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The Real Story of Sweets:
Beyond the Baklava

The most well known sweets associated with the Turkish Cuisine are the Turkish Delight, and the "baklava", giving the impression that these may be the typical desserts eaten after meals. This is not true. First, 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 eaten usually 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 green 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 petal).

The most wonderful contribution of the 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 flavoured with citrus fruits, such as lemon and 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-sauteed 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 baked. Then a syrup is poured over the baked pastries. The various types, such as the sultan, the nightingale's nest, 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 a syrup. Lady's lips, lady's navel, vizier finger are fine examples.

"Helva" is made by pan-sauteeing flour or semolina and pine nuts in butter before adding sugar, milk or 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 bloks 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 Ikbal Restaurant on the Ankara-Izmir highway at Afyon. There are shops where baklava, börek, or muhallebi are sold, exclusively or in combination. People come to these places for take-away or to sit down at one of the few tables tucked in a corner of the store. The baklava stores usually feature also "water börek", an especially difficult börek to make. Most börek shops also make milk puddings. These are excellent places to eat breakfast or lunch at any time of the day, since the regular restaurants may stop serving at two o'clock in the afternoon. Many pudding shops also serve chicken soup. In any event, it is possible to feast on börek and milk pudding for an entire holiday, if on a tight budget. Perhaps the most well-known shop of this type is Saray on Istiklal street in Beyoglu-Istanbul, in addition to the entire village of Sariyer on the Bosphorus.

You have to be in Turkey to get the real and the best taste of the above desserts. However, in addition to the variety of Turkish Delights, there is a lesser-known type of dessert that can be taken back home in a sweet box. These are nut pastes-marzipan made of almonds and pistachios. The best marzipan is sold at the tiny, unassuming shop at Bebek in Istanbul. A few boxes usually will last for a month or so and bring delight after dinners. Finally, candied chestnuts, a speciality of Bursa, are among the most wonderful nutty desserts.
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