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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Çılbır: Poached Egg in Yogurt with Spicy Frothed Butter.

Cilbir

I’m surprised that I had never eaten çılbır until well into my twenties. It’s the ultimate whip-something-up snack in a Turkish household. It is seconded by sucuklu yumurta, which is just sunny side up eggs with spicy sausage slices. (Sucuklu yumurta = pork-free bacon and eggs, if you will.)

Ottoman sultans are said to have eaten çılbır as far back as the 15th Century, because after a long day of orphaning future Janissaries and screwing harem girls, you need to maintain your protein intake!

Some people have strong opinions about poached/runny eggs and any yogurt that isn’t specially bioengineered to make you poop, so çılbır is a good litmus test for weeding out dickhead eaters.

It’s easy-peasy: chuck some yogurt in a bowl, like a couple cups’ worth. Make sure it’s fatty, fresh, thick and tangy, like Oprah with a yeast infection.

Poach 1-2 eggs. I like poaching my eggs (two and a half minutes, at a steady simmer) in salty water with a splash of vinegar. Place your egg(s) on the yogurt, taking care not to break them. The cold yogurt should stop the eggs from cooking. Salt and pepper the eggs and yogurt generously.

Go pick some mint from outside. Really wash it off, as there are cats EVERYWHERE here that love mint and peeing on things you value. Turkish mint varieties have small leaves so I don’t bother with a dice/chiffonade, but if you’re using something American like Kentucky spearmint, chop it up.

What makes çılbır so ball-drainingly awesome is the addition of the paprika-cayenne frothy butter that goes on top. It’s the same butter you see on İskender döner kebap. Heat your generous pat baby-fistful of butter over medium-low heat until it gets melty and slightly frothy.

Don’t wait too long, as you don’t want smoking hot butter that burns the spices. The addition of a fat pinch of paprika, a bit of cayenne, will give the butter the desired foam effect. Give the pan a quick shake and drizzle over the eggs and yogurt. If you feel like you’re putting too much butter in, call me and I’ll come to your house and smack you in the mouth. DUMP ALL OF THE BUTTER.

You can add Aleppo pepper (pul biber – the ubiquitous red pepper condiment at each Turkish restaurant table) to the butter, but I like putting it directly on the eggs and yogurt. Looks cooler.

Top with mint. If you don’t have fresh mint, dried is OK. I like eating mine with a spoon and a half loaf of bread to mop up all the goodness. Make sure to break up the egg and swirl it around the yogurt.

Ingredients – Adjust the proportions as you want; I’m not the boss of you.

Eggs
Yogurt (My favorite yogurt type in Türkiye is “kaymaklı,” which means the yogurt has its fatty cream-top.)
Butter
Paprika
Cayenne
Aleppo pepper
Mint
Salt & Pepper
Splash of vinegar or lemon juice

PSST!!! HERE’S A SECRET TIP THAT FEELS LIKE CULINARY CHEATING:

You can put spicy frothed butter on anything. A piece of toast, some lentil soup, a hobo’s penis, ANYTHING. Try it!

Thanks as always to Mary H. Brown for the photo. Find her at http://blotsee.wordpress.com/

The Cranberries

My family grew up with an Aegean Turkish kitchen culture. “Ege Mutfağı,” if you will. This involves copious amounts of vegetables, beans, rice, and fruit. And then some more fruit, chased with fruit. Fruit after breakfast, after lunch, as an afternoon snack, then right after dinner, before dessert (unless fruit is the dessert) and just before coffee/tea service. It’s easy to be a vegetarian (or a frugivore spider monkey) in Western Turkey. Everything grows here, much like the Central Valley of California. Dishes like Zeytinyağlı Barbunya (Cranberry Beans stewed in olive oil) are relatively unknown outside of the Aegean region, and that makes me have sad-face. A majority of the Turkish culinary culture that has been exported and consumed by foreigners is kebap-centric, unfairly bolstering a stereotype of unhealthy drunk food. (It’d be as if my opinion of Mexican food was gleaned from eating post-bar-close burritos). The rich seasonal produce is bolstered by ubiquitous farmer’s markets, street corner grocery stores, and even donkey-pulled bahçevan carts that call out their wares. “Bahçevan! Karpuuuuuuz, kavuuuuuun, şeftaaaali!”

IMG_0952

The organic market is still in its nascent stages in Turkey, but the emphasis on locality and the human element are present everywhere. I’ve seen customers in Turkey scold their manav (greengrocer) for selling them a dud watermelon. If you got a sour peach, some mustachioed-man was going to hear about it. Sure, these purveyors use pesticides, but their farms are small and their product is way better than the grocery store. Not to mention you can get a kilo of peaches for something absurd like 4 TL (about 2 bucks). I’m too scared to scold the North Berkeley farmer’s market vendors, since they’re surly assholes. (Great produce, though, guys!) Michael Pollan shops at the same market; I should ask him if he gets the churlish vibe. HOLD ON LET ME JUST PICK UP THIS NAME THAT I JUST DROPPED.

It’s an interesting perspective on the praxis of Slow Food: in California, I was always interested in how my food products were raised. Are they organic? Heirloom? Did the cows get to watch DirecTV and sip amontillado dry rich sherry after their evening graze? By eating like a food asshole, I’m consciously acting in a way that authenticates my food choices and sets my actions apart from the other – the industrial system. When it’s written like that, of course it seems elite and holy-shit-this-guy-thinks-his-shit-don’t-stink-ish, but I can easily argue that the industrial food system is broken. I can also argue that organic/local/insert trendy adjective tastes better. Hell, I can even make the argument that big agro’s latest GMO monstrosity can barely be called “food.”

In the same vein, although I don’t have a neat bookend for how Turks generally practice their Slow Food, my initial impression has been a focus on provenance as an indicator of quality, as well as a love of eating at home. Kids are often tasked to shell beans, the stove is usually working, and there are always dishes to wash.

IMG_1372

Generally, I’m recipe-averse. I turn sysdelxic dyslexic in the face of a recipe. I hate reading fractions, steps, and the chore of having to read the whole thing multiple times to ensure success. I’d rather apply a few fundamental cooking practices while worrying about the salt/fat/acid/heat. If you fuck it up, who cares – tomorrow it’ll be shit; literally. Having said that, this is a dish worth making; it’s really flexible, you don’t need exact amounts, and the variation I’ve encountered from different cooks is staggering. I’ve seen it with almost no liquid – like a bean salad, without any parsley, with carrots, and so on. I like to make mine rather soupy, because the olive oily bean broth is ideal for swabbing your plate clean with some crusty bread. Serve cold, preferably the next day, with a large glass of ayran, and you’ve got yourself a complete meal.

Shamelessly taken from:

Algar, Ayla. 1999[1991]. Classical Turkish Cooking: Traditional Turkish Food for the American Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins.

2 pounds fresh cranberry beans in pods. Or buy a 1 pound dried bag of beans. I’ve made this with pintos, good mother stallards, and rio zape beans, since I can’t always find cranberry beans. They all work great. If you use dried beans, use Rancho Gordo.

1.5 cups finely chopped onions

½ to 1 Cup olive oil. (Use some good, green, grassy stuff, as this dish is one of the cornerstones of Turkish olive oil-stewed dishes).

1 Large tomato, chopped. I’ve noticed that Turks peel all of their tomatoes, and I’ve gleaned that it’s a combination of taste preference and getting rid of pesticide residues. I like the way the tomato skins curl up like wood shavings in a dish, so I never peel ‘em, pesticides be damned. I’ll probably be sterile in a month.)

2-3 long green peppers. Nothing too crazy spicy; 1 fat jalapeno also does the trick. If using skinny peppers, seed and chop into rings. If a jalapeno, give it a fine dice.

2 chopped handfuls of parsley.

Salt
Sugar
Lemon

Shell the beans. If using dried, soak them for a couple hours. Or don’t; it really doesn’t matter. I’ve made this dish with no soaking and with the oh-balls-I’ve-had-beans-soaking-for-three-days method. Just adjust your cooking time!

Cook the onions in the olive oil until softy and translucent. Medium to medium low heat. It should look like you’re cooking the onions in too much oil, but keep in mind you’re adding water and beans later.

Chuck in the chopped tomato and cook it until broken down and soft. (The tomato, not your penis).

Stir in the beans, peppers, a healthy pinch or five of salt, a pinch of sugar, and 2-3 cups of water. Cover and simmer until the beans are soft, but not mushy. Could be thirty minutes, could be an hour and a half. If you’re unsure of cooking time, check after 20 minutes and go from there. Make sure there’s enough liquid to cover the beans. If the water is too much for your taste, simmer with the lid open for a spell.*

Tamar Adler has forgotten more about beans than I will ever know, and I recommend her method for tasting at least five beans for doneness before you’re sure.

Toss in one handful of parsley and let it cook for a few minutes. If your beans are done or near-done, squeeze in at least one lemon’s worth of juice. Adjust your salt and acid at the same time. Keep in mind that you’re going to sprinkle a bit more lemon from the garnish, as well as adjust the seasoning once it’s cooled.

Sprinkle the remaining fresh parsley on top after the beans have cooled. Drizzle with olive oil, and serve with lemon slices, bread, and tangy yogurt.

*Important time saving note! Pressure cookers seem to have been invented for the sole purpose of bean cooking. You can skip all of the “to soak or not to soak” discussion if you prep the recipe exactly as above, and “simmer” the dish in a pressure cooker for about 8-12 minutes. Proceed with the lemon and parsley as above.