Aunt Marge & Baklava

Food is never about just food. At its worst, food can be about anxiety and lead to self loathing. At its best it’s about the Aunt Marges in our lives.

Aunt Marge at around 12 years old near the turn of the 20th century.

Aunt Marge at around 12 years old near the turn of the 20th century.

I had a lot of great relatives when I was growing up. I didn’t get to see them much because we lived in Virginia and they all lived in Pennsylvaia. I can’t even say I had an extremely close relationship with any of them, but I loved them and knew they loved me. We spent Thanksgiving with them but not Christmas because the drive was too snowy and even if it was a warm winter, you never knew if a snow storm could crop up and we had to pass through the Washington Mountains’ treacherous, winding roads. So, my grandmother and great aunt, who lived together, decorated their whole house for Christmas, complete with Christmas tree and the treasured ornaments their dad, Gus, had made around the turn of the last century. They baked like it was Christmas and that baking included baklava. We aren’t Greek, but my aunt was a wonderful cook and it became a tradition in my family that every year we ate baklava at Thanksgiving, which somehow in my memory morphed into a Christmas memory (they did a good job of making us feel like we spent Christmas together)

.baked & delicious

Every year we made an event out of the presentation of the baklava. Marge would talk about how hard it was and all those layers! The family oo’d and ahh’d and sympathized with all of her hard work and expressed our heart felt gratitude. Then we rolled our eyes in ecstasy at the taste of it. I actually didn’t even like it much when I was a kid (I liked her crescent cookies more), but the specialness of dessert and all the steps that were involved made it feel so Christmasy and I felt very loved that she would take that time for us. When I grew up, I came to love baklava for itself not just for the memories it evoked. Marge lived to be 95 but had stopped making baklava years before. I decided I would give it a try. I found out it is hard and there are a lot of steps, but in my busy life, I love that I take a whole day out to make one thing — no multi-tasking is possible with this one — a rarity in my life. And, it makes me feel like I’m doing something for Marge. I know she would love that I made the effort every Christmas in her

I make it now for our paddle tennis league’s annual cookie exchange, so at minimum I make four pans. At one time, I think I actually made eight pans because there are twelve couples and I felt each couple had to go home with a lot. Now, I’m down to four pans, but it still takes the entire day. Here’s why: Get everything ready and in line on your table in the order you’ll be using them: 1 pound finely chopped nuts mixed with 1 teaspoon cinnamon at least 2 damp kitchen towels 1 cup of melted butter 1 pastry brush (I prefer the silicone one as the boars bristle can leave bristles on the dough that you have to pick out. It’s also good using a spray bottle for the melted butter) 1 9×13 pan brushed with butter.

Put at least two damp kitchen towels on the kitchen table. Unwrap the first box of phyllo dough and place sheets on top of a damp towel. Use kitchen shears to cut the sheets in half so that you have two squares (not two long rectangles).

phyllo rolledphyllo between towels      Place a damp towel on top of the phyllo dough sheets to keep them from drying out. Butter a 9×13 pan (I use both glass and metal).

layering pan     Layer two sheets of phyllo dough in the bottom of the pan and brush melted butter over them using the pastry brush.

brushing dough butter

Repeat this step until you have 6-8 sheets for the bottom layer of baklava.


nuts on dough       Spread 2-3 tablespoons of nuts over the dough. Layer 2 more sheets of phyllo dough and brush with butter and sprinkle with 2-3 tablespoons of nuts. Continue these steps until you are near the top of the pan. Make sure you have 6-8 phyllo sheets (buttered every two layers) for the top layer.

cutting dough

Next, use a knife to cut the uncooked baklava into diagonal pieces. You can make the pieces however big you want, but if you will be putting them into cupcake papers (as I sometimes do), make sure they are small enough to fit. Cut all the way through the bottom layer. This takes patience because the top layer will peel away sometimes. The more butter on the top layer, the less pulling away of that top layer of phyllo dough. Also, a spoon helps hold it down as you cut.

baked & delicious     Bake the baklava in an oven preheated to 350 degrees for 50 minutes. Keep your oven light on and watch it carefully. The top should be golden brown, but often it browns too soon. If that happens, I put a loose layer of tin foil over the top. Another problem is that the bottom can start to brown/burn. If that happens, I put a thick pan underneath, like a Pampered Chef stone cookie sheet.

pouring honey stirring

While the baklava is baking away, start the sauce. Mix one cup of sugar with one cup of water. Boil this mixture until the sugar melts. Add one cup of honey and one teaspoon of vanilla and simmer for 20 minutes. I stir continuously until it is a light simmer so it doesn’t scorch on the bottom.

pouring syrup          Take the baklava out of the oven, and while still hot, pour the sauce over the baklava and delight in the sizzle. Allow to cool completely. Don’t cover as it will make the baklava soft and mushy and you want it to stay crisp. After it’s cooled completely, use a small fork and spatula to carefully lift the diamond shaped pieces into cupcake papers. You may want to run a knife along the pieces to make sure they’re cut all the way to the bottom so you don’t end up dumping pieces and losing some.

piece served             Enjoy!



A Conservation Story in My Own Yard



A Conservatoin Story 

In My Front Yard


   I travel far to write and photograph endangered species stories for children’s books and articles:  wild dogs in Africa, Thai elephants, orangutans, nesting sea turtles. Yesterday a story about one of the most important disappearing-species came right to my front yard.  

   A visiting friend noticed insects swarming under my crabapple.  “I think they’re bees,” Barb said.

“No,” I said, wandering outside.  From behind my screen door they just looked like some innocuous fliers. My gaze fell on a swollen tree branch. I thought it was burl or gall but this lump writhed. Bees.  I was pretty sure they were honey bees.  Although I advocate for wildlife, I felt panicky.  Two girls were attacked by bees in my yard once; and my dog was one week out from major surgery.  My mind flew to the quickest way to rid my yard of the swarm  – Orkin – but I knew it was wrong and also now illegal to kill honeybees.  I called my husband to take a look and he murmured, “Hmmm, I saw a sign down the road that said, ‘honey bee swarms wanted’.”  I drove to the sign, called the number and began entreating the man on the other end of the line, Joe Hurley, to come right away.  He said he’d cancel his planned meeting and would be at my house in ten minutes.

   Joe Hurley showed up with smoker, plastic bin and saw.  He donned netted hat and gloves.  He lit a smoker and stoked it with sweet smelling grass. He eyed the swarm. “A couple thousand.  Relatively small hive,” Joe said. A large hive can house 10,000 bees or more.  He said my small crabapple wouldn’t have been appropriate for the new hive and that the swarm would have moved on within a couple of hours to a couple of days (“maybe into your attic,” he said and smiled.).  Joe Hurley said honey bees were least aggressive when on the move.  “Honey bees are usually only aggressive when protecting honey,” he said.  The bees’ original hive was overpopulated. The queen had laid eggs in her former hive and taken off with half the hive’s bees to build a new home hive.  

Joe Hurley climbed a ladder and smoked the bees into a sleepy state, then gently hand-sawed the branch. It proved, however, difficult to sever the limb.  He said, “I’m going to shake them into the bin.” That didn’t sound good.  I back-walked fast and far down the hill of my front yard, realizing I’d now placed myself much farther from the safety of my house. But, since I was still within my zoom lens’ range I stayed outside.  Joe shook the branch with the swarm and most fell into the bin.  A good number still flew around, separated from the captured swarm.  Those still free clustered back on the branch.  Joe Hurley stared into the bin.  

“What are you looking for?” I asked. “The queen,” Joe Hurley said.  “If the queen isn’t in there, I have to get the rest of the bees.”  He gazed some more.  No queen to be seen.  Back up the ladder he climbed, sawing the branch until it severed.  He gently shook the bees on the branch into the bin.  He watched for several minutes more and shook his head.  Still no queen to be seen.  

“If the bees cluster again, call me,” he said.  A few hours later, the bees still swarmed the branch.

   “The queen could be there, or the bees could just be on the branch because the queen’s stench is on it,” he said over the phone.  But he returned and captured the remaining honey bees.  This time he was sure he’d captured them all.  By dark, only twenty-five or so bees swarmed the branch that now lay in the grass.  

A side note: Joe Hurley never got stung and neither did I.  


Next day I got this email from Joe Hurley:  “I now estimate the swarm at 3-5,000, still a small swarm compared to the 10-20,000 in some swarms. Also, the queen was definitely in the first batch I brought home. When I brought the second batch home, the bees all filed neatly from the box into the hive, indicating the queen was already in the hive.”

   Honeybees numbers are in drastic decline and the reason is a mystery.  Remember, a swarm will only alight on a branch for a few hours to a few days.  You may want to just leave the bees to find their new home in the wild.  But, if you want a swarm removed contact:

Rochester Beekeepers 585-820-6619

Ontario Finger Lakes Beekeepers 585-394-7279

Monroe County Master Gardener Helpline 585-473-5335

Putting Problems To Work

A few years ago, I was a writer with no time to write.  Half-finished projects lay in basement boxes, in file cabinets, and on disks.  At home with two preschoolers, I found my days were full.  Time to myself when, say, the children were napping was not used for writing.  I couldn’t focus with the possibility of an interruption looming.

Then I began waking before dawn.  I tried a later bedtime to stave this off, but it was no good.  I’d still awaken in what felt like the middle of the night.  Soon after, a small epiphany:  Those early hours were my opportunity.  I rose and devoted full attention to writing. I thought I would be double tired. Instead, the fun of finally writing energized me.

Years before that, another problem had proved an opportunity. At bedtime, my first child would cry and scream.  It became the worst time of my day.  A friend suggested I try sitting outside his room and reading a good book.  My son would know I was there, and I would have some time to myself. I love to read, and with this plan I could do so guilt-free. I wasn’t shirking chores to read a novel. I was solving my son’s bedtime terrors!  I tried it. It worked. And it became my favorite time of day.

Wouldn’t it be nice if life were a pet you could keep on a leash?  Give it a good yank when it wanted to go in a different direction, and praise it when it tagged along?  Of course, anyone with a dog knows that the best walks are the ones without the leash, when you follow your dog as he explores.  My guess is each life provides paths to dreams. They just may not be the paths we imagined.

The Cottage Fairy

When my son was very small, I told him a fairy lived at our weekend cottage.  I said we were lucky because fairies only live in houses where there is a lot of love.  Each Friday afternoon when we arrived at our cottage, we saw signs the fairy was residing there.  She hid from us because she was tiny and shy, but she was surely there.  We knew because she always left a gift.  It might be a feather, an especially beautiful stone, a locust husk, a shell from the lake, sea glass, tiny dried flowers, or a seed.  My son loved these gifts as much as he loved his Christmas or birthday gifts.  He loved sharing his appreciation of nature with another being. He nestled into the thought that our family was singled out as especially loving.

We tried to find exactly where she lived in the cottage.  I sprinkled flour on our wooden floors just outside the deep, dark closet, and sure enough, the next morning tiny footprints were in the flour (fairies don’t always fly).   As he got older and I had a second child, I sometimes forgot to put the fairy’s offerings in the cottage and he remarked upon it.  Once he even asked if it meant we weren’t as loving a family anymore and if that had caused the fairy to leave.  I gave all the reassurances and excuses for the fairy I could and stepped up my efforts.  His love of and belief in the fairy lasted far longer than I would have expected of a toy-gun-toting boy.

He’s fifteen now, my son (I guess the fairy is a bit older).  He doesn’t mention the fairy anymore, but maybe three years ago he surprised me by saying, “Remember how you used to tell me there was a fairy living in our cottage?”    He got a faraway look in his eyes and I knew that magic remained with him.  He’s at high school right this minute, and I’m resisting the temptation to text him and ask him if he remembers the fairy who used to live in the cottage.  Poor kid to have a mother who actually needs to restrain herself from sending such a text to a high school boy.  I will resist, but I’ll definitely ask him about it when he comes home.


Most Americans believe in karma in one form or another;  either as an organized, religious doctrine-based idea, or a practical “if you do this, the natural outcome is that” style thinking.  I ascribe to the latter.  I’ve recently learned, and believe, that many of our western diseases are preventable through diet, especially by adopting a vegan diet.  A vegan diet is one in which no animal product is consumed.  Now, food-source animals are cruelly used in most instances and are forced into their role as provider of human food in all instances.  Doesn’t it make sense that if you are cruel you will reap suffering? And, in this case it proves true, not as some “God is punishing you” action, but in a very real “eat the wrong thing and you’ll suffer” way.

Caring for foundlings

My daughter raced into the house an hour ago, cradling something in her hands.  “Mom,” she yelled in her Come Now voice.  She widened her fingers a smidge to reveal pin feathers and a damp back.  “Ilanna’s dog had it between its paws.  Ilanna’s dad checked it all over and said it seemed fine —  no broken wings or legs or anything.”  “Oh!” I said. “It’s a fledgling…. mourning dove,” I said, taking a closer look at the small gray bird whose feathers didn’t completely cover its scrawny body.  My daughter chattered on. “Her dad said he thought it looked O.K. but he he said he’s no expert.”  I am.  Sort of.  I’ve been listed under a wildlife rehabilitator’s license for over twenty years.  That means I never took the formal test, but I did pass a six week workshop that taught me how to care for orphaned and injured wildlife.  And, one big lesson I learned was that adult birds will feed their fledgling on the ground for up to two weeks. What my daughter cradled in her hands now was a fledgling.  What we needed to do was rig a nest for this foundling:  Cool Whip container with holes poked in the bottom for drainage and in the sides for stringing to a tree.  We filled the “nest” with leaves and grass and a few seeds and returned to the place the fledgling was found:  Ilanna’s yard.  We knew we couldn’t leave the bird on the ground because Ilanna’s dog would only go after it again.  Hence, the nest which would keep the bird well out of the dog’s reach and still allow the parent birds access to their beloved baby.  When we got to Ilanna’s yard, we got lucky.  Ilanna’s family has a vegetable garden surrounded by an eight foot fence, compete with latched door.  Perfect.  The baby could hop between sunny spots and shade and even peck around for its own food.  Too, it would be safe from predators and completely accessible to the parents.  We placed the fledgling mourning dove under a wide brimmed pumpkin leaf.  Blinking its ink-black eyes at us serenely, it nestled deeply into the shadows of the pumpkin vine.  I looked around but couldn’t see the four ink-black eyes that were surely watching us from the trees.