Chef’s notebook: eating the myth of a secret baklava ingredient
The spread of savory and sweet Turkish pastry dishes was a lunch both 15 and 500 years in the making.
In a well-appointed, marble-floored condominium tower in Üsküdar, a neighborhood on Istanbul’s Asian side, acclaimed chefs and food historians Nilgun Tatli and Mary Işın talked family and the recipes passed down over generations.
The main reason for our gathering, however, was a particularly ancient version of the ubiquitous Ottoman-era dish: baklava.
Commonly made with nuts, there was a reference of the use of lentils in Turkish baklava in a 600-year-old poem of Sufi dervish Kaygusuz Abdal from the Karaman region of Anatolia. The lyrics were thought to be an elevated joke about the high cost of ingredients at the time. Then, in the early 2000s, a chef’s manuscripts from the 16th century were discovered and translated from Persian to English, in which contained multiple recipes for lentil baklava – the hidden ingredient was no longer mere myth.
Mary, a British expat who has lived in Turkey since 1973, referenced it in her 2013 book “Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts.” My own research – poring over these ancient recipes and then recreating them in my kitchen for classes, lectures, presentations, and feasts – led me back to Turkey to reconnect with Mary and to bake with the secrets hidden in plain sight.
The initial sources for my baklava research were obscure, 15th century manuscripts that contained many references to, but no actual recipe for, baklava. In historical documents, there are references to baklava for special occasions such as circumcision ceremonies or in a palace kitchen’s ingredients list. The ancient origins of baklava are actually central Asia influenced, beginning with the word “bakala” in Mongolian, which means to wrap up, and the Turkic verb ending “va.”
To a degree it has evolved over time, as recipes for great dishes do. But Nilgun, and her mother and grandmother, still make her family’s green lentil baklava to this day. Like the sufi dervish before them, they are originally from the Karaman region of south central Turkey, which was devastated by an earthquake in February and prevented us from exploring the roots of this and other ancient treats in situ.
Nilgun takes us into her Istanbul kitchen to conduct a master class of sorts; with an injured wrist, instructing us in recreating her family’s recipe. The lentils were already prepared, drained, dried off but not allowed to dry out entirely again, and sugared – not the way lentils are prepared for common dishes like soup. This method of preparation isn’t detailed in the manuscripts, but passed down each generation – one of the best parts about cooking. It was also an assumption I made when redacting the ancient recipes – that it bore out in Nilgun’s family practice gave me a sense of connectedness to her and affirmed the authenticity of my rendition.
On to the dough. Nilgun pulls out a pad of paper where she has jotted down her mother’s notes. Her mother’s recipe would produce multiple sheets of dough rolled out to three feet in diameter. It is still done traditionally, using round pans unlike most modern or commercial baklava that use rectangular pans. Into a mix of grape syrup, eggs, salt, vinegar, and oil, flour is added until it reaches just the right consistency to be rolled out into paper-thin circles. Too much oil or fat, the dough will not roll, and just sit like a lump, stick to the rolling pin, because the glutens will not give it the stretch it needs.
Using massive amounts of wheat starch instead of flour to prevent sticking, I roll 10 thin, round layers for the bottom of the baklava in a pan lined with melted butter. I note that it’s two more layers than the 16th century recipe. We take our bowl of lentils and eye out as much sugar as I think is necessary.
“It’s your hand guiding this dish,” Nilgun says, reassuring me that I am not blaspheming a recipe handed down from mother to daughter for at least 500 years. This baklava is not known in Istanbul, not made commercially, and is, therefore, a very precious insight into the oldest ways of how baklava is made, and what it would have been like. “Your hands know the way,” she says, as I distribute the lentils in handfuls starting at the outside edge and turning the pan as I go to get an even layer all the way around. We roll 10 more sheets of dough, and place them on top with a spoonful or two of melted butter in between.
It is now important to make the baklava beautiful before it is baked by cutting it into a star pattern. First you cut the dough into quadrants, then again in eighths, then along one length of the radius and then the opposite length, in order to create the diamond shapes. Mary and I have known each other since 2009 and have helped each other decipher instructions from those 16th century Persian manuscripts which referred to the baklava as “shaped like Willow leaves.” Our collaboration uncovers this very significant feature of the recipe. This is the very first time anywhere in history that we can identify how you are instructed to cut the dough before baking. Although a small and seemingly insignificant step, it is actually an enormous one in the development of understanding the construction of baklava in history and its throughline to today.
There are clues to that history in every turn of the pan. Nilgun said her grandmother used a wooden knife to cut the dough so that it did not mark the surface of the tin lined, copper pans traditionally used for baklava which were very expensive and important to them. The Persian recipes referenced use of an “oklava,” a very small diameter Turkish and Central Asian rolling pin without which the dough cannot be rolled paper thin. Another mystery unraveled – proof that baklava indeed is rooted in Turkish cuisine.
We place our creation in the oven at 325°F and bake for 25 minutes, then return it and bake it until we can see that the center layers are cooked, while we make a syrup of honey and water with a single drop of musk flavoring that was integral to medieval baklava. The liquid substitute we used carries all of the original perfuming agent’s qualities except its technical origin: a gland of a musk deer from Mongolia. Musk was used in almost every sweet of the 15th and 16th century recipes that originate from the Ottoman times, though it is not common today, which is why I brought it. Nilgun had never used musk before, and we brought a special touch to her otherwise identical family recipe for “Baklava ve Karaman” as it was known.
When the baklava is golden brown, and all of the layers are cooked, we remove it and immediately pour the honey syrup over it so that it can be absorbed. It’s placed back into the oven for about 10 or 15 minutes to continue cooking with the syrup and then it’s ready to rest. Too eager to wait, we carefully ensure that all of the cuts have gone through and gingerly remove several pieces for us to enjoy with strong Turkish tea and savor this taste of the past.
Chef Channon Mondoux, a food writer for NowKalamazoo, is also a professional chef, food educator, and historian. For more than three decades, she has been researching – and remaking – baklava recipes from its origins in the medieval cuisine of the Ottoman Sultanates, among other historical cuisines. She will be presenting her latest work at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University on May 12. In-person classes are offered by appointment at www.chefchannon.com or by emailing [email protected].
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