From dissertation to dessert: Former academic turned baker brings Turkish treats to East Bay

Hatice Yildiz, owner of Simurgh Bakery, at the Grand Lake Farmers Market in Oakland.
Hatice Yildiz, owner of Simurgh Bakery, at the Grand Lake Farmers Market in Oakland. Photo: Kathryn Bowen

Moments after meeting Hatice Yildiz, I understand why she declined a career in academia to open Simurgh Bakery. Even after obtaining two graduate degrees — her passion for baking is undeniable. So too is her expertise. Simurgh’s pistachio baklava boasts paper-thin layers of flaky phyllo dough that deliver a cartoonish crunch and envelop a core of plentiful green nuts. You can find that baklava, as well as Simurgh Bakery’s other Turkish treats, on weekends at the Grand Lake and Kensington farmers markets.

“Food is always a way of expression,” said Yildiz, whose pastries elucidate her impressive path. Yildiz grew up in Gallipoli, on the western side of Turkey near the Aegean Sea. Yildiz never anticipated then that she would come to the United States, or start a bakery. Her mother long-encouraged her to focus on her studies, hoping Yildiz would travel a smoother path to success than she did. (Her mother now owns two thriving Istanbul-based Turkish restaurants, which she runs with Yildiz’s brothers.)

Simurgh’s pistachio baklava boasts paper-thin layers of flaky phyllo dough that deliver a cartoonish crunch and envelop a core of plentiful green nuts.

Yildiz consequently chose the classroom over the kitchen. But she always liked to feed people, she said, and would observe her mother make traditional desserts, including baklava, for religious holidays. When Yildiz left her hometown for Istanbul, to attend university, she spoiled her roommates with home-cooked meals.

It was there that Yildiz met her now-husband. They married and moved to the United States in 2004, in part because Yildiz’s efforts to study were complicated by the Turkish government’s ban on headscarves in public institutions, including universities. After a brief stint in Illinois, the pair moved to the Bay Area. She obtained a master’s degree in history at San Francisco State University, followed by a doctorate in Islamic studies at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley.


Pistachio baklava from Simurgh Bakery.
Simurgh Bakery’s pistachio baklava. Yildiz imports pistachios from Gaziantep, Turkey, often referred to as the country’s “pistachio capital.” Photo credit: Simurgh Bakery.

But Yildiz’s doctoral dissertation wasn’t her only focus at GTU. It was during this time that she developed her baklava recipe, testing out different dough formulations by hand. After graduating, Yildiz told her mother she was done seeking a professorship, and instead wanted to pursue her passion for food. She was well-positioned to do so: she had a proprietary recipe, and her products filled a need. Few Turkish bakeries exist in the Bay Area; the East Bay is virtually bereft of comparable outfits.

Even still, success didn’t come immediately. Yildiz spent roughly one year developing her baklava recipe before investing in a machine that would cut phyllo dough. The machine allowed her to scale up production, but its size meant she could no longer bake at home. She settled on a commercial kitchen in Richmond, not far from where she lives with her husband and two sons, aged 8 and 11.

Yildiz transfers to baking the skills that she developed while studying, including a laser-like focus and precision. She harnesses her fine-tuned attention to detail in weighing each piece of delicate phyllo dough. This partly explains why Simurgh’s version boasts a crackly upper veneer and a moist bottom layer, unlike some amalgamate commercial versions. Yildiz also measures the temperature of the simple syrup (not honey, as is typically used in Greek baklava). She even calibrates the weight of the cage-free eggs, used to make the dough, and pistachios — “it’s a kind of experiment,” she added.

Dolmas from Simurgh Bakery that are made with cabbage sit in a Dutch oven
A batch of cabbage dolmas, which Yildiz hopes to roll out in larger quantities at her forthcoming Berkeley storefront. Photo: Simurgh Bakery

Her analytical approach also helped her create a vision for Simurgh Bakery. Part of this vision is to sell superior quality ingredients while still pricing products affordably, aspects of Turkish dining culture that she wishes to emulate. As a result, you will find real lemon juice and olive oil, not vegetable oil, in Simurgh’s dolmas (which Yildiz deemed her “favorite” product, without hesitation). And you won’t encounter high fructose corn syrup in any of Simurgh’s products, including the rice pudding. The pudding, by the way, presents like a crème brûlée with a broiled, amber top. But Yildiz forgoes cane sugar and swaps the French dessert’s rich custard filling for a lighter, still viscous, rice milk base.

Yildiz uses customer feedback in a methodical way, too. She solicits opinions from shoppers at farmers markets, and tweaks her products accordingly. For instance, she tamped down the amount of simple syrup in her baklava to better suit local palates. Less syrup also means crispier dough, and a longer shelf life without the use of preservatives. As a result, Simurgh’s baklavas hold their structural integrity for up to two weeks, versus traditional recipes that should be eaten in roughly two days, Yildiz said. In response to calls for savory products, she introduced dolmas and boureks (baked phyllo dough pastries).

Simurgh Bakery's spinach and feta boureks. Yildiz recommends briefly warming her boureks in the oven, to crisp the upper layer of phyllo dough.
Simurgh Bakery’s spinach and feta boureks. Yildiz recommends briefly warming her boureks in the oven, to crisp the upper layer of phyllo dough. Photo credit: Simurgh Bakery.

With California produce in mind, Yildiz stuffs some boureks with mushroom and kale, versus the traditional ground beef filling. Her other bourek version (spinach and feta) takes a cue from spanakopita, and builds on a cheese-only style that is popular in Turkey. Vegans can partake in Simurgh’s green lentil bourek, which forgoes dairy entirely. She will next experiment with an unconventional chocolate walnut baklava, to complement her other versions: one with pistachio, another with walnut and date.

You’ll be seeing more of Simurgh Bakery shortly. Yildiz is finalizing plans for an independent production space elsewhere in Richmond. Within a year, she hopes to open a retail and storefront in Berkeley. In addition to baked goods and coffee, she anticipates offering a wider range of dolmas (cabbage and zucchini, for instance) and ćufte (Balkan-style meatballs). The ćufte derive from her brother’s much-coveted recipe, which she dates at over a century old.

Light and airy gluten-free almond pistachio cookies. Turkish pistachios, not food coloring, give the sweets their spring green lilt.
Light and airy gluten-free almond pistachio cookies. Turkish pistachios, not food coloring, give the sweets their spring green hue. Photo credit: Simurgh Bakery.

When asked about her play on traditional baklava and boureks, Yildiz repeated the words of one customer: The traditional recipe isn’t necessarily the right recipe. To be sure, Yildiz has the goods, and the training, to back up her distinctive approach.

Simurgh Bakery products are sold at the Grand Lake Farmers Market, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, and the Kensington Farmers Market, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m, Sunday.