Photo by Chris Mortenson
Refined goodies are kept close to the vest
By Frier McCollister
In Suzan “Suzy” Ohanian’s small townhouse kitchen, the chef has made a remarkable impact on an otherwise sleepy neighborhood in east Pasadena.
With the help of her daughter, Hermine, her husband, Hovig, and her mother, Mary Joubalian, she has created some of the most finely crafted and truly delicious Levantine pastries in the Arroyo. With the burgeoning generational Armenian community in Pasadena and Glendale, that’s saying something.
Baklava, maamoul, kunafa and lokum are the usual suspects, but Suzy’s marzipan cakes and French macarons have induced swoons locally as well.
Hermine is her chief assistant, spokesperson and translator for a Sunday afternoon conversation in the family dining room, where the pastries are packaged for pickup for her growing throng of customers.
It seems an unlikely story. In 2011, the Ohanians decamped from Aleppo, Syria, to Pasadena to visit relatives and ostensibly vacation, when the first disturbances erupted in Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring protests.
“In 2011, during the war, we flew to the United States for vacation until everything settled down and got back to normal in Syria,” Hermine explains.
“We stayed here for three months, and we realized we cannot go back. I started working. (Suzy) had never worked in her life. She was only making food and sweets for us in Syria. She learned from her mother. She kept baking, baking, baking until her friend asked her to make that kunafa for me please. It tastes so good. That’s the first tray that she wanted to give to someone. Apparently, she sold it. That’s how it all started.
“The first time, when my friend wanted (the kunafe), I was very upset. I never worked in my life. One week later, I started to think, ‘Why am I not working?’ I wanted to try to work because everybody was working. In my country, women don’t usually work. But I decided to work.”
After that first tray of kunafa went out the door, Suzy began experimenting in the kitchen and selling her pastries at local cultural events.
“She started participating in shows in our community,” Hermine says.
“People have a small stand and sell their products. The shows were in Armenian communities in big halls, where you go and prepare your sweets and you get a table and you start selling. Everybody started loving it, because when she makes something, she makes it as if she is making it for us, for her family. For example, when I’m helping her, if it doesn’t look OK, she doesn’t give it to her customers, she eats it herself — or we eat it. The perfect pieces go to the customer. Friends and friends of friends started asking her to make sweets. That’s how she came to this point now.”
Suzy adds, “I decided to work.”
Competent baking requires at least a modicum of precision, but Suzy’s self-taught approach is of another order.
Her cakes, cookies and pastries resulted from years of painstaking trials and experiments with techniques and ingredients. “She works so hard to make her recipes perfect and perfect and perfect. It took her three or four years to say, ‘OK, this is it. I’m not changing it anymore.’ It’s four years of exploration and tasting and getting feedback and making it perfect and changing,” Hermine says.
“She’s very precise with the (measurements), with the cleanliness, with the materials, the ingredients, always using the best. So, people actually appreciated that. When they taste, they can tell it’s much different than what they’re buying in the stores, prepackaged. Everything that she makes is fresh.”
If anything, one secret may be in Suzy’s refined and exacting palate.
“When I tried the same sweets that I am making, when I buy it here, made by somebody else, they don’t know how it really tastes. No, I will make the same sweets, the way they’re supposed to taste. With the right ingredients, with the clean ingredients, with pure ingredients, not just buy pistachio powder and create a maamoul,” Suzy explains.
“When you try one of those, you will feel that. She was always saying that the sweets here are very, very sweet, lots of sugar. She makes sure to reduce the sugar so that you get the real flavor of every single ingredient,” Hermine interjects.
Suzy adds, “Some sweets you have to boil the butter, take the milk out of it and use the real pure butter without the milk, clarified butter. Some sweets require regular butter. I don’t compromise on anything.”
Hermine presented a jar of walnuts. “This is the main ingredient for most of her baklavas, whole walnuts. If they need to be cracked, she cracks it. If it needs to be ground, she grinds it. She always starts with the whole walnut, the whole pistachio, the whole almond. That’s how you make sure you’re getting fresh product,” she says.
Suppliers send boxes of samples to her to make sure it’s fresh, Suzy said. “They depend on me.”
For the newly initiated, regular customer favorites are clear. “The classic marzipan, the chocolate walnut marzipan,” Suzy says. The customers called it “incredible,” Hermine adds.
“Maamoul pistachio and then baklava swaret el set,” adds Suzy, noting the other two favorite contenders. Here, Hermine presented a tray of baklava shaped in fat coins of delicate filo, each with a bright green glitter of pistachio over the walnut filling at the center.
“This is called the swaret el set. In Arabic this means ‘bracelet of a woman,’” Hermine explains.
“It has an interesting story. It’s a very old sweet. It’s called ‘bracelet of a woman’ because of its shape. It’s the bracelet of a beautiful, sweet woman.”
Suzy makes five styles of baklava, including antep-style pistachio squares.
Finely crafted and popular French macarons are also on the menu. Suzy created them at the request of friends, who suggested that they might be more appealing to the younger generation than traditional cookies.
It took her three months to painstakingly perfect the macaron recipe.
“Every milligram makes a difference in her macarons. It is like a science,” Hermine confirms.
Customers place their orders via email through the website — which Hermine built and designed — or directly by phone. Directions for pickup are given when the order is confirmed. Allow proper lead time, depending on the order.
“They can order online, but they pick it up from the house,” Hermine says. “Her customers — who know her already — they know they have to order three to four days in advance. For cakes, it’s 10 days in advance, because she can only make a limited number of cakes. It takes lots of time. It’s not just any simple cake. We package them on the dining table here.”
Suzy also supplies her sweets on wholesale order to two local restaurants.
“Tarmeh (Mediterranean Grill) in Glendale. The other one we cannot disclose,” Hermine allows. Notably, the other bit of nondisclosure are Suzy’s recipes. Despite a barrage of unseemly cajoling, she remained firmly opposed to sharing any of her secrets. “She definitely doesn’t want to give out recipes,” Hermine confirmed.
“As long as I’m working, I don’t,” Suzy affirmed, with a modest proviso. She is considering teaching eventually.
“She has a plan later on to teach. Have students and teach them to make these types of sweets in a perfect way. She really doesn’t want to give away recipes. She can share ingredients, of course,” Hermine offers.
The sources may be surprising.
The best butter? “Kirkland brand, from Costco.”
Eggs? “It took her three to four years to find the best eggs for her macarons. You cannot really go and buy eggs from anywhere to use for macarons. It took her a very long time to find that this is the only place to buy eggs,” Hermine says.
“Restaurant Depot, medium size,” Suzy reveals. Vanilla? “Mideast brand from Good Food” she says about the neighborhood Armenian market on Washington Boulevard. By the way, Suzy’s dutiful husband Hovig does all the shopping (and returns).
In 10 short years, Suzy has found her place in the world. East Pasadena. “This area here, we love it. It feels like home for us.”
Suzy’s Sweets Boutique