitchen in Richmond. Above: Hatice Yildiz (left) transfers dough into a sheeter as Sonia Maldonado makes more dough for their baklava. Photos by Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

"Some people ask, ‘Why are you doing it, are you crazy?’" Yildiz said. She could easily use frozen dough, but she feels a responsibility with these rare treats. "If it's someone's first time trying our cuisine, I don't want them to have a bad experience. I want them to have the best experience."

Yildiz grew up a practicing Muslim in western Turkey near the Black Sea, where her mother and brothers still run three restaurants. Yildiz moved to the States to pursue her master's degree in history from San Francisco State University and doctorate in religious studies from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She specifically studied the history of the Ottoman Empire, which as dough nerds might know, makes sense if you’re obsessed with lamination: The Turks stretched phyllo long before Austrians buttered croissants.

Phyllo is a simple mix of flour, eggs, salt and water — "that's it," said Yildiz. It's a stiff dough high in gluten, so she uses a combination of all-purpose and bread flours to get that big stretch. She also includes eggs, which commercial brands often omit, and which impart a soft and silky texture. Yildiz spent a year perfecting her recipe before investing in a machine from Turkey, about 7 feet tall and 12 feet long, which can produce up to 220 pounds of dough per day. Her husband, Ahmet Yildiz, a biophysicist at UC Berkeley, helped run experiments and take notes on texture.

They mix the dough and feed it through a sheeter that stretches it to at least .05 mm, sometimes even thinner. That's finer than paper. "We always check it by hand, and if it's too thin, you can't even touch the dough, it's broken easily." Then they weigh and trim it into trays, 2 pounds each but containing multitudes: Yildiz estimates there are about 40 final layers, making this dough the novella of pastry.

Most restaurants and bakeries rely on frozen phyllo dough, such as Athens brand out of Cleveland, which started as a small immigrant-owned bakery in 1958, but now does big dough business. But frozen phyllo tends to dry out quickly and crumble, Yildiz said. In contrast, her fresh dough stays stretchy and pliable while rolling, she said, and bakes to golden crispiness with more crackle and bite.

Because fresh phyllo takes so much effort, it's worth layering into as many dishes as possible. Simurgh offers several types of baklava. The original (12 pieces for $12.99) features bright green pistachios from Antep, the southern Turkish city that's famous for them, cut into classic squares or twirled into cigar-like rolls. The walnut variation adds sticky Medjool dates, while a chocolate version stars a rich mix of almonds and hazelnuts. Yildiz brushes 20 layers on the bottom and 20 layers on top with clarified butter to avoid overbrowning, and sweetens with simple syrup to keep it crisp and light. (Honey offers wilder flavor, but it's thicker and heavier.) When you bite into them, the bars shatter at the top and sink at the bottom, while the rolls soak until soft and syrupy throughout.

Yildiz also wraps the phyllo around bourek, a savory pie similar to quiche, that's not so often seen in the Bay Area. She brushes eight layers with egg wash, drapes them into the bottom of the pan and folds them over the crackling top. In Turkey, bourek might be simply filled with ground beef, cheese or potatoes. But Yildiz found Californians crave veggies, so she fills hers with mushrooms and kale, spinach and feta, and green lentils. Beyond phyllo, Simurgh also offers a full menu, including fluffy pide and dolma rolled in California grape leaves; Turkish breakfast platters with house-made labne and cucumbers; and Balkan-style kebabs in roasted red pepper sauce.

"Making the dough from scratch? It's a big deal," said Mica Talmor of Pomella, the Cal-Israeli restaurant in Oakland, who makes baklava using frozen phyllo.

"You don't just make it in any bakery," she said, "You have to dedicate your facility to it." That's why Talmor was "beyond excited" to learn about Simurgh, a dedicated Turkish bakery putting in the work in the Bay Area.

"Stretching is very labor intensive and (there's) a lot of skill involved," she said. "It's not like making cupcakes."

Simurgh Bakery & Cafe. 4125 San Pablo Ave., Emeryville.

Becky Duffett is a freelance writer.