With plates of braided tea cookies (koulourakia) that glisten like bagels but crumble like a shortbread cookie, celebration cookies (kourabiedes) that are small domes covered in powdered sugar and chocolate-dipped cookie sandwiches only made during the holidays, local baker Mary Mekhel is the sweetest force to be reckoned with.
Exquisite Delights by Mary is the local source for traditional Mediterranean and Greek pastries, each caringly handmade by Mary herself.
Of course, there is baklava.
Traditionally, it is made with flaky filo pastry dough, butter and chopped walnuts, finished off with honey syrup poured on while its hot out of the oven.
“Frozen baklava is so good, too; you feel the butter in it,” Mekhel smiled as she proudly displayed her wares, arranging trays and boxes of mixed treats with a delicate, manicured hand.
Mekhel was testing a recipe for pistachio baklava. With a new recipe or even a new shape, the proportions of the filo pastry to nuts to syrup must be perfect.
And it was.
Mekhel spends hours at night sprinkling nuts and painting melted butter onto each layer of pastry.
“I like every size to be the same, and I want everything to look good,” she said.
“She’s just an absolute dynamo; she’s vivacious and bubbly,” Greek Food Festival organizer Irene Sinopole explained as she laughed at the idea of Mekhel actually being retired. “She’s working constantly on her new business, the church, now the (Kern County Fair) and the (Greek) Food Festival – and she’s traveled far and wide.”
Mekhel, born and raised in Egypt, has been a parishioner at St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church since moving to Bakersfield with her husband and three children 15 years ago and has volunteered for the Bakersfield Greek Food Festival just as long. Recently discovering her Lebanese roots, she’s a literal representation of the breadth and influence of Mediterranean food, religion and culture that spans continents and centuries. Just as her heritage is worldly, Mekhel loves to travel. This year alone, she’s visited Jerusalem, Egypt, Alaska and all over the East Coast.
“I need to stay home for a while,” she laughed.
Last year, Mekhel retired from a job at the post office that she held since moving to Bakersfield. “I loved working there,” she said. “When I stop by there, they ask: ‘Mary, please come back! We miss you here.’”
However, she has little downtime.
Since retiring, she officially opened Exquisite Delights by Mary, turning her world-class catering for friends and family events into a real business, while still being able to volunteer at the church she’s dedicated her life to.
Now one of the premier food and culture events, the Bakersfield Greek Food Festival is now in its 44th year with food, dancing and music all for $5 per adult. All the money raised goes to the parish of St. George, one of the largest and most diverse parishes in the community.
Starting as a volunteer, Mekhel soon became the head of kitchen operations where she runs a tight ship, building a rigorous schedule that volunteers at St. George take up with fervor. “Everybody helps, and all ages come,” she explained. “And I pray to the Virgin Mary that no matter how many come, the work still gets done, and every year it does!” ￼