Leaves From Fresno


When Hranoosh Esajian made lavash bread, she used 25 pounds of flour. The only record of Noyemzar Kaltakian’s baklava is a list of ingredients on a tattered envelope. Perzooza Tufenkjian treated sunburn and beautified her complexion with madzoon (yogurt). Esther Bagdasarian was renowned for her baking and made terrific stuffed grape leaves.

These women are memorialized in “A Hundred Years and Still Cooking,” a cookbook that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the First Armenian Presbyterian Church of Fresno. Their recipes appear in a fascinating chapter called “Cooks in the Heavens.”

Bagdasarian’s daughter, Mary Lou, heads the Fidelis Society, a church women’s group that compiled the recipes.


“I am not trying to brag, but my mom was a very good cook and baker,” she says. Like most of these women, her mother measured ingredients by look and feel and left few written recipes.

The First Armenian Presbyterian Church boasts not only good cooks but also an interesting history.

It is the oldest Armenian religious institution in California, according to senior pastor Bernard Guekguezian. And it was the boyhood church of author William Saroyan. Mary Lou Bagdasarian recalls sharing Thanksgivings with Saroyan.

“He would always bring one of his books, autograph it and give it to someone,” she says.

The church was founded in 1897 and moved to its current location on Fresno’s South 1st Street in the 1940s. Although regular services are in English, a service for new immigrants is held in Armenian.

The more than 400-page cookbook is crammed with wonderful-sounding Armenian dishes from contemporary cooks as well as those of the past. Each chapter has its own index, which makes it easy to separate the Armenian food from general recipes.


Sampling some of recipes in The Times Test Kitchen, we especially liked juicy grilled luleh kebabs, sausage-shaped rolls made of ground beef and ground lamb seasoned with allspice, paprika and parsley. Even reheated the next day, they retained their juicy flavor.

Esther Bagdasarian’s yalanchi sarmas (stuffed grape leaves) proved as good as their reputation. The meatless stuffing combines rice with tomato sauce, lemon juice, parsley, dill and other seasonings. The strong lemon flavor sets them apart.

Mary Lou Bagdasarian suggested that we try simit, which are twisted pastry sticks sprinkled with sesame seeds.

“Kids like them,” she says. Adults will like them too, served alongside coffee or tea or replacing cheese straws as party appetizers.

Looking for something unusual, we experimented with a pudding made with bulgur wheat, a staple ingredient in the Armenian kitchen. The pudding is only mildly sweet and should please health-conscious dessert lovers. Served warm, the leftovers would make a good breakfast cereal.

Along with recipes, the book contains a brief history of Armenian Christian heritage. There is also a glossary from which one learns that “yalanchi” is a Turkish word for mock that is applied to meatless sarma, “sarma” being a Turkish word that means “wrapped.” A page of diagrams shows how to roll yalanchi, as well as how to cut baklava and shape other dishes.

Because Armenians often cook for large church events, there is a chapter of quantity recipes, including a rice and vermicelli pilaf that can serve 90, a recipe for kuefta (ground meat and bulgur wheat balls) that makes 200 and baklava baked in 36 pans, each yielding 24 servings.

The book contains almost 650 recipes. To order a copy, send a check or money order for $20 plus $3.50 for shipping payable to Fidelis and mail to A Hundred Years and Still Cooking, Fidelis Society, 430 S. 1st St., Fresno, CA 93702.


1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 large onion, sliced, plus 1 medium onion, sliced

1 cup long-grain or converted rice

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

Juice of 4 lemons

1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped

1/4 teaspoon dried dill weed

1/2 teaspoon salt

Cayenne pepper


1 (16-ounce) jar grape leaves

Heat olive oil and vegetable oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until golden and limp, about 10 minutes. Add rice, tomato sauce, lemon juice, parsley, dill, salt and cayenne and paprika to taste. Add water to cover if liquid in pan does not cover onions and herbs. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until all juices are absorbed, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool.

Put 1 grape leaf on plate. Place about 1 tablespoon filling at bottom of leaf. Fold in sides and roll up. Repeat with remaining leaves and filling.

Line baking pan, such as roaster with lid, with grape leaves. Arrange filled leaves in 3 or 4 layers in pan, alternating direction of each layer to promote even cooking. Cover with additional grape leaves and weight down with heat-proof plate. Add water to cover. Cover with pan lid and bake at 400 degrees 1 hour.

Cool completely, then refrigerate at least 1 hour before serving.

About 50 stuffed leaves. Each stuffed leaf:

75 calories; 52 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.09 gram fiber.


2 pounds ground lamb

1 pound ground beef chuck

1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce

2 bunches parsley, chopped

2 tablespoons allspice

2 teaspoons paprika

2 teaspoons salt

6 to 8 green onions, chopped

Combine lamb, beef, tomato sauce, 1 bunch chopped parsley, allspice, paprika and salt in large bowl and knead with hands until well blended. Form mixture into 4x1 1/2-inch sausages.

Grill over hot coals, turning once, until medium rare to medium, about 10 minutes. Do not overcook; kebabs should be juicy.

Arrange on serving platter. Sprinkle kebabs with some of green onions and some of remaining parsley. Serve remaining green onions and parsley on the side.

6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings:

197 calories; 1,001 mg sodium; 81 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 27 grams protein; 0.70 gram fiber.


1 cup flour

1 rounded teaspoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup shortening

4 to 5 tablespoons milk

1 to 2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt into bowl. Cut in shortening until finely crumbled. Gradually add 3 to 4 tablespoons milk to make dough softer than pie dough, stirring first with spoon, then mixing with hands.

Roll out dough onto lightly floured surface. Fold over and roll again. Repeat 3 or 4 times. Finally roll out into oblong about 4 inches wide and 1/4 inch thick. Slice into 4x1/4-inch strips. Hold each strip by ends and twist in opposite directions.

Place on lightly greased baking sheet. Brush tops with 1 1/2 teaspoons milk and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Brush lightly with remaining milk using patting motion to help stick sesame seeds. Bake at 400 degrees 5 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes longer.

30 sesame sticks. Each stick:

32 calories; 25 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.02 gram fiber.


1 cup bulgur

3 cups water

1 cup evaporated milk

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon mace

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 cup raisins

Bring bulgur and 2 cups water to boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until water is absorbed, 10 to 15 minutes.

Combine bulgur, remaining 1 cup water, evaporated milk, sugar, mace, walnuts and raisins. Place in 1 1/2-quart baking dish, cover and bake at 325 degrees 45 minutes.

Uncover, stir and bake until set in center, about 15 minutes longer. Serve warm or cold.

6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings:

214 calories; 38 mg sodium; 9 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 34 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.79 gram fiber.


Tea towel and napkin, top, from Paperwhites, South Pasadena. Christian Dior plates, left, from Pottery Shack, Laguna Beach.