Fariba Nafissi had been an executive at IKEA in Burbank for almost 20 years when she received one of life’s most jarring wake-up calls. She’d planned a trip to visit Iran, her home country, with her cousin Shahroo, who’d gone ahead a couple of weeks early. Before Nafissi arrived, Shahroo died in her sleep. Nafissi was soon asking questions about what gave her life the most meaning.
Baking was part of the answer. Nafissi grew up in Kerman, a city in the southeast of Iran on the edge of the Lut desert. Dates are a major local crop; she remembers her father having a bowl of yogurt with dates as part of his lunch every day.
One of the region’s distinctive treats is kolompeh, a soft, golden cookie filled with dates, nuts and spices. Bakers use special stamps to create patterns in the dough. Four years ago Nafissi began selling kolompeh on Etsy. Their beautiful shape and soothing flavors swiftly found an audience, and Nafissi established ZoZo Baking.
Her retailing has mostly been online, but in September Nafissi opened her first store in the quiet concrete caverns of the Simi Valley Shopping Center, behind a California Pizza Kitchen. The space is part production facility and part coffee shop, with a communal table and couch and corners with small displays of silver jewelry, books on Persian cooking and brightly colored tableware for sale. You can order properly thick Turkish coffee with your treats, and also espresso and scented teas.
The counter in the back right of the store exhibits Nafissi’s full repertoire of Iranian baked goods. There are stacks of nan-e nokhodchi, chickpea flour cookies pressed into clover shapes; their pleasantly sandy texture dissolves on the tongue, leaving behind cardamom’s sweet musk. Nafissi describes qhotabs as “mini hand pies,” thumb-sized pastries crammed with walnut paste and spices. She serves her version of baklava in tiny diamonds; the dough is thicker than the Greek or Lebanese phyllo-based variations, and rose water gently scents the pistachio or almond fillings.
Kolompeh command center-stage, fanned out on a large platter. I want to snatch them by the fistful. The stamp gives their round borders a fluted appearance; in the center swirl patterns of paisley and tiny spheres the size of pearl couscous.
Nafissi creates familiar American flavor combinations — apple-cinnamon, blueberry-almond, strawberry, a seasonal cranberry number she’s been tinkering with recently — but her traditional kolompeh is by far the most wonderful. Yogurt and egg yolk make the dough tender; the edges are delicate and crumbly. She uses no other sweetener beyond the dates. Saffron gives the cookie its sunny color, and the spice mix lights up the brain: sparks from cinnamon and cloves, a floral hit from rose petal, a sneaky micro-pinch of cumin that intensifies the other flavors. Ground pistachios add a finale of gentle crunch.
Nafissi’s store is charming, and the trek from central Los Angeles to Simi Valley includes some beautiful mountain vistas along the highways. It’s also easy to order kolompeh and other pastries from her online site. I’d never tried a kolompeh before last week but they’re now my go-to food gift this season.
I reviewed one of the most expensive and outrageous restaurants in Los Angeles this week: José Andrés’ Somni in the SLS Beverly Hills. It’s a big splurge, and a hard-to-get reservation; it’s also a beguiling, beautiful piece of the Los Angeles dining jigsaw.
Fellow critic Patricia Escárcega heads to Sawtelle’s Mogu Mogu to illuminate the style of brothless ramen called mazemen.
This week on Lucas Kwan Peterson’s Off Menu: building community through the foodways of skid row, the epicenter of L.A.’s homelessness crisis.
Euno Lee has a guide to Orange County’s Koreatown in Garden Grove.
Genevieve Ko brings us the recipe for APL’s lemony kale salad.
And a final word on Thanksgiving dinner this year from culture columnist and critic Mary McNamara.
Also, don’t forget: The Times is throwing an event to celebrate the release of this year’s 101 Best Restaurants on Monday, Dec. 9! The bash, held this year at the Vibiana downtown, includes food from 30 of the restaurants that made the list. I’ll be hiding my face and not in attendance, but Food editor Peter Meehan will be there to present the list.