Baklava—the Greek food of the gods—and other flavors of Greece are the specialties of an extraordinary African-American woman who founded Sheer Ambrosia Bakery in Salt Lake City after being honored as the first non-Greek to make the dessert for the Salt Lake City Greek Festival.
Yes, you read that right—Salt Lake City in Utah. The name of the state conjures up images of imposing saw-toothed mountains, a vast lake of salt water, and Mormons.
But many other people from the rest of the US and the world have made the state their home, and Rita Magalde is one of the pioneers who also carved out a new life in Utah, bringing the cuisine of Greece to the state whose motto is the simple word “industry.”
This black-owned company brings a bit of the Mediterranean to the western state by creating delicious Greek pastries for the hungry hordes who descend on the shop, purchase their goods from other stores in the region, or order them online.
Magalde’s love for Greek baking all began years ago after she started working as a nanny for a Greek-American family in North Carolina.
Flavors of Greece have universal appeal
Quickly becoming friends with the family’s yiayia, who spoke no English, she soon found herself in her kitchen, enjoying some fabulous Greek coffee and homemade baklava. Magalde was hooked for good when the yiayia showed her how to create the dish without using any words, and it has been all “sheer ambrosia” since then.
After mastering the art of baklava, Magalde was asked by the Greeks of the Salt Lake City area to make their baklava for their annual festival in 2010 — a great honor, since she was the first non-Greek to be so chosen.
Sheer Ambrosia Bakery, the aptly named company she founded in 2008, grew out of the magic that was forged in that relationship.
Magalde grew up in the small community of Chestnut Grove in Statesville, North Carolina. She relates that “during the summer there were wild blackberry bushes everywhere. They were scattered up and down the road on either side of the ditches and there were crops of them randomly in the woods behind our house, by the pond at the end of the road, and anywhere they could find a space to take root.”
“My three older sisters and I would gather plastic buckets we’d find around the house and go blackberry picking,” she said. “We would fill up our containers and eat them as we picked and then bring our full buckets home to my momma, where we would wait in anticipation for her to make the best blackberry pies ever!”
“Oh how much I love and miss those days!” Magalde says wistfully.
The flavors of Greece come into play as Magalde relates the story from her past and how that has become part of her offerings at her bakery.
“Back in July of 2014 I held a contest to come up with the next Sheer Ambrosia baklava flavor and when I saw Ethan Fraga’s one-word entry, ‘Blackberry,’ I was instantly transported back to my childhood and my mother’s Southern blackberry pie and knew he was my winner,” she revealed.
“The buttery, flaky crust my mother made has been replaced with 45 layers of thin Fillo dough that I hand-lay individually and butter, but the taste is still reminiscent of a time long past and a dream childhood of long summer nights chasing fireflies and eating my Mom’s cooking,” she recalls.
But Magalde’s life hasn’t been all sweetness and light, and it is her triumphing over the challenges she faced as a newly divorced mother of two that has made her into the successful entrepreneur she is today.
As she says on her website, she hopes that the story of Sheer Ambrosia Bakery “will inspire you to have the courage, strength, and resolve to reinvent yourself if and when life’s challenges call upon you to do so.”
She explains that she had to “reinvent herself” by rediscovering her love of baking—and baking baklava specifically.
Magalde relates what happened to her in her dark days almost twenty years ago: “In the middle of the 2003 holiday season, with a young son and another baby coming any minute, my husband told me what he wanted for Christmas: a divorce.”
“The next several months took me through the depths of despair,” she admits. “As rough as it was, when I finally emerged, I knew what I had to do—pull myself together, take responsibility for my part in a marriage that didn’t work, and forgive both my ex-husband and myself.”
“Believe it or not, I found a way to do all of that and more,” the entrepreneur states with pride.
As part of her journey, Magalde came across a question which she applied to her own life:
“What can you offer the world that no one else can?” Those unforgettable flavors of Greece had made such an impression on her that they immediately came to the fore once again.
“As I contemplated this question, I thought of my passions, which include cooking, traveling, foreign cultures, entrepreneurship, and, of course, my first love…baking,” she says.
“I remembered summer trips to New York as a kid to visit family and how I came to love other cultures and languages,” she recalls. “While working at a Greek-owned restaurant in high school and college, my love for baking baklava blossomed.”
“As these memories came flooding back, I realized…instead of focusing on the loss of my marriage, I needed to reinvent myself by following my decades-long passion of bringing joy and delight to people with the sweet taste of baklava, because what I can offer is the best baklava the world will ever enjoy; and that’s exactly what we do here at Sheer Ambrosia Bakery,” she says.
Along the way, as she founded her bakery, Magalde somehow found the time to write a book geared to women who have to start all over again after divorce. Titled From Mrs. to Ms.—How to Pull Your Life Together When Your Marriage Falls Apart, she imparts her great insights into how to reconstruct one’s life from the ground up after everything one has known has been taken away.
After her husband left, Magalde came up with the idea of making baklava as the gift that she could share with the world like few others could.
As she got the business underway in the middle of the Great Recession of 2008 no less, she had many hurdles to clear. “It has been a labor of love for sure,” Magalde tells Greek Reporter in an exclusive interview.
“I started it from my home under Utah’s Cottage Food Program/Initiative,” she explains. “I didn’t start off having any clients as I owned a travel agency for ten years with my then-husband before starting Sheer Ambrosia…I wanted to start something else I’m totally passionate about. Baklava was it!”
“For years before, I baked and experimented with different recipes,” she says. “I shared my love of baklava with my friends, family, and organizations I am a part of. People would always ask me where I purchased it so they could get some more for themselves.”
“When I would say that I made it, they would always tell me that I needed to start a business and sell it,” she says. “My dad was visiting my home for Christmas back in 2007 after I decided to sell my interest in the travel agency and we were brainstorming on what I was going to do next. He also said that I should open a bakery and sell my baklava.”
Asked by Greek Reporter what prompted her to move way out West to Utah of all places Magalde explains, “I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in History and Spanish. Part of my Spanish language education was a semester abroad in Santander, Spain.
“I ended up meeting and marrying a man from Santander,” she says. “After graduating from Appalachian State University in North Carolina, I moved to Spain to start my life with my husband. That was 1996.”
“The economy was already showing huge signs of collapsing and after only a few months living there, I convinced my husband to move with me to the United States,” Magalde recalls. “He is a life-long, die-hard snow skier, so North Carolina was not going to work for him. We had acquaintances in Salt Lake City who claimed that Utah had the best snow on earth, so we moved, sight unseen, to Utah that year. I have lived here ever since.”
Once she opened up for business after her great metamorphosis following the divorce, Magalde says, “My baklava very quickly began to make a name for itself here…I debuted Sheer Ambrosia at a ‘Business to Business’ expo and was able to get enough business providing gifts and party trays for the holidays.”
“People were so surprised that a non-Greek, especially a woman of color, could make such a good baklava,” the baker states with satisfaction. “In 2010 I met the acting Greek Priest of the local Greek Orthodox Church at the time, Father Michael.”
Flavors of Greece now also include Baklava with raisins, cranberries
“I told him that I make baklava, and he kind of laughed as if he didn’t believe me,” she recalls.
“The next day I brought him a tray of my traditional walnut baklava and he was stunned and surprised at how delicious it was,” she says. “A few weeks later he called and asked me if I’d be interested in baking the baklava for the upcoming Greek Festival.”
Now, she says, her business is such that she has to hire seasonal help, as she also does for large occasions like when she made the baklava for the 2010 Greek Festival.
Asked how much of her offerings are Greek versus other American desserts, Magalde replies: “On my website I only offer baklava. I have twelve set flavors and I will occasionally offer special recipes that aren’t always available.”
“This past April 30, for example, for National Raisin Day, the California Raisin Company commissioned me to make a raisin baklava,” she said. “It was featured in various news outlets across the country.”
Her impressions about the Greek community of Utah have been for the most part very cordial, Magalde relates. “For the most part, the Greek community is loving, kind, curious about me, and surprised that a non-Greek would have such an affinity for their culture,” she says.
“I have a long love affair with the Greek culture and its people,” she admits. “Greeks are usually warm, friendly, loud/fun to be around, and enjoy showering you with food and love. They are hardworking and ambitious and would do anything for their friends and loved ones.”
“I have life long friends in the Greek community here,” she reveals. “Life Long!! The Katsanevas family, who own the Crown Burgers franchise, have supported my business for over eight years. They are a large family and a very kind family. They have always accepted me and loved me despite the fact that I’m not Greek.”
Magalde admits that there are some who perhaps are not so welcoming, but she brushes that aside with her typical aplomb: “There are others that are uncomfortable with a Black lady making a great baklava but I don’t pay them any attention,” she says. “Only positive people are allowed in my life and in my brain.”
Greek Reporter then asked the baklava maven what her family thinks of your line of work— and her living in Utah?
“Of course my family wished for a long time that I would have moved back to North Carolina after my divorce,” she replies. “I am 2000 miles away from them and I don’t really have any roots in Utah. With that said, they understood that I had to co-parent with my ex and since he stayed here, I had to stay, too.”
“Baklava is the reason I am still alive”
“I have since built a life with my children right here in Utah and I have so many friends and loved ones in the community,” she says. “My son turns 21 years old today and my daughter is 17. They have grown up eating, hearing about, and living off the proceeds of my baklava venture.”
“Baklava is in my brain,” Magalde says with great feeling. “Baklava is in my heart. Baklava is the reason why I’m still alive. When my husband decided to exit our marriage when I was 8 1/2 months pregnant with my daughter, I was lost, sad, and inconsolable for a time.”
“I write about it in my book From Mrs. To Ms.—How To Pull Your Life Together When Your Marriage Falls Apart,” she says. “It was only after I started my baklava bakery and put my heart and soul into this adventure that I started to come back to life again.
Magalde then offers a sweet tidbit about her own life—another of the blessings that she sees baklava as making possible for her. “On Valentine’s Day, a gentleman stopped by to pick up a box of my Southern Pecan Baklava for him and his children,” she says. “He’s my boyfriend now and the love of my life…another gift that my baklava has awarded me!”
Magalde says her family now loves the fact that she remade her life in Utah and they support her decision entirely. “They see how it has shaped my life and rebuilt my self esteem,” she explains. “It hasn’t always been easy and God knows it’s hard, hard work. But it is a labor of love.”
“Love is so much a part of this business [and] each flavor I’ve created has been a labor of love, every aspect from designing my brand, to how I treat people has had love at the core,” she says.
Business-wise, Magalde admits that her baklava operation “hasn’t been as lucrative as my travel agency was back in the day, but it has given me something much more valuable than money…it has given me love on so many different levels.”