Baklava was just as ubiquitous as I'd anticipated, though not all brands are created equal. It's always best eaten fresh (I certainly wouldn't recommend "saving it for later"—believe me, I tried!) and thankfully it's socially acceptable to devour it for breakfast, fresh out of the oven.
The pastry comes in numerous shapes, sizes, and flavors; cevizli baklava (walnut baklava) and fistikli baklava (pistachio baklava) are what you see most often in the States: flaky layers of phyllo dough, stacked and brushed with butter and sugar syrup, and then cut into rectangles or diamonds. But keep an eye out for other variations, like ceviz dolama, a round and slightly more compact baklava made with walnuts, or the similarly shaped saray sarmasi, which features a combination of both nuts. Then there's dürüm, which is made with only a single layer of phyllo, so it's composed almost entirely of ground pistachios that turn each piece a vibrant green. And wait, there's more! Like özel kare baklava, which contains the traditional layers of phyllo but bulges with double the pistachio filling; visenli baklava, packed with sour cherries; and the delightful kestaneli baklava, in which phyllo dough is wrapped around a candied chestnut so it actually assumes that same, rotund shape.
My favorite iteration comes from Karaköy Güllüoğlu, accompanied by a generous dollop of kaymak (clotted cream) that balances out the sweetness of the nuts and provides an airy contrast to the crisp, buttery layers. It's no wonder the shop has been in business since 1871, when Güllü Çelebi brought the recipe to Gaziantep, Turkey, after learning the technique from a chef in Damascus. "Baklava is like an art," says Fatih Güllü, who runs day-to-day operations at Güllüoğlu. In Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert, he explains, "In one piece of baklava are thirty-five layers of dough. The learning process is like a university. It takes years to learn."
Don't miss out on kadayif, either. Often sold alongside baklava at shops, it's indeed a similar pastry, but one that's made using shredded, syrup-soaked phyllo instead of sheets. But while it's common to find baklava made with rosewater in Syria, or honey and cinnamon in Greece, Turkey maintains certain purist baklava standards, no matter how you fill it, wrap it, or slice it. "It is important that baklava is never made with honey, but with a simple sugar syrup," explains culinary travel expert Selin Rozanes of Turkish Flavours. "A good baklava must be made of real butter and real sugar and not their replacements."
I had the pleasure of taking a cooking class with the aforementioned Rozanes, after which we sat down to a feast of a lunch, capped off with kaymakli kayisi for dessert. For this unique sweet, dried apricots are cooked in a sugar syrup until soft, then stuffed with buffalo milk kaymak (the same rich, clotted cream I ate with baklava, though marscapone can be used too) and rolled in ground pistachios. The apricots can be simmered in red wine instead of water to enhance the color, advises Rozanes, and they can be garnished with crushed walnuts or hazelnuts in lieu of pistachios.
"Apricots are widely grown in Malatya in Turkey," explains Rozanes. "They store the energy of the sun during the hot summer months, and in the cold winter, are a remembrance of great sunny days. An apricot festival is held in many Turkish towns every year." Sure enough, kaymakli kayisi delivers a perfect combination of textures and flavors—fruity, creamy, and nutty all at once.
In certain heavily trafficked areas, like Sultanahmet and Istiklal Avenue, vendors donning a red and gold fez and vest can be seen ringing a bell and calling out to passersby. They're peddling more than just the stretchy ice cream known as salep dondurma—each transaction turns into a slapstick routine with the customer, as they repeatedly trick and taunt you with the cone: grabbing it back out of your hand, flipping it upside down, tossing it in the air, making you lick it for an audience, and more. (And, somehow, their schtick never gets old!) That said, it's not just the stuff of street vendors; dondurma is sold in familiar ice cream parlor setups, as well.
The stretchy Turkish ice cream is sweetened and flavored with aromatic mastic (derived from an evergreen in the pistachio family) and thickened with salep (a powder made from wild orchid tubers). The addition of salep results in a distinct elasticity, allowing the ice cream to droop off the side of the cone without melting and dripping. "Salep dondurma is about 300 years old," says Rozanes. "It is said that it was invented in a part of southeastern Turkey where all three key ingredients were plentiful—milk, mastic resin, and salep."
These days, mass production has depleted Turkey's supply of wild orchids, since 250 orchid bulbs are needed to make a kilo of the powder and it takes an orchid producing salep seven to eight years to grow back. Consequently, there's a government ban on the export of salep, but it can be found for sale in small amounts at at some of the shops inside Mısır Çarşısı (the Spice Bazaar); I procured a bag of the precious powder from a spice shop called Ucuzcular Baharat.
Revani is one of those things that the Turks and the Greeks both like to claim as their own but, according to Tina Wasserman, Jewish cuisine expert and author of Entree to Judaism, the original recipe can be credited to Sephardic Jews who migrated to Turkey after 1492. Originally known as tishpishti, it was renamed revani in honor of the eponymous 16th-century Turkish poet.
The dense sponge cake traditionally gets its granular texture from semolina flour. In Greece, it's made with ground almonds and sweetened with honey or orange blossom syrup. But Turkish revani uses only semolina flour and sometimes yogurt, and is served steeped in a sugar syrup. Semolina, which is ground from durum wheat and typically used to make pasta, can be found in other Turkish desserts as well, such as Turkish helva, which is made simply from semolina flour, butter, sugar, milk, and pine nuts.
My first piece of revani was topped with a mastic ice cream and came with a shot of raki, Turkey's signature anise liqueur, which nicely cut the sweetness of the cake.
Pudding fans will be happy in Turkey. I didn't even put a dent in the spectrum of flavors, like pomegranate, pistachio, rose, saffron, and coconut. The legendary Hafiz Mustafa, a pastry and candy store dating back to 1864, is a one-stop shop for all things pudding.
Aşure, which I tried at a historic restaurant in Sultanahmet called The Pudding Shop, is a light, fruity dessert also known as "Noah's pudding." (Named for the Noah who survived the flood—and, according to tradition, created a pudding using all the ingredients he had.) There, it carries hints of orange and a distinctive texture thanks to fig, apricot, hazelnut, garbanzo beans, golden raisins, and bulgar or barley—though the exact fruits and nuts used can vary. According to Turkish culinary expert Elizabeth Taviloğlu, some say aşure is the oldest dessert in the world. It's customary to fast for the first ten days of Muharrem (the first month of the Islamic calendar), and then share aşure with friends and neighbors on the 10th day.
While there are endless variations, for a basic recipe, Taviloğlu recommends bringing the wheat or barley to a gentle boil before letting it soak overnight and absorb all the liquid. Next, the chickpeas, beans, dried fruits, sugar and flavors like lemon or orange zest are added and brought again to a boil, and then cooked until thickened. Once cool, it should be refrigerated and garnished with nuts, seeds and other dried fruits before serving.
Here's how a Turkish man living in New York described tavukgogsu to me: "A white pudding made from chicken—but it doesn't taste like chicken at all!"
And that's a pretty spot-on description. Tavukgogsu tastes more like a rice pudding, minus the rice—creamy and smooth, but thick enough to be almost chewy. It's seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla, but there's not even a trace of chicken flavor. The white meat is added simply for the elastic texture it creates after cooking down for a long time in milk and breaking up into indistinguishable strands. The dish has its roots in a medieval French dessert called blancmange, says Rozanes, and it was once served to the sultans living at Topkapı Palace. Though it's still considered one of Turkey's signature delicacies, I had to search around Istanbul a bit before finding it at Saray Muhallebicisi, a cafe with several locations throughout the city.
Have you ever eaten ice cream with a knife and fork? Kesmek means "to cut" in Turkish, so kesme dondurma, made from salep and goat milk, refers to an ice cream made for slicing. There are several brands of the ice cream, which originated in the city of Maraş, but a cafe called MADO is one of the more well-known. They not only grow their own salep and use exclusively natural flavors for their ice creams, but also raise goats fed only with thyme, milk vetch, and orchid flowers, to give their ice cream its sweet, subtly botanical base.
While kesme dondurma uses the same type of orchid-root thickening agent used in salep dondurma, it's a specific beating method that makes it dense enough to form that solid brick shape when frozen; when eaten, it melts slowly in the mouth. MADO carries several flavors of kesme dondurma, including Maraş cut (plain), peanut, orange, caramel-almond, chocolate, pistachio, and mixed fruit.
In Turkey, sherbet refers not to a fruity frozen dessert, but rather a sweet, carbonated soft drink dating back to the Ottoman empire. According to Binnur Tomay, author of Binnur's Turkish Cookbook, sherbet was once enjoyed at each meal by sultans and visitors to the palace. In the gardens of the Ottoman Palace, spices and fruits grown for sherbets were controlled by the pharmacists and doctors. "It was used during childbirth to increase lactation of the mother," writes Tomay. "This type of sherbet is called lohusa şerbeti (birth sherbet) which is crimson in color and is flavored with cloves and herbs." In Eastern Turkey, the groom's family would bring sherbet to the bride's family after the dowry was agreed upon, as symbol of his acceptance.
Now, sherbets are enjoyed on special occasions like Ramadan and weddings, served in crystal bowls placed on lace-covered trays. Popular flavors include rose, cardamom, tamarind, raspberry, poppy, and pomegranate, and they're traditionally made from a syrup steeped with honey, spices like cinnamon and clove, flower petals, and dried fruits. I picked up this delicately floral poppy sherbet (gelincik şerbet) while visiting the gilded Topkapı Palace.
Much like the salep dondurma magicians, vendors outside tourist destinations make a show of twirling and spinning melty colored sugar from a large tin onto a stick to create osmanli macunu. The origin of the candy dates back to the Ottoman Empire, when a spiced paste known as mesir macunu was used to cure Ayşe Hafsa Sultan, mother of Suleyman the Magnificent, who had fallen ill after the death of her husband. It was made from a grape molasses called pekmez and 41 different plants and spices. Hafsa Sultan was so pleased with the results, she created a festival in its honor; every March 22nd is the Mesir Macun Celebration, where wrapped candies are tossed from the roof of the mosque in Manisa, an Anatolian city in the Aegean region.
The showy osmanli macunu hawked by street vendors in Sultanahmet these days is a far cry from the spicy paste of years past, which included everything from anise, cardamom, and cloves, to coriander, fennel, and rhubarb. Instead, sweet strands of strawberry, kiwi, chocolate, orange, and lemon-flavored caramelized sugar come together to form a sticky rainbow before it's sealed off with a swipe from a halved lemon. "The one on the stick is a street food version, mostly sold as a tourist attraction," explains Rozanes. "It is sold also at the Spice Market, wrapped in candy form, for those who believe in its power."
This sweet and savory Levantine cheese pastry is hard to avoid in Turkey; you can smell the street vendors frying it up from blocks away. Kunefe is made from a stretchy, unsalted fresh melting cheese called hatay found only in this region—mozzarella would be the closest Western analogue. The cheese is coated in sugar syrup-soaked phyllo shreds called kadayıf (the same ones used to make some varieties of baklava, as described above), and fried until crisp. Its appeal is the contrasting textures of the crunchy exterior against the soft, melty interior. It can be topped with pistachios, kaymak (clotted cream) or ice cream—or simply eaten on its own, preferably while still piping hot.
Pudingli pasta, despite its name, is neither pudding nor pasta; rather, it's a light cake made by layering Turkish cream biscuits with a pudding-like filling. Think of it as an icebox cake, pre-icebox. While many of the desserts I tried in Turkey were dense and syrupy, this was a welcome, lighter change.
You better have a hungry friend in tote if you order a box of the sweet, fried dough balls known as lokma. This Mediterranean answer to a doughnut is crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle, and coated with a sugar syrup, leaving you with sticky fingers. Lokma means "bite" in Turkish, and these appropriately bite-sized pieces are rich and chewy, unlike our drier, more cakelike doughnut holes. The dough is made from basic flour, yeast, salt, and oil before it's fried and doused with sugar syrup (and sometimes grated lemon peel).
Like so many treats in Turkey, lokma is said to have been created by the sultan's cooks at Ottoman Empire palaces, but these days it's a popular dessert for Turks to cook at home and serve to friends and family. Similar desserts can be found throughout the Mediterranean and Asia, such as struffoli, marble-sized Neapolitan fried dough balls coated with cinnamon and orange zest, and loukoumades, the version of the dish soaked in honey and said to be served to Olympic winners in ancient Greece.