After my long-lasting illness in January while we were in Gokcebel, Bodrum, I finally leave our house. Al and I go to Yalikavak by Dolmus. We have several errands to run and need a place to have a quick lunch. It is again a cold and rainy day, with glimpses of sunshine in between downpours.
We find a table right next to the cozy stove in Korfez Pastahanesi (Korfez Patisserie). This is where Al bought me chicken soup during Soup Shopping adventure in Yalikavak. We order our soup, doner in bread, and ayran to wash it down. There are people sitting at the other tables from all ages and from all countries. The waiters constantly replenish Turkish tea at every table. We all need the warmth of a cup of soup and a glass of tea.
I wander through the store, first admiring the variety of bread they offer. There is even one type called “Ottoman Bread” filled with grains which looks very hearty. Then I move to the baklava section. My mouth starts watering. After struggling days and days with terrible shivering and cough, I feel a need to pump-up my body. I order baklava with pistachios. And while enjoying the morsels and my hot Turkish tea, I decide to write one of my Best Turkish Desserts in Six Categories series. It is about Phyllo-based desserts.
I go back to the counter, introduce myself and ask permission to take pictures of trays and trays of baklava of many varieties.
Phyllo-based desserts actually can be subcategorized into desserts made with shredded phyllo (kadayif) and un-shredded phyllo (yufka).
Shredded phyllo based desserts taste very similar to baklava, and they are easier to make since there is no individual layering of phyllo dough with butter. Instead you mix shredded dough with molten butter and spread half the layer at the bottom of the tray, then layer it with walnuts or pistachios or cheese, then top it with the remaining shredded phyllo. After baking, pour the cooled syrup over the hot dessert and you have your kadayif. The most well-known kadayif-based desserts are: kadayif with pistachios or walnuts and kunefe with cheese (any unsalted cheese which melts will do nicely). Kunefe is eaten hot right out of the oven so you do not miss the sinful taste of molten cheese with buttery syrup and crunchy shreds.
With baklava, the process is similar. But, you need to go through the labor of spreading butter with a brush on every layer of almost transparent phyllo dough. Thankfully, you can buy the phyllo leaves at the supermarkets. Otherwise, you will be dealing with making these micro-thin layers of dough. Although the process is very similar for all types of baklava, taste of baklava changes with the nuances of the different processes and the ingredients that go in to it. So, please do try a few varieties when you are in Turkey. Here are some of the baklava types : Bulbul yuvasi, Sobiyet, Antep kuru baklava (dry baklava), Sutlu Nuriye (baklava with milk), Burma, Fistikli Sarma, Havuc Dilimi, Cevizli Baklava, Sultan, Kaymakli (with clotted cream) baklava. Korfez Pastahanesi has another variety that I have not seen before. It is called Princess baklava, filled with pistachios and kaymak (Turkish clotted cream from buffalo milk).
I always opt for the ones with the most pistachios, although the ones with walnuts, and with kaymak are equally delicious.
While I enjoy my baklava, I started to search to find out what is the origin of this unique dessert. It has been centuries of back and forth arguments between Greece and Turkey both claiming that baklava is their own creation. (Note: Turks do not called Phyllo dough “Phyllo” (which means leaf in Greek), they call it “Baklava yufkasi”. So, the naming of the dough as “Phyllo dough” does not give an extra point to the Greeks!). Add all the Middle East and Balkan countries claiming the same thing, and you really can have a “Baklava War I” involving countries from Greece to Iran.
Baklava pride sometimes reaches to higher levels than individual discussions. In 2006, when Greek Cypriots showed baklava on a European Union Day poster, it sparked protests at the state level. In 2012, a Greek chef added fuel to the fire by preparing a dinner at the White House honoring the Greek Independence Day featuring baklava as the Greek dessert, and told the press that President Obama “loved baklava.”
My search did not come up with any strong claims about the country or culture of origin of baklava. But, here are some interesting points I came across during my research:
- The word baklava entered the English language in 1650, a borrowing from Ottoman Turkish. The Turkish etymologist Sevan Nişanyan claims that baklava has an old Turkish origin (baklağıor baklağu).
- It is (almost) agreed by many researchers that the first people who baked something close to baklava are the Assyrians around 8th century B.C. They baked a few layers of bread dough, chopped nuts, and honey in wood burning ovens.
- Greek seamen and merchants traveling east to Mesopotamia brought the recipe back to Athens. The Greek contribution to baklava is the creation of the very thin layers of dough. This is called “phyllo” (meaning “leaf”) as described above.
- Baklava was perfected at the Topkapi Palace kitchens during the Ottoman Empire, a kitchen which was considered the ultimate culinary center in its time. The oldest reports of baklava are found in the Topkapi Palace kitchen notebooks from the Fatih Sultan Mehmet period (15th Century).
- A former pastry chef of Marie Antoinette, during exile at the Ottoman palace, created the “dome” technique of cutting baklava squares.
- Baklava’s main ingredients of pistachios and honey are aphrodisiacs when taken regularly. That gives the special reason why baklava was a top choice dessert for the Ottoman Sultans with their large harems. Just add cinnamon for females, and cardamom for males, and cloves for both.
- Armenians influence in integrated cinnamon and cloves into the baklava when the Armenian merchants discovered it on the Eastern border of the Ottoman Empire.
- Arab countries introduced the rose-water and orange-blossom water, and the Persians invented the diamond-shaped baklava perfumed with jasmine.
Of course, being Turkish, I am biased. And no one will ever come up with a real truth in the history of baklava. So, just enjoy it. It is really good. One thing is clear, the store-bought baklavas in the United States do not even come close to the baklavas I eat in Turkey. One of my Greek friends used to say the same thing about the baklavas she eats in Greece.
Just, go ahead and eat some freshly made baklava!
Bon Appetite! Afiyet olsun!