It is still rather warm in Istanbul. 22C by day. It has snowed somewhere. Or so I hear from my sister who’s very close to the Russian-Finnish border these days. I am not sure what’s the snow outlook for Istanbul this year. But I know it will get colder here in a few weeks too. And I will start baking.
This baking season I have decided to go beyond selfish cravings for moist chocolate cakes and upside down cakes. Who needs another recipe for those really? Instead I am going to introduce you to more of Turkish baking – from Istanbul pastry shops, from regular Turkish homes, from my frivolous baking dreams. Join my Turkish baking quest and win a set of fantastic cooking condiments you can bake with (and not only!) from Istanbul!
Turkish baking? I know you may not think highly about it. Do Turks bake? Well, even if you can’t think of anything Turkish and baked let me help you. Think Turkish bread – huge round and flat – that one alone in convincing enough. Then think simit, bread rings sprinkled with sesame seeds: if you have tasted it – crispy and sun-filled – once in your life how could you forget it?! And beyond these two there is a universe.
I remember my first time at a Turkish pastry shop (where we went to buy one of those cakes for one of those birthdays): I went insane when I saw maybe 3-4 dozens of baked items displayed in the neat piles.
- I want to try! – I declared.
The brows were raised at my enthusiasm, “Which one do you want to try?”
- All of them? – I blurted out.
- Like all? – attempt to find a solution to my impossible-to-fulfill request was made. “Tell which ones you want to try and let’s make a box”
I proudly walked out of the shop with my trophy – a box of a dozen types of Turkish cookies. Tiny savory balls with dill. Little squares coated in sesame seeds Green longs made with ground pistachio.. Needless to say I was the one who finished most of the box within the same day.
Of course there are issues with Turkish baking. Like universal love for margarine. Like huge ambition but complete inability to do French pastry or American-style baking. This is when sunflower oil mysteriously crawls into the chocolate muffins or when margarine ends up in the tart crust. And other scandalous practices take place. But I am going to work on that.
I have to confess here I am a beginner baker. Some experience with making bread. Some (and successful) figuring out a recipe for my mother-in-law’s specialty pogaca – and mind you, no margarine! Some Easter baking in the middle of the night. Plus all those completely not Turkish but utterly delicious takes on baking as guided by the David Lebovitz’ recipes (hey, who won’t make a sweet masterpiece if following a David’s recipe).
As a beginner I have many many questions about baking – and I am planning to find out the answers during this Turkish baking quest! Here are some:
- Is it true that everyone can cook but not everyone can bake?
- Is baking really is a science and you have to follow a recipe? And if so why then my mother-in-law never does but her pastry turns out great all the time?
- Does baking has to be intimidating or you can really get away without using 5 types of flour in your bread dough?
- If baking – at least supposingly – is about creating very comforting food which you crave for NOW how could you manage to spend 2 hours baking?
So here is the deal: Every Wednesday I am going to post a new Turkish baking quest – a recipe or a story followed by a question/challenge. Reply to the question/challenge in the comments below and at the end of the month – November, 30 I will be rewarding a person who’s been most enthusiastic about completed the questions/challenges with a Turkish baking set of 5 exciting baking condiments. Some names may sound mysterious to you at this point but save yourself some google effort and instead join me every Tuesday as I will be shedding more light on each. The great five are mahlep, walnuts, pekmez, red pepper flakes and sesame seeds. I will post the set anywhere in the world besides Australia and New Zealand (sorry and damn the custom regulations!).
Exciting times are coming. And so does much of Turkish baking. So stay in touch – subscribe via RSS or email or follow me on FB to get the updates on this Turkish Baking quest. Enthusiastic bakers and Turkish food enthusiasts – I am looking forward to seeing you around. So let’s get started.
Is there a better than to start the Turkish baking quest than with making simit, Turkish take on bagels clearly presiding over 1000 and 1 types of Istanbul street food? Today I would like to share a recipe of what I’d call mini simit or, if we really stick to the facts and names – kandil simidi, ring-shaped pastry eaten on five days of Kandil, religious festivals signifying important milestones in the life of Prophet Muhammad and Islam. I figured that out first time on a bus from Istanbul to Sapanca when I was handed a small package with two ring-shaped cookies generously coated in the sesame seeds. In a moment they were gone and I started anticipating the other 4 Kandil nights yet to come that year.
There was a hook in the cookies. Clearly. And it was not even their resemblance to the large simits traded by the Istanbul street vendors. Not the buttery and slightly bitter sesame seeds. Not even its dangerous crunchiness making them vanish in seconds. It was that barely perceptible flavor which I could not describe. Until I found out the name for sure – mahlep.
Maa-H-lep, with rather evident “H” you should pronounce as if gargling, is as exotic as it sounds: it is grounded kernels of the cherry stones. If you have ever cracked a cherry stone and tasted a kernel you could imagine the taste. Roughly because mahlep comes from a only a particular type of cherry trees growing in high altitudes and their kernels taste a crumble of bitter almond, a drop of rose water and a hint of honey. Now wonder with such a rich bouquet and flavor mahlep is used in Turkish baking rather widely – our mini simit (kandil simidi) is only one example. My mother-in-law’s Mardin Çöreği (pastry from Mardin, town in the South-East of Turkey)heavy on black pepper, allspice, cinnamon and mahlep0 or her famous Anamur Çöreği (irregular dough squars flavored with mahlep coming from her home town on the Turkish Mediterranean) are easily some of the most addictive pastry I have ever eaten. So I hope you are going to share my other mahlep addiction – this mini simit.
Taste of Istanbul coming alive at your kitchen at no time!
Serves: 6-8 (about 20 pieces)
- 340 gram flour sieved
- 60 gram butter softened
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp mahlep (ground cherry pits, can be found in Turkish stores)
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 1 egg
- 100 gram thick yogurt
- 100 gram vegetable oil
- 50 g sesame seeds
- 30 g pekmez (reduced grape juice, can be found in Turkish stores)
- 3-4 tbsp water
- Preheat the oven to 175C/350F. In a mixing bowl combine butter and sieved flour and then sieved in sugar, salt, mahlep and baking powder and then add egg, yogurt, and vegetable oil. Knead rather briefly an gently to form the dough onto a rather soft ball which does not stick to the sides of the mixing bowl: ideally you should be able to clean the bowl with that ball of dough to the perfection. Roll the dough a big sausage (again, rather quickly yet gently) and cut into 20 or so pieces. Roll each piece into a thin log and form a ring pressing the ends together and making sure they perfectly stick. Transfer the pekmez into a large shallow bowl, add water and mix well with. Then transfer the sesame seeds in another bowl. First dip the rings into the pekmez and place them on a flat strainer / dish. Eventually one after another coat transfer them into the sesame seeds and let them coat thoroughly perfectly. Place on a baking tray lined with baking paper and bake 35-40 min until the outside firms up. Let cool completely and enjoy with tea.
And here (thank you for your patience!) comes the today’s question: What is the name of the other pastry containing mahlep and particularly available at the Istanbul pastry shops during the religious holidays – not necessarily Islamic ones? Hint: I posted the recipe a while ago.