Food & Drink

93-year-old's baklava is festival's centerpiece

Methodically, reverently, Julia Yanney slices the baklava. Whack. Whack. Whack.

She uses a yardstick she found years ago, marking the pastry at certain intervals across the huge sheet pan. A sharp knife is required.

There is no talking as dozens of eyes focus on her task of cutting through 42 layers of phyllo, a thin dough that is layered to produce a flaky pastry.

"I don't talk," the 93-year-old Yanney said. "I can't work and talk at the same time."

The sounds in the kitchen at St. Mary Orthodox Christian Church are hushed as volunteers prepare for the annual Mediterranean Festival this weekend.

The sale has been a local tradition for more than 75 years. The church's a la carte menu features foods from Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Russia and Serbia.

Sunday afternoon, Yanney, her daughter, Judith Shippy, 53, and granddaughter, Melissa Shippy, 24, were entrusted to finish up more than 30 trays of baklava.

Until two years ago, Yanney was the church's only person trusted to do the baklava (pronounced bak-la-wa). She has been making the dessert for more than three decades and in that time has produced more than 3,000 trays of the buttery crisp, sugary, nut desert.

Diagonal cuts are the hardest.

"You cut it into diamond shapes,'' Yanney said. "We do that before we bake it."

To prepare baklava for the festival, there is really only one shortcut allowed: more than 120 pounds of phyllo is ordered.

After that, there are no more shortcuts.

"I don't take any," Yanney said. "I don't think the rest of them do."

Layer after layer, the paper-thin dough is painstakingly placed on the baking sheet. One mishap and the dough can tear.

There are no mishaps with Yanney.

She and her daughter take brushes and dip them methodically into the melted butter and paint a layer of butter on each sheet of dough.

They repeat 22 times before it is time for the filling — a sugary mixture of nuts and lemon juice.

Then 22 more layers of phyllo and melted butter.

"She is a perfectionist," Roberta Namee, one of the organizers of the event, said of Yanney. "You wouldn't want it any other way after you see what she does."