Let’s admit that: however heavenly – when done right and served fresh – baklava may be you have no chance to leave Istanbul without trying it. True, you may not be so determined as the couple that confessed to me that the baklava we shared during their one and a half day in Istanbul was their 6th.. But still there would be plenty of baklava running after you and asking to be eaten. What’s left once we rule out baklava? A mind-blowing variety of desserts not to be missed. So I encourage you not to shy away from the foreign names on the menus and exotic looking treats in the shopping windows of the Istanbul pastry shops and here is the list to get you started.
1. Künefe: Shredded Dough Dessert
Round and nicely toasted (not burned!) künefe is a smart way to top off your kebab feast especially if you visit one of the South-Eastern kebab joints in Istanbul. The base of the dessert is possibly the most fascinating dough in the world called kadaıf. I looks like ultra-fine vermicelli and is made by pouring very liquid dough through a very fine sieve onto a hot rotating platform. However unruly kadaıf may look you charm it into a layer and do a lot of things with it: stuff with ground nuts, roll into small cocoons or into long logs, deep-fry or bake and then – attention, please – plunge it in the sugar syrup. Some say that the syrupy desserts made with kadaıf are particularly light which is the biggest lie in the world: naturally it has much more pores than the regular dough and its capacity to absorb sugar syrup is unmatched.
Künefe is prepared in the small round aluminum molds generously greased with butter. In the mold you arrange a layer of the chopped kadaıf, then a few pieces of soft cheese – Turkish dil peyniri would be a popular choice although originally soft cheese from Antakiya is used – and then a layer of kadaıf again. Once künefe is assembled you pour some (ok, I am understating here: there is nothing like “some”, “a bit” or “little” in the recipes of Turkish sweets) melted butter over and get to cooking. The cooking typically takes place on the charcoal and midway künefe has to be flipped over. Once done a generous ladle of sugar syrup is poured over the sweet and pistachio can be sprinkled on top. A few things in the world can compare with digging into künefe with a fork, cutting out a piece and lifting it as the melted cheese strands are extending all the way and you are biting through the warm, sweet and crispy vermicelli.
Best place to try künefe in Istanbul: Akdeniz Hatay Sofrasi. Address: Ahmediye Street No. 44/A Fatih, next to Historia Shopping Center. Allow 10-15 minutes for the preparation or order as you start the main.
2. Ekmek Kadaıfı: Bread Sweet
Ekmek kadaıfı‘s name is deceiving. You would think it is a künefe‘s brother made of the same kadaıf dough but these two can hardly even be called cousins. The origins of ekmek kadaıf is completely different. It is usually a huge round sponge-like cake – made from leavened dough and riddled with more holes than the Swiss cheese. The cake is pre-baked and then continues to be cooked in plenty of sugar syrup (we are talking Turkish sweets so bear with me and all this sugar syrop). After eating sweets like ekmek kadaıfı urban legends of honey-loaded Turkish sweets appear: the union of the thoroughly cooked cake and sugar syrup result a rich flavor, pudding-like texture and the color characteristic for the darker honeys (think buckwheat or chestnut) but the truth is there is no honey used.
What make this sweet a bingo is kaymak, rich clotted cream, it is always served with. At times you will see ekmek kadaıf as a single layer with kaymak on the side but I love how my favorite shop styles it into a two-tiered pudding with kaymak in the middle. After trying ekmek kadaıfı either way you would agree that overly creamy sensation of kaymak is possibly the only way to counterbalance the sweetness of ekmek kadaıfı. Very likely you would need a few glasses of Turkish tea and maybe a cup of Turkish coffee to get back to normal after such a treat.
Best place to try ekmek kadaıf in Istanbul: Bilgeoğlu Baklava. Address: Muvakkithane Caddesi, No. 56. Kadıköy (market).
3. Ayva Tatlısı: Quince Dessert
Abundance of fresh produce and attempts to preserve it has logically created a whole class of Turkish desserts based on caramelized and poached fruits and vegetables. There are plenty of mind-boggling species in that category: think candied eggplants, tomato or whole walnuts. Yet they are closely bordering with jams that I would like to talk about proper sweets here – quince poached in sugar syrup (ayva tatlısı). The sugar syrup is so concentrated and the poaching takes so many hours that you can be astound by the transformation of a humble quince into a rich dessert.
Hard, astringent and pale after hours of cooking quince turns into soft, fragrant and amber/deep ruby in color treat. Ayva tatlısı nearly smells of rose which makes sense as quince is hailing from the rose family. Beware though: too often at the Istanbul confectioners you will see ayva tatlısı bright red in color without the characteristic translucency of the properly cooked dessert. That means that to save up on the cooking time the color transformation was achieved by adding an artificial colorant instead of letting quince develop the color that comes only as a result of prolonged cooking in the sugar syrup. One more important detail: quince is a seasonal fruit so head out for a good ayva tatlısı from October to December.
Best place to try ayva tatlısı in Istanbul: Sakarya Tatlıcısı. Address: Dudu Odaları Sok. No: 3. Beyoğlu
4. Sıcak Helva: Baked Helva
Sıcak helva is probably the most humble Turkish dessert: after all, one might say, it is just a piece of helva popped in the oven for a few minutes. How unfair! The base ingredient is indeed helva as most of you may know it. In fact the range of helva types is so wide and the whole category was so important that the pastry department of the Sultan palace during the Ottoman types was called helvahane (place where helva is made). The most common kind of helva is tahini helva – a light brown block of smooth sesame seed paste mixed with sugar. To make sıcak helva a small piece of tahini helva is mixed with cream, grated green apple, lemon juice and seasoned with cinnamon and then baked for a few minutes until the top toasts nicely.
What makes the dessert so special is the occasion when you are supposed to eat it which is after a fish meal. Have you ever had a feeling after a satisfying fish meal that you need to pop in something in your mouth that would overpower that fish aftertaste? Well, someone did in Turkey and has come up with a smart solution – sıcak helva. Turkish popular saying “fish is still alive until helva is eaten” (“balık helva yemeden ölmez”) points to that very fact: no fish meal is complete without helva.
Best place to try sıçak helva in Istanbul: Kadı Nimet Balıkçısı. Address: Serasker Caddesi, No. 10/A, Kadıköy.
5. Damla Sakızlı Sütlaç: Mastic-flavored Rice Pudding
By now you may think there is no escape from being plunged in the sugar syrup – just like a tray of baklava – while in Istanbul. Sorry, I did not mean that. And so I would like to bring some comfort and mention a profound representative of an important category of Turkish sweets – puddings. Puddings and pudding shops got well spread during the Ottoman times when it was common to have just two meals – breakfast and dinner – creating room for substantial mid-day snacks such as puddings. Mentioning just one – sütlaç – means merely scratching the surface but even tasting a good example of that will give you an idea about the whole category.
Damla sakızlı sütlaç is your rice pudding with more milk, less rice and more rice starch that binds it all. That makes it very special is the addition of mastic (arabic gum, damla sakız), resin of the wild pistachio tree giving that flavor of a pinetree needle. That condiment was considered so exquisite during the Ottoman times that its trade was a state monopoly and (no wonder!) it was the mother of the sultan who was profiting from it. You may want to specifically put your hands on the sütlaç finished in the oven (fırında sütlaç) recognized by the burned surface which adds yet another – this time smoky – layer of flavor to this royal dessert.
Best place to try damla sakızlı sütlaç in Istanbul: Nizam Pide Salonu. Kalyoncu Kulluk Cad. No: 13 Taksim