When thinking of Turkish desserts, the most popular ones that come to mind are usually
baklava and Turkish Delights. Featured most famously, in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The
Wardrobe, Turkish Delights are the addictive treat used by the White Witch to lure young Edmund
to the dark side. While both delicious, and tempting, there is so much more to Turkish
Sweet dishes play a significant role in Turkey’s culture and society. Many of their desserts are made for specific holidays or special occasions, such as a birth, a death or a return from pilgrimage. The holy month of Ramazan (Ramadan), where fasting from sunrise to sundown is part of the observance, is capped off by a three-day celebration called Seker Bayrami, which translates to “sugar festival.” These three days are filled with lavish desserts.
Due to its geographical location at the cross-roads of the Far East and the Mediterranean, Turkey has had many cultural influences, including Greek, Armenian, Chinese and African on its cuisine. However, the strongest influence is from the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire (1453 – 1922), who had complete control of the Spice Route and who considered cooking a culinary art.
Food was of such high importance to the Ottoman Empire that they even named the different positions in the Janissaries (their military elite) after a kitchen’s hierarchical structure. The commanders of the main divisions were named Soupmen, and other high-ranking officers were named Chief Cook, Scullion, Baker, and Pancake Maker, though their roles had nothing to do with these titles.
Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which included parts of present-day Russia, Turkey, Hungary, the Balkans, northern Africa and the Middle East, and is today the only metropolis straddling two continents: Asia and Europe. Therefore, it makes sense that Istanbul, home of the imperial Topkapi Palace, had the greatest influence on what the rest of the empire ate. The sultans, who chose to trade only the best ingredients from the Spice Route, constantly encouraged experimentation, and even held competitions between the different teams of chefs to see who could make the most delicious feasts.
In terms of desserts, before the 18th century, honey and grape molasses were the only sweetening agents available to Turkish bakers, therefore many of their desserts, like baklava and helva feature the use of honey. However, in the late 18th century, sugar became widely available and this opened up endless creative opportunities.
Probably the most common dessert for Turkish people to have after dinner is fresh, seasonal fruit ranging from strawberries, apricots, peaches and watermelons in early summer to grapes, figs, plums, apples, pears and quince later in the year. To make it a little richer tasting, they will sometimes add clotted cream or crushed walnuts to the fruit. Compotes, also known hoşafs, are also popular. Hoşaf is made by boiling dried fruit like figs, prunes, raisins, and apricots in fragrant water and then adding sugar. It’s usually served during Ramadan to break the fast, and is best served warm.
For a taste of tradition, give this Hoşaf recipe a try.
Almost any kind of dried fruit, such as figs, prunes, apricots and raisins
Orange blossom water (made from the orange flower ), or rose water essence
How to make it:
Soak ingredients in light syrup for one hour. Then, boil dried fruits, cinnamon and orange blossom water (or rose water) for 15 minutes on a medium heat. Serve with sprig of mint leaf.
The most famous of these is baklava. It is made from multiple layers of fine phyllo pastry interspersed with crushed nuts, like walnuts and pistachios, and soaked in syrup or honey to make it sweeter. The use of layered dough comes from the nomadic nature of the Central Asian Turkics. They were able to make it by using a sač (a domed metal dish), and an oklava, (Turkish-style rolling pin).
Baklava, and its large family of similar desserts, with interesting names like Sultan, Nightingale’s Nest, Twisted Turban have only slightvariations, in terms of size, amount and type of nuts used and dryness, compared to the original baklava. It is by far one of the most popular and famous desserts in Turkey. It is also very popular in Greece and many Arab countries. Many nations wish to claim baklava as their own, however, there is strong evidence that it comes from the Central Asia Turkic region.
Another popular and well-known dessert is acibadem kurabiyesi, which means “bitter almond cookie.” These cookies are made of almonds, sugar and egg whites. The traditional way of preparing them is with bitter almonds, but since these are not widely available, almond extract is frequently used. It has a chewy texture and is best served with coffee or tea. In Turkey, this popular cookie can be found in most pastry shops. To make some homemade almond cookies, check out this recipe.
Lokma, meaning “bite-sized,” is a family of desserts made up of small, fried pieces of yeast dough, dripped in syrup. Again, interesting names, like Lady’s Lips, Lady’s Navel, Vizier’s Finger and Tulumba Tatlisi (meaning “fire hydrant”) are used.
Call it what you may when making your own batch with this Lokma recipe.
Ingredients for lokma:
¾ tbsp baking powder
2 tbsp yogourt
1/3 tsp salt
4 tbsp flour
1 cup oil (to fry)
Ingredients for syrup:
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
How to make it:
First, prepare the syrup by frying it in a hot pan and then leave it to cool off. Then put the other ingredients of the lokma into a bowl and mix them well. Add oil into the pan until it's very hot. Take small pieces from the already mixed ingredients with a tablespoon and throw it into the oil. When it's fried, take it out of the pan and drop it into the syrup. Wait an hour before serving. You can also add some crushed walnut or coconut on it before serving
While flaky pastry desserts, like the aforementioned baklava family, are probably, for many people, the most widely recognized of Turkish desserts, for Turkish people, their muhallebi, or “milk-based” desserts, are just as important and just as vast, in terms of quantity and variety. These muhallebi include a variety of puddings, usually made from starch and rice flour, and some are baked. Aşure, also known as “Noah’s pudding,” is a popular pudding with an interesting story behind it. According to Turkish folklore, after the flood, Noah used the remaining ingredients (mostly grains and dried fruit) found on his ark and boiled it together to make this pudding. Traditionally, this dessert is made in large quantities to commemorate the ark’s landing, and given to friends, family, neighbours and colleagues as an offering of peace and love. Why not spread a little love by making some aşure of your own? Here’s an easy recipe to try.
Güllaç is a milkpudding/pastry made with pastry leaves, rose water and pomegranates, and is believed to be the ancestor of baklava. Gullaç is a Ramazan dessert, as it is associated with prayer. The story goes that in the palace, prayers were always said while making the dessert because it was believed that it was impossible to get such thin layers without them.
"Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious," C.S. Lewis wrote of Turkish Delights in the best-selling novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
With the rise of readily available sugar in the 18th century, lokum, or as it’s more famously known in the west as “Turkish Delight,” was born. It is a cube-shaped confection made from a sugar and starch gelatin, and covered in powdered sugar. It comes in a wide variety of flavours and colours. The more expensive ones contain nuts, like pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts or chopped dates, while the less expensive ones are usually just flavoured with rosewater, mastic or lemon. Its western name, “Turkish Delight,” dates back to the 19th century, when an unknown British man who, while traveling in Istanbul, became enamoured with the jelly-like sweets. He liked them so much, that he decided to bring back many cases of it to England and shipped it under the name Turkish Delight.
Helva is a dense confection made from semolina that is sweetened with honey and syrup, and sometimes contains nuts like pistachios. People are invited to come over for “helva conversations” because it is conducive to communal cooking. It is offered on the occasion of major life changes: a birth, a death, induction into the army, returning from pilgrimage, entering or graduating from school, et cetera. To make your own helva, check out this recipe.
Turkey has their own interesting twist on ice cream, which they call dondurma. The main difference between dondurma and regular ice cream is its resistance to melting and its chewiness. It’s made with sugar, milk, salep and mastic and is from the Kahramanmaraş region. Salep is one of the main thickening agents and mastic is what gives it its chewiness. Thanks to its stickiness, street vendors have turned selling dondurma into a little show: they tease customers by repeatedly almost handing the cone over, before quickly twirling it away with their long paddles.
Contrary to popular belief, and unlike the dessert traditions in North America, Turkish people do not eat most of these desserts after a meal (with the exception of the fruit ones), but rather as a snack with coffee. So next time you’re craving a snack, why not pop in a lokma or have a bite of helva? What took 600 years of Ottoman rule to refine and perfect, will only take you a few minutes to enjoy.•