2017-12-01 / Dishing

Layering Flavor

Ann Kusnadi’s baklava marries her Indonesian and Chinese heritage with the culinary traditions of her husband’s native Turkey.
Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern

Ann Kusnadi, a petite woman who smiles big, leads me through a cloud of butter and sugar into her certified kitchen. Most of the available surface area is covered with fresh-from-the-oven pastries and a mix of well-used kitchen accoutrements, including a rice cooker and a delicate copper pot used for brewing traditional Turkish coffee. But I’m here for the baklava, the result of an adventure many years in the making.

Whether it’s a bowl of lentil soup served to family and friends or a box of beautifully wrapped baklava sold at the farmers market, Kusnadi’s cooking is an amalgamation of her favorite people and places.

Born and raised in Indonesia and of Chinese heritage, Kusnadi moved to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. in Food Science and Technology. The plan was to return to Indonesia, but she fell in love with a fellow graduate student, Ali Demirci, from Turkey while enrolled in a doctoral program at Iowa State. After their respective graduations, she followed him to Turkey where he was the beneficiary of a government scholarship.

Her journey flavors her food, which transports you to a Turkish café, the family dining room in Indonesia or a Central Pennsylvania farmers market. It is mom’s recipe customized with the staples of American farmland or a traditional favorite of one culture enhanced by the palate of another.

Her husband, a native of Gaziantep, Turkey, inspired her culinary path to baklava. Gaziantep is the center of baklava — “or so they say,” Kusnadi says with a laugh. Made with clarified butter, a lot of sugar and typically pistachio, the baklava she tried for the first time in Turkey was much sweeter than the pineapple cookies that were a staple of festive Indonesian occasions and a complete departure from the savory, cheese-based cookies called kaasstengels she baked with her family.

Her first impression of baklava? “I did not like it,” she says.

When the couple moved to State College in 1999, they had dinner at the home of an Iraqi couple who served baklava for dessert. She liked the host’s recipe so much that she tried to make a version at home. After years of trial and error, she landed on a recipe she loved and began selling the baklava as gifts during the holiday season.

In March she registered Koo-Weh Nana Desserts & Pastries with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.  “Koo-Weh” comes from the Indonesian word “kue” for desserts. “My sons thought that the spelling was not hip so they came out with ‘Koo-Weh,’” she explains. “Nana” is a nickname for her sister.

Not long after making her business official, The Shaker’s Grill food cart became the first business in town to sell the pastries. The Branch and The Vine followed in September after the owner discovered her baklava during a lunchtime visit to the food cart. She now sells at the Tuesday State College Farmers Market, the Friends & Farmers Online Market and through her own website.

Kusnadi sells eight baklava flavors, including a hazelnut and chocolate at the suggestion of a Nutella-loving son. For the holiday season, she launched a Quarterly Baklava Club (one box shipped every 3 months). In addition to baklava, she sells the Nastar pineapple cookies of her youth, following a recipe from her sister-in-law.

While her sales are modest, the local food community has embraced the baker that bridges cultures with phyllo dough and Domino sugar. One local tried Kusnadi’s pastries at Pop Up Ave in September then shipped boxes to friends in New York and California. The most memorable customer interaction involved a Chinese woman shopping at the farmers market.  “I’ve never seen an Asian baker,” the woman told her. “Are you going to be here all the time?”

The fact that Kusnadi is there at all is perplexing to some members of her family. Up until this past summer she worked as a part-time research associate for Penn State’s Center for Molecular Toxicology and Carcinogenesis. She took a leave of absence after traveling to Indonesia in June and never returned to work. As she tells her parents, her kitchen is now her lab.  

“I think cooking is just like doing research,” she says, “When you research you have these protocols you have to follow. It’s the same thing with baking.”

Her career change may seem abrupt, but her desire to connect with people through food is deeply rooted. Kusnadi enjoys the intersection of food and family and hopes to one day write a cookbook filled with family recipes and the memories they evoke.

The family’s culinary history now has a new chapter — about the Indonesian-Chinese baker who left behind a career in science to bake pastries from Turkey. Kusnadi’s husband still enjoys the super sweet versions from his youth. But like his Turkish students, he indulges in the nuttier, healthier pastries baked by his wife. The most telling compliment: Kusnadi has to hide the leftovers in the freezer. •SCM


Kaasstengels, also known as “kue keju” in Indonesia, is a Dutch-Indonesian cheese stick (“kaas” means “cheese,” “stengels” means “sticks”). The Dutch influence in Indonesia cuisine came from the fact that the Indonesian archipelago was colonized by the Dutch for 350 years. These savory cookies (together with Nastar pineapple-filled cookies) are very popular in Indonesia during festivities. They can be found in almost all households during Christmas, Eid and Chinese New Year when friends and families visit each other.

7 oz. butter
8.8 oz. flour
2 boiled eggs (use only the yolks)
½ tsp. salt
3½ oz. grated cheddar
3½ oz. grated gouda
2 egg yolks for eggwash

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Cream butter at medium speed, add mashed boiled egg yolks, salt and flour. Mix until the flour is well incorporated, then stir in the grated cheeses.
Roll the dough into a ½-inch diameter log and cut into 2-inch long logs.
Place cookies about an inch apart on a pan lined with parchment paper.
Bake cookies for 30 minutes. Remove the tray from the oven, brush cheese sticks with beaten egg yolks and continue baking for another 30 minutes.
Cool cookies on a cookie rack.
After completely cool, store cookies in an airtight jar. They can also be frozen for long-term storage.

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