Every year for his birthday, Naciye Emren’s son would ask for his mother’s baklava instead of cake. Rather than candles and frosting, Emren would bake a large tray of baklava, filled with layers of walnuts, almonds and sometimes pistachios. She finished the dessert by soaking layers of phyllo dough in simple syrup made from water and sugar. Soon Emren’s single tray of birthday baklava turned into The Baklava Lady, a vegan bakery full of family recipes and lovers of Turkish cuisine.
The history of baklava is rather unknown, with some believing its origins are Greek while others deem the dessert to have Turkish roots. While most evidence points to it being of Central Asian Turkic origin, to Emren, her own origin of the dessert does not come from the stories of baklava being whipped up in the Topkapi Palace. From her perspective, Emren knows it came from the hands of her mother and father, surrounded by love, tradition and a passion for sharing their Turkish culture.
After immigrating to the United States in 1979, Emren’s parents filled her childhood kitchen with Turkish dishes and pastries. Although, it wasn’t until she had her own children that she discovered her love for baking and cooking. At the time as well, Emren was working in food photography at Whole Foods with their social media team. Often, Emren was thrown a number of ingredients and told to come up with any recipe she wanted. With this, she was able to harness her creativity in the kitchen.
The top dish made in her kitchen was her take on baklava, which garnered a number of fans. However, nine years ago, Emren switched to an all-vegan lifestyle. One of the biggest reasons Emren turned vegan was her love of animals and the environment.
“The first reason was health, and then it was like ‘Wow, these poor animals are suffering and also our environment is suffering.’ So I think I am doing the best thing possible by avoiding any kind of meat or dairy in my diet. I feel like I am contributing to helping the animals and the Earth.”
Unfortunately, vegan options and substitutes were limited during the time Emren shifted her eating habits, making converting traditional Turkish dishes difficult. “I wasn’t as skilled as I was today with making vegan meats and there were no vegan yogurts…I try to make everything I possibly can to a vegan version.”
As a matter of fact, Emren began expanding her baking fan base by involving the vegan community. They began to call on her regularly for her baklava. “One family, in particular, ordered from me quite regularly and her husband started just calling me ‘The Baklava Lady’ and that is how it all started.” Due to her rising popularity, in 2018, Emeren began doing pop-ups before swiftly transitioning to opening her own bakery, The Baklava Lady, in 2019.
Located in Englishtown, The Baklava Lady is a woman and immigrant-owned vegan bakery, selling a range of Turkish delicacies such as köfte wraps, persimmon raisin bread, Turkish pistachio coffee and Turkish teas such as demli çay and elma çay. Most importantly, The Baklava Lady offers a wide array of baklava flavors such as custard pistachio, walnut, cheesecake and chocolate hazelnut.
Emren never once wavered in her mindset that she was meant to open a vegan Turkish bakery. However, the pandemic was the first time she felt any ounce of doubt. Like many other eateries at the time, she came up with a plan to have curbside pickup, as well as create a menu that would be as appealing as possible with a number of different specials. “The goal was to take amazing pictures because people eat with their eyes.” The Baklava Lady’s loyal followers came in droves during this time, with some even driving all the way from Brooklyn to pick up her baked goods.
One of Emren’s biggest goals with her bakery, besides providing Turkish dishes to the vegan community, is to have customers get a glimpse of the kinds of dishes that were made in her childhood kitchen. One of her favorite dishes is a Turkish baked rice pudding: sutlac. “My mom used to always make sutlac, so that is always a staple at the café and it always sells out. It’s a huge hit.” Another popular menu item is Baba’s Hummus, something her father was known for making. Besides those, Emren’s favorite menu item out of everything in the bakery is the orange blossom semolina cake; a nutty and rich orange-infused cake that is impossible to dislike.
Reflecting back to the days she spent watching her parents cook these same traditional recipes she now sells in her bakery, Emren notes how much of an inspiration her parents were to her. “I want to make them proud and I want to recreate dishes from my childhood. They are the ones that inspired me.”
When thinking about herself, Emren knows she is a go-getter and someone that’s not afraid to admit how hard she worked to achieve her dreams. “Once I want something, I have to get it done…and I am constantly thinking, ‘I need to get this done, I need to get this done,’ and nothing will ever stop me. I don’t care what it is.”
You can learn more about The Baklava Lady by visiting Emren’s website.