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Every morsel a delight Sweets

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Posted 21 March 2005 - 22:09

A sine qua non of social life in the Middle and Far East, sweets gradually began to find their way into western cuisines from the 14th and 15th centuries. But there are significant differences between eastern and western cuisines in the variety and consumption of sweets. Whereas in the West sweets tend to be light and are served at the end of the meal, in the East they are served at any hour of the day and are fragrant and flavourful and drenched in syrup.

Everyone knows that sweets are a staple of Turkish cuisine. Take ‘baklava’, for instance, the Turks’ most important contribution to the world of sweets. It absolutely cannot be made from a mere recipe; only long years of experience can impart its special flavor. Although many theories have been advanced concerning the invention of baklava, none is certain. According to Charles Perry, however, a researcher on the history of Middle Eastern cuisine, the technique of rolling out paper-thin dough originated in this part of the world.

My own professional experience has led me to believe that baklava must surely have developed out of the technique of rolling thin dough. The authoritative Larousse Gastronomique explains that this technique, under the name of ‘strudel’, appeared in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the Ottoman period.
But who invented the technique of rolling thin dough? Due to their nomadic lifestyle, the Turks of Central Asia carried their cooking equipment with them on horseback. The only stove that can be carried on the back of a horse is a thin metal brazier, and the food prepared on such a brazier has to be thin too so that it will cook quickly. The technique of rolling fine dough, which was born of the exigencies of nomadic life, would develop eventually into baklava. The baklava unique to the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean today is compared in some sources to ‘strudel’ or ‘yufka’ (Greek phylo leaves).

But yufka is rolled out in single sheets while strudel is stretched and pressed by hand on a piece of cloth. In the case of baklava, ten layers of dough at once are rolled out paper-thin with a special rolling pin called an ‘oklava’. Baklava is actually another technique for producing the multi-layered pastry known in French cuisine as mille-feuille and in Turkish as ‘yagli hamur’. The moisture in the butter spread between the sheets of yufka escapes as steam during baking, causing them to puff up and separate, while the hot butter in between ensures that they are baked to a crisp. The crunchy sound you hear when you bite in, the dough that melts in your mouth and the flavour that spreads on your palate are the key criteria of quality in baklava.
The words ‘yupa’, ‘yoka’ and ‘yufka’ all derive from the Turkish ‘yubka’, meaning ‘thin, friable’. But clearly a lot of ground had to be covered before the technique of cooking layered dough over a flat metal sheet on a brush fire evolved into the sophisticated baklava of the Ottomans.

The Turks’ transformation of yukfa, a product of nomadic culture, into baklava developed hand in hand with the high level of culture achieved by the Ottoman Empire.
The highly skilled chefs employed in the magnificent Topkapi Palace kitchens naturally provided the optimal conditions for progress in the culture of cooking. This crucial relationship between baklava and the palace was manifested in the tray after tray of this crispy layered pastry that was distributed to the Janissaries every year in the middle of the month of Ramazan.
So is baklava the Turks’ only contribution to the world of sweets? Certainly not. And some of the most delectable are Sultans’ Milk Pudding, Almond Delight and Baked Quinces, whose recipes are given below. Be sure to try them.


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