SUDBURY — We’re expecting a houseful of exotica in Ana Sortun’s home. The first thing you see when you enter the open space next to the kitchen is a Russian hearth, something straight out of Tolstoy, with two indentations for cooking, a tall stone structure built into the wall. There are many beautiful rugs and a collection of copper, zinc, and Iznik ceramic pomegranates, bought in the countries where the fruit grows in abundance.
A pretty syrup-soaked sponge cake sits on the kitchen counter, made in advance by Sortun’s business partner, Sofra Bakery and Cafe pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick. She is making another to show how the simple mixture comes together. Sortun is simmering yellow split peas for a spread, flavored with garlic and turmeric, sending a lovely aroma throughout the house. She bought them earlier that morning at her local supermarket.
Sortun’s kitchen would never be on HGTV. It’s very light and inviting, but except for a six-burner Viking range, it doesn’t have the bells and whistles that many pros go for. Posted in the kitchen in a spot where you can’t help but notice is a “house projects” list: “tree stump, deck repair, blinds/AC.”
The two women have just written “Soframiz: Vibrant Middle Eastern Recipes From Sofra Bakery and Cafe,” which celebrates the unusual offerings at their Cambridge spot. The word “sofra” is Turkish for everything that goes on the table, explains Sortun, including the dishes you make, the table setting, even the candles you choose. As the two write, “Every sofra is unique — we couldn’t even find two people who defined it the same way!” “Soframiz” means “our sofra.”
Sortun’s home is welcoming, the decor a mash-up of items left over from Oleana and Sarma, her other restaurants — chairs that didn’t turn out to be strong enough (“we’ve got tons of these,” she says) mixed with travel souvenirs. Just outside the kitchen is a cabinet filled with glass tea cups and little dishes, all carried home intact.
Seattle-born Sortun first traveled to the Eastern Mediterranean when she was chef at longtime Harvard Square restaurant Casablanca, working for Sari Abul-Jubein, who was raised in Syria. As Sortun explains it, a woman from Gaziantep, Turkey, was having dinner with Abul-Jubein and told him, “‘You should send your chef to Turkey.’ I pictured genies and flying carpets and said, I’m in. I had no clue it would change everything for me.”
Pastry chef Kilpatrick, raised in Bedford, worked at Hi-Rise Bread Co. when it first opened, and spent time in other Boston kitchens; she met Sortun when she took a job at the former 8 Holyoke in Harvard Square, owned by Moncef Meddeb. The two met again later at Casablanca. Sortun told Kilpatrick that she had plans to open her own place. But Kilpatrick had her own bakery dream. “If you help me start Oleana,” Sortun told the pastry chef, “I’ll make your dream come true.”
They opened Oleana in 2001, and seven years later Sofra, a small place that specializes in Middle Eastern food and baked goods, sells spices used in the dishes, and is often overrun by strollers.
Sortun moves easily from the stove to the food processor, whirring split peas like she’s done it thousands of times. Kilpatrick is shy, but confident at the mixer, waiting for eggs and sugar to aerate. She prefers to pull back and let Sortun take the lead. They have an easy, quiet rapport and have shared many travels.
Kilpatrick’s soaked semolina cake, called revani in Turkish and Greek, is made throughout the Middle East, often excessively sweet. At the cafe, the cake is baked in individual portions, but she has worked out a formula for an 8-inch square. The batter has a tiny amount of all-purpose flour, mostly semolina flour, Greek yogurt, lots of lemon rind, and canola oil. Kilpatrick’s eggs and sugar triple in volume in the mixer, then she folds in dry ingredients with a rubber spatula. “You spent all that time creating volume,” she says, so you have to finish the batter by hand.
She uses a chamomile-tea syrup to pour over her spongy cake, which is garnished with chopped pistachios. “The cake has much, much less sweetness than Middle Eastern desserts,” says Kilpatrick, “and it’s a little less wet.” Sofra’s Turkish-born chef, Didem Hosgel, has told Kilpatrick that her cake “is not wet enough.”
She isn’t making this — or some of the other cafe food — the authentic way. “This is to our taste,” she says. She says their variations are “to the American palate.”
“We’re not trying to authentically re-create the food,” says Sortun. She sees many chefs lightening Middle Eastern cuisines, or interpreting traditional recipes. The best known professional doing this is Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israel-born London restaurateur and cookbook author.
In the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, semolina cakes are often soaked in orange-blossom and rosewater syrups. “Using tea in syrups is something different,” says Sortun. They found mild flower syrups in Lebanon made by a women’s cooperative in the mountains, distributed by a brother-sister team, and packed bottles in their suitcases. She had never really liked the perfume quality of the rosewater she had in her kitchens. “When we got home, we poured all our syrups down the drain,” she says.
“Soframiz” offers recipes for lamb sausage katmer, a flatbread in which the meat is wrapped in pastry and shaped into a coil before baking, and simit, sesame-coated bread rings sold on the streets in Turkey. Kilpatrick’s simit are smaller and chewier than the traditional. They also have recipes for the spicy Turkish tomato and bulgur salad called kisir, and for puffy little balls of pita, their variation on the classic.
Many recipes begin with a dough, like za’atar bread, thin rounds covered with olive oil and the Middle Eastern herb the authors describe as tasting like summer savory, which is blended with sesame seeds and sumac (ground dried berries with a slightly sour, lemony flavor).
This food requires stocking up at a Middle Eastern shop. In their location at the intersection of Cambridge, Belmont, and Watertown, the restaurateurs have access to some of the best provisions in the region. They also have a close relationship with Chafic Maalouf of Olive Harvest, who brings in oil from his family’s groves in Lebanon, which Sortun and Kilpatrick have visited. The produce supplier is Sortun’s husband, Chris Kurth of Siena Farms, who grows on land very close to their house.
All the restaurants use spices from Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boite in New York, author of the new “The Spice Companion,” who blends for chefs. “Lior is one of my favorite people in the world,” says Sortun. “I don’t know what I’d do if he went out of business.”
Kilpatrick pulls her cake from the oven and it’s a little sunk in the middle, which she frets about, but it still looks inviting. The bright yellow pea puree that Sortun is preparing, something like hummus, is seasoned with honey, olive oil, and lemon juice, then garnished with almonds tossed with za’atar, lemon rind, and toasted sesame seeds. The puree was served first at Oleana to accompany fish. Sortun doesn’t recall its origin. “Sometimes it’s hard to remember where things come from,” she says, “and why things stuck.”
She’s also had a lot of adventures buying tableware and accessories. A dramatic wall at Sarma is covered with plates. “The trickiest part was getting all those plates home,” she says.
And then there were the many white copper trays that were going to hold mezze at Sarma, plus more to be made into light fixtures over the bar. They needed a lot of trays. “I don’t know how we did it,” say Sortun. Surely they could not have fit into their luggage. There seems to be a backstory here.
Sortun turns to Kilpatrick to see if she can recall that episode. “We bought a suitcase,” her friend reminds her, and they burst out laughing.
Ana Sortun will appear at Wellesley Books, 82 Central St., Wellesley, 781-431-1160, www.wellesleybooks.com, on Oct. 14 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.