World’s Best Baklava Recipe

 From The Sultan’s Kitchen cookbook.

I’m always reluctant to proclaim something as the “best,” as it automatically invites disagreement. And who the hell am I to proclaim “world’s best baklava”? I sound like a real prick. But don’t take my word for it; here are actual reviews from Turks when they tasted this:

“Really good! Wow! How did you make this? Can you show me how to make this? We usually buy baklava for bayram, but I’m going to make this instead! When are you making this next? I need to watch you make this.” [Drools]

Thanks, Zeynep! How about another one?

“Whoa, awesome! This reminds me of when women make baklava and bring it to parties or households for informal local competitions!” [Eating noises]

Oh Yavuz, jeez, I’m blushing. Any others?

“Wow, super good. Hold on I need to eat some more.” [Creams jeans]

Stop it, Oğuzhan, you’re too kind!

“What Erdem has done with this baklava is nothing short of a sonic soundscape of flavor profiles harkening back to a pastoral crunchiness lost in the paradigm of modern, Chopped-Last-Chef-Standing tête-à-tête stovemanship. Our first bite made us say “Yeezus, that’s amazing!” The syrup felt twee, but in a way from which David Lynch would have sneeze-farted a movie treatment. 6.8”

Shut up, Pitchfork! How’d YOU get a piece???

What’s the secret? Simplicity. Most baklava recipes that have radiated outwards from Turkey incorporate oranges, cinnamon, honey, cardamom, etc. like they’re building a fucking Yankee Candle. What exactly, about the combination of sweet-flaky-buttered-sugary-nutty needs such drastic tweaking? It’s madness, I tells ya, MADNESS.

For any baklava recipe, you can improve it a million percent by using pistachios instead of walnuts. Walnuts, relative to ‘stachios are downright shitty. (That’s RELATIVE, mind you; I like walnuts in salads and in the Turkish dish Çerkez tavuğu [Circassian chicken], but other than that I give walnuts a great big passive sigh.)

Not to mention, pistachios are also more “classic” for baklava: the most renowned/famous/delicious/pick-your-adjectiviest baklava is said to come from Antep*, in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border. The Turkish word for pistachio is “Antep Fistiği” (Antep nut). I mean, the etymology pretty much DICTATES that you use pistachios.

Enough chit chat, here’s the recipe:

2.5 C cold water
3.5 C sugar
2 T lemon juice
3.5 C pistachios
2 T sugar
2 packages of yufka (phyllo dough), thawed. This is where it can get tricky. You don’t want the thick shitty yufka (*cough*ATHENS*cough) they sell in the frozen food aisle, which should only be used for börek/spanakopita. You need the light, thin, delicate yufka, like an angel’s labia. We went to a specific “yufkacı” (yufka shop) and bought these two packs of baklava yufkası. Each pack had 24-28 sheets that were about 24” x 24”.

If I were you, I’d check with Greek or Middle Eastern markets. If they don’t stock it, they’d definitely know where to get it.

yufka

Lots and lots of unsalted clarified butter**. I would start with about 2 Cups, but have some extra butter handy to make more if you need it. (If you have a package of dough with 28 sheets rather than 20, you’re going to use way more butter rather than waste the sheets.)To clarify butter, slowly heat the butter and skim the milk solids off the top. You can do this off heat once the butter has separated. Then pour the ghee into another pan, leaving a majority of milk solids on the bottom. It doesn’t have to be 100% clarified, so just do your best.

butter

I ended up using way more than this.

clarified butter

Clarified. You can still see some milk solids, but this is good enough.

Preheat the oven to 375 F (190 C)

For the syrup, combine the cold water with the sugar in a saucepan. Boil the mixture for 5 minutes, lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 15-30 minutes. The syrup is ready when the color slightly darkens, and it’s, well…syrupy. If it’s TOO thick and candy-like, you can always add a splash of water and adjust the viscosity.

Once your syrup is ready, stir in the lemon juice and let it cool.

OK, time for the nuts. You can do things the easy way, and buy shelled roasted pistachios. Or you can do the insanity method and buy unshelled nuts and shred your nails down to the quick. I recommend unshelled. Otherwise, it takes two people approximately three hours to shell 3.5 cups of pistachios.

shelling nunts

Shelling

Chop the nuts with a knife; don’t use a food processor. You can have different size pieces, but what you DON’T want is the whole batch to be powder. My method is to rough chop a few handfuls, drag my hand over the top of the pile, thus separating the larger pieces, and then chopping those big pieces. That way the smaller pieces stay out of the way. If you have a civil engineer dad, like I do, they’ll say this is just granular convection.

Separate ½ cup of the finest-chopped nuts, and give them another once-over to really pulverize them. Set them aside for sprinkling on top after the baklava is baked.

Toss and mix the chopped filling nuts with the 2 T of sugar.

chopped nuts tossed sugar

Mixing in the sugar.

The size of the pan you use doesn’t really matter. You’re going to do 20-25 layers on the bottom, then nuts, and then another 20-25 layers on top. I did mine in a giant circular pan. If you do it in a small rectangular baking pan, just cut your yufka to fit.

IMPORTANT TIP! To save time and potential yufka drying out, remove one sheet, place it over the pan you use, cut a template, and then lay it back on the stack of sheets. Cut the rest of the sheets to fit the template. No more messing around and fussing with buttered layers. BUT, don’t start working on the yufka until you have completely finished your prep.

trimming yufka

Trimming the first sheet to fit.

trimming rest of the sheets

Trimming the rest of the package.

Are your nuts are all chopped? Your butter clarified and lukewarm? Do you have a silicone brush resting in the butter and ready for use? Has your oven been preheating for at least 30 minutes? Have you scratched your genitals thoroughly? If yes, then go ahead and open the yufka. It’s a race against time, so you have to work quickly. If you’re using multiple packages, only open them one at a time.

Brush the inside of your pan with some clarified butter. Place one sheet of yufka in the pan. Brush the layer completely with butter in a thin layer. Working quickly, repeat the layering-brushing for 20-25 layers.

first layer

First layer down.

buttery layerz

Don’t worry; it’s SUPPOSED to be an obscene amount of butter.

Spread the nuts over the dough and lightly sprinkle them with water – I just flicked a couple splashes of water with my fingers. This helps the dough adhere to the nuts where the next layer is added – you’re not drenching the nuts, just spritzing them.

nuts down

Make another dough template with the second package (if you’re using two). Layer the dough over the nuts, brushing each sheet with clarified butter, as before. Brush the top layer and the edges with butter.

Using a sharp knife dipped in hot water, cut through the dough HALFWAY down the height of the pan to make as many pieces as you’d like. (It’s important to cut halfway down, because the top layers are going to puff up, while the bottom layers will stay flat and later soak up syrup). Baklava is usually cut to a rhombus/diamond shape around 1.5 – 2 inches a side.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes. Lower the heat to 325 F (162 C) and bake for an additional 30 minutes, until the top is lightly golden. Remove the baklava from the oven and let it sit at room temperature for 15 minutes. Recut the baklava along the lines, all the way to the bottom of the baking pan. Be careful here to not lift up and slide the delicate flaky layers on top. If they pop off just move them back.

Pour the cooled (but not cold) syrup evenly over the cut lines; you might not have to use all of it. Start with about 2/3, and see how much is soaking up in the bottom. What you’re looking for is the bottom layers to soak up the syrup, while the top is lighter and crunchy. Contrast!

spooning syrup

Sizzurp.

Sprinkle the baklava with the finely chopped pistachios and let it cool completely. Call your friend with a nut allergy and laugh and laugh.

close up

If you have a lot of dough trimmings, grab a really small baking pan and make a mini-baklava. Follow all the steps as above and bake it after your main baklava has come out. (Make sure to preheat your oven again!)

mini baklava close up

The little baklava.

*It’s officially called “Gaziantep”, which means “Veteran Antep,” but people in Turkey still call it Antep without batting an eye. It got the name Gaziantep after the city fended off zee French in 1921 during the Turkish War of Independence.
**I’ve heard scary, scary stories of people in the Aegean region mixing their butter with olive oil for baklava. I pray that this is merely a tale, meant to scare children. Otherwise, that’s a crime against food on par with margarine.

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Eating Pork in Turkey

Yes, you CAN buy pork in Turkey. It’s not easy, convenient, nor socially-accepted, so you kind of have to buy it and shame-eat, like what I do with Totino’s Party Pizza.

totinos party pizza

So much shame

To get your hands on pork, however, you have to be in the most Westernized parts of Turkey, like İstanbul, İzmir, and down the Aegean-Mediterranean coast. Some of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistants, stationed in the deep-reaches of Anatolia, far from easy access to life staples such as pork and booze, visited İzmir  for the first time a few weeks ago and were smitten. They took to calling it “Jizz-mir,” which I really should have thought of twenty years ago.

Important note: there is a way to get pork through non-commercial channels. Lots of people hunt wild boar in Turkey, and if you get an in with some hunters, they’d gladly sell or gift you the carcass. If you need help breaking the boar, gimme a call!

The southwestern towns in Turkey (Çeşme, Marmaris, Fethiye, Antalya, Bodrum, e.g.) have enough English, German, Spanish and Russian tourists to sustain pork availability at restaurants and a few grocery stores. The Migros stores in İzmir have a small and sad selection of pork products, just above the eggs.

My family comes from İzmir , which has a long history of being a melting pot. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Turkish household kitchen with a “melting pot.” Let’s call it a “saç tavası” of cultures. From what I’ve gathered, my own heritage is Greek, Balkan, Jewish, i.e. Aegean-Mediterranean, BUT NO GYPSY THANK GOD (just kidding, please don’t steal my wallet).

sac tavasi

Saç tavası, used for sautéing

It’s interesting how centuries of immigration, warfare, assimilation, and admixture are summed up as food analogies: “America is a mixing bowl,” my grade school teachers would declare, reflecting the tail-end of early 20th Century philosophy on new Americans assimilating (read: “acting more like a now-accepted white ethnic group”), abandoning their parents’ language, and learning about weird white person shit like advent calendars, James Spader, and cotillion balls.

Soon after, in school we were taught to emphasize multiculturalism. The mixing bowl was put back in the pantry. My parents wrote impassioned letters to Yankee Ridge Elementary School on behalf of all the immigrant families that DIDN’T celebrate the birth of Jeebus. Time to teach “America is a fruit salad!” We’re a mixture that celebrates our individual components! Hooray!

The analogy is a noble one, save for the fact that fruit salad is gross. You end up eating only the bananas and the kiwi, while ignoring the tannin-bomb grapes, which inevitably roll off your church-basement-quality paper plate. The cantaloupes are always rock hard, the strawberries white and tart. Paella! Now there’s a multicultural food analogy I can get behind, Lena Dunham’s idiocy about the dish be damned!

I don’t hang out much in elementary schools as much anymore (THANKS A LOT, MEGAN’S LAW), so I can only guess that what they’re teaching is some sort of “America is a farm-to-table, neo-liberal/pro-business, domestic partnership!”

So basically, Duck Dynasty, but without all the backwoods buttfucking.

People are often pejoratively described as a product of what they eat. Beaners, Fish-heads, aaaaaaaand I should stop listing racial slurs. Not adhering to a perceived cultural norm leads to more food analogies: coconuts and Oreo cookies, for example, used for minorities engaging in “white” behavior.

You can see such judgmental food forces at play in Turkey. The idea of pollution stemming from pork, a taboo meat in Islam, has potentially influenced (I would argue) Muslim Turkish views on Turkish ethnic minorities. I have to be cautious of discussing pork butchery with every Tom, Dick, and Harry Turgay, Deniz, and Hakan, because I’ve seen people physically recoil and shudder (no, REALLY, they FLINCH!) at the thought of touching and eating a pig.

THE LAST PORK BUTCHER SHOP IN TURKEY

Mary and I were in İstanbul to shepherd our three friends around the major must-see sites (Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, the Cistern, İstiklal Caddesi) and after they left I had one solid day to do some research. I had been meaning to visit the last remaining pork butcher shop in Turkey, located a mere 15 minute walk from our AirBNB flat. Hearing about the shop was like hearing reports of a unicorn. People thought I was lying when I spoke of the Kozmaoğlu brothers’ butcher shop.

Once you get off İstiklal and head north two blocks, tourists and boutique stores disappear. We strolled through narrow winding streets, tire shops, and over a dusty overpass. The butcher shop is not on a main street; it’s tucked across a Petrol Ofisi gas station, with only a red-lettered “Ideal Salam Kozmaoğlu ” indicating you’ve come to the right place.

beyoglu street

Beyoğlu’s streets are friends to the handicapable!

We walked in and I recognized the two Kozmaoğlu brothers, Kozma and Lazari, from the website. Lazari, the older brother, and founder of the shop, was short, bald, and had a moustache that made him look like an Asterix and Obelix character. Kozma had mid-length gray hair, a similar moustache, and a lazy eye. They both looked…Greek. I noticed that their jaws, eye orbit shapes, and noses differed greatly from the general craniofacial characteristics of older Muslim Turkish males.

asterix-and-obelix

Asterix and Obelix are the BEST!

The guys were sitting and chatting in the back while two women were standing and working in the front. Classic Turkish style! The older woman was slicing charcuterie into neat overlapping piles; while the younger one was vacuum-sealing the meat stacks. I’m going to conservatively estimate that the vacuum sealer put out a decibel equivalent to a harrier jet raping a banshee in an echo chamber.

Cold call ethnography always feels like you’re approaching a lady at a bar; you’re trying to come across as nice, trustworthy, interested, and not creepy. Mary has observed a lot of my Turkish interview transactions (the ethnography part, not the approaching women in a bar part), and cogently observed that flattery is the key. Come out and say you’re a fan, or you love some aspect of what the person approached is doing, and it softens the cold interaction. My problem is, I LOVE what the Kozmaoğlu  brothers are doing, but the way I show that interest comes out as “ZOMG TELL ME EVERYTHING ABOUT WHAT YOU DO EAT MEAT REPEAT NOM NOM NOM NOM!!!!!” Needless to say, I usually get a look usually reserved for golden retrievers humping pants.

I gave the brothers my spiel: researcher, food, meat, anthro, US-born Turk. The shop was really quiet, and then punctuated with disorienting noise of the vacuum sealer. I was standing in front talking to a tough crowd for what seemed like hours. My hair started to itch and I desperately needed to remove my jacket. I felt like I was bombing on stage.

I went right into some specific questions: Where was the meat from? Any flak from Erdoğan-supporting beardos and their head-squeezer wives? I got half-squinted eyes and monosyllabic responses. I blathered on a bit more. They asked specifically where I was from, which in Turkey means “where is your family from?” Aka: “I need to make sure you’re not a religious weirdo who intends to fuck with my business.”

“Uh, my family’s from İzmir , but I’m a dual citizen who is here to do some res– “

“İZMIR !” exclaimed Kozma. “The land of foreigners, infidels and people who drink booze!” He smiled and nodded knowingly at Lazari.

“Yes’m.”

“But you don’t SOUND Turkish; you sound like a JEW!” (Funny, Mel Gibson said the same thing to me once!)

“Ummm, thanks? I’m actually American, but you know…Turkish as well?” Oh Christ, was I really practicing Turkish uptalk?

“PFFFFFF, Lazari, lookit this guy, he’s an AMERICAN! Lemme show you around!”

I had the room! They rose from their chairs and approached the counter. The women, who I later learned were Kozma’s wife and daughter, stopped their pretense of fake-working in order to eavesdrop and openly listened.

The identification rigmarole is a necessary part of owning a shop dedicated to selling a meat perceived as filthy and sinful by the majority population, as well as prevention against sketchy journalists looking to rile up the masses. There never was much freedom of the press in Turkey to begin with, and lately there have been mass firings and “ideological adjustments” (euphemism alert!) at prominent newspapers. It’s quite common for a CHP-supporting left-wing Turk to lament the “fall” of a certain newspaper after Erdogan’s AKP had an editor sacked and replaced with a sycophant. I’ve also been hearing a lot about “kaçak et” (illegal/smuggled meat) in Turkey, which is often horse or pig meat being driven in from Europe and sold to hotels and restaurants. (Meat is quite expensive in Turkey). Understandably, this has caused a huge public outcry, and for the meat industry in Turkey, any press tends to be bad press.

Kozma took us on a very quick tour of the huge shop. We barely had time to snap pictures of the three floors, a huge walk-in, a massive sucuk-curing room, and a locker room with laundry and shower facilities. Whole-animal butchery has a strong visual component in the United States; people want to watch a butcher break down an animal because it symbolizes openness and a gesture that all questions and observations are on the table (literally). There’s a performance and a transparency that the American Slow Food consumer demands, because the industrial American food system deals in monoculture, suffering, and corporate welfare. (Food festivals will often celebrate the visual component of butchery, where teams compete to see who can break down an animal the fastest and make the nicest looking assemblage. I don’t really give a fuck about speed butchery, but it’s still amazing to watch Martin Yan break down a chicken in 14 seconds, or Oscar Yedra bone out an entire chuck in 30 seconds.)

At the Kozmaoğlu shop, the breaking all happened out of sight, in the basement, by two unsmiling guys. I asked what they did with the neatly-separated bones and the fat. Kozma said they threw it all away, save for some fat and skin that went into the charcuterie. It’s not that the brothers are blind to the value-added potential of roasting bones for stock, or rendering fat for lard, but there’s absolutely no market for it. Another hurdle: since none of the Muslim employees are willing to taste the charcuterie, Kozma has to make all of it. His product is fantastic, but it doesn’t give him much time off from work. (For his wedding and his mother’s funeral, Kozma went to work right after).

the case

sucuk

piggies

breaking pig

After the tour Kozma invited us to sit down behind the counter. The brothers are Christian Turks, from an ethnic minority in Turkey known as Rumeli. Lazari, the older brother, answered the phone at one point and took an order in fluent Greek. I feel a little overwhelmed at the diversity I encounter on a daily basis in Turkey. My own Turkishness feels diluted, as though even if I were born and raised in Turkey, I’d still have a hard time understanding the cultural day-to-day of Anatolia. Much of that, of course, is that secular Turkey INTENTIONALLY distanced itself from the religious whackjobs*, so I never had any experience from my family.

group photo

Lazari on the left, and Kozma on the right.

As a rule, unfortunately, life is harder for ethnic minorities. The brothers didn’t disguise their resentment towards societal prejudice of their profession. I asked where their family was from, and they said İstanbul, by way of Nevşehir. (Nevşehir province is home to world-famous Kapadokya). Kozma said he was tired of people asking where they were “really” from, since he points out that his family has been in Anatolia longer than most. “When people ask me where I’m from,” he said, “I usually just say ‘my mom’s pussy.’”

TOTALLY stealing that, btw.

The brothers lamented the loss of Christian butcher shops in İstanbul. There used to be eight shops in İstanbul alone that sold pork. One by one, they closed; some from family mismanagement, but most from the structural societal pressure that emphasized pork as sinful. Whole animal butchery is a disappearing trade worldwide, but pork butchery in Turkey faces an extra level of negative selective pressure: there are no trade schools teaching pork butchery, so all this: the store, the ethnic minority expression of valuable food culture; seems destined to disappear when the brothers retire.

I mentioned that I would be traveling east for my meat research, to cities such as Gaziantep and Urfa, and Kozma got irritated:

“Fuck that! Why would you want to go east?! They kill sheep in shit and dirt and then eat it.”

I didn’t feel like mentioning that I had done exactly that a few weeks ago, for the Feast of the Sacrifice. As with most prejudices, they don’t run in one direction.

We chatted for an hour more or so. I was hungry and my brain fried from information overload. I made the mistake of saying we needed to leave to get something to eat.

“You’re hungry? Why didn’t you SAY so?” Kozma asked his wife to slice us mortadella, sopressata, and pretty much anything in the case. He grabbed some bread and put a jar of spicy mustard in front of us.

Lunch

We had the same thing for dinner later. I REGRET NOTHING

Lazari chimed in: “Imagine having a tall beer or a glass of rakı with all that!”

Well yes, obviously, that would be delicious.

We ate like kings. Their charcuterie was so well done I felt bad that no one in Turkey was giving them the respect they deserved.

chatting with Austrian turk

Chatting with a guy with Austrian heritage. He grew up eating pork, and currently lives in Çeşme.

Customers filtered in and bought their smoked pork shoulder, their speck, and their bacon. Men in chef’s coats came in to pick up restaurant orders. Once we finished eating, we bought several pounds of bacon**, and some of what we had just eaten. We said our goodbyes, and promised to be back.

http://www.idealsalam.com/

If you’re in İstanbul, make a trip to the shop! Tell that pork-starved Italian lady you’ve been scamming on to follow you to a fun secret location***. Buy some charcuterie, two bottles of wine (which they also sell), and go have a picnic in Gezi Park. There, I just did all the legwork to get you laid awkwardly in your hostel while four strangers are forced to listen.

Make sure to call first, especially on the weekends, as they sometimes close early without notice. Click on the “Ulaşım” tab for a map to the shop.

*Redundant
**The bacon was great, since we haven’t had any in so long, but it was more like salt pork, as Kozma doesn’t use any sugar in his bacon cure. It was sliced a little thin, so it cooked up similar to what Commonwealth countries would call “rashers.” Made for a fantastic BLT, though!
***Don’t make it sound rapey, obviously.

Thanks always to Mary H. Brown for the photographs! Go look at her blog right now! http://blotsee.wordpress.com/