The Real Story of Sweets: Beyond Baklava
The most well-known sweets associated with Turkish Cuisine are Turkish Delight (lokum), and "baklava," giving the impression that these may be the typical desserts eaten after meals. This, of course, is not true. Firstly the family of desserts is much richer than these two. Secondly these are not typical desserts as part of a main meal. For example, baklava and its relatives are usually eaten with coffee, as a snack or after a kebab dish. Let us now look at the main categories of sweets in the Turkish Cuisine.
By far, the most common dessert after a meal is fresh seasonal fruit that acquire their unique taste from an abundance of sun and old-fashioned ways of cultivation and transportation. Spring will start with strawberries, followed by cherries and apricots. Summer is marked by peaches, watermelons and melons; then, all kinds of grapes ripen in late summer, followed by green and purple figs, plums, apples, pears and quince. Oranges, mandarin oranges, and bananas are among the winter fruits. For most of the spring and summer, fruit is eaten fresh. Later, it may be used fresh or dried, in compotes, or made into jams and preserves. Among the preserves, the unique ones to taste are the quince marmalade, the sour cherry preserve, and the rose preserve (made of rose petals, which is not a fruit! ).
The most wonderful contribution of Turkish Cuisine to the family of desserts, that can easily be missed by casual explorers, are the milk desserts - the "muhallebi" family. These are among the rare types of guilt-free puddings made with starch and rice flour, and, originally without any eggs or butter. When the occasion calls for even a lighter dessert, the milk can also be omitted; instead, the pudding may be flavored with citrus fruits, such as lemon or orange. The milk desserts include a variety of puddings, ranging from the very light and subtle pudding with rose water to the milk pudding with strands of chicken breast.
Grain-based desserts include baked pastries, fried yeast-dough pastries and the pan-sautéed desserts. The baked pastries can also be referred to as the baklava family. These are paper-thin pastry sheets that are brushed with butter and folded, layered, or, rolled after being filled with ground pistachios, walnuts or heavy cream, and then baked. Then syrup is poured over the baked pastries. The various types, such as the sultan, the nightingale's nest, or the twisted turban differ according to the amount and placement of nuts, size and shape of the individual pieces, and the dryness of the final product. The "lokma" family is made by frying soft pieces of yeast dough in oil and dipping them in syrup. Lady's lips, lady's navel, and vizier finger are fine examples.
"Helva" is made by pan-sautéing flour or semolina (cream of wheat) and pine nuts in butter before adding sugar, and water, and briefly cooking until these are absorbed. The preparation of helva is conducive to communal cooking. People are invited for "helva conversations" to pass the long winter nights. The more familiar tahini helva is sold in blocks at a corner grocery shop.
Another dessert that should be mentioned is a piece of special bread cooked in syrup, topped with lots of walnuts and heavy cream. This is possibly the queen of all desserts, so plan to taste it at the Ikmal Restaurant on the Ankara-Izmir highway at Afyon.