In the middle of the 20th century the muhallebici was still a big feature of İstanbul life. These specialist pudding shops offered an assortment of milk-based desserts including the eponymous muhallebi which was a form of blancmange. But the most popular dish was always fırında sütlaç (oven-baked rice pudding), which was served in clay bowls or small glass dishes with the browned skin on top.

But muhallebicis also featured other puddings including:

  • Keşkül – milk and almond powder pudding sprinkled with ground almonds and pistachios
  • Tavukgöğsü - one of Turkey's most peculiar dishes since it consists of a sweet milk pudding to which pureed chicken breast has been added
  • Kazandibi – tavukgöğsü with a caramelized crust
  • Supangle – thick chocolate mousse served in individual ramekins, sometimes with a ball of choux pastry in the middle

Actually, “milk” pudding is something of a misnomer as the base for all these dishes is really şübye, which is extracted from rice by soaking it in water and then grinding it to  paste. 

By the end of the 20th century the muhallebicisi had virtually died a death. Now the wheel has come full circle, and pudding shops are once more in fashion, albeit in somewhat more cafe-like shapes. In the traditional pudding shop dessert came with a glass of water and no coffee, and branches of Bolulu Hasan Usta (BHU) stick with that recipe. Branches of Özsüt, however, offer puddings alongside an array of scrumptious cakes and a full range of coffees. Longer-lived Saray Muhallebicisi has also gone down that same path but also offers soups and kebabs to precede dessert.

Aside from the milk-based puddings and the wide variety of baklavas, restaurants and puddings shops also offer some sponge and bread-based desserts. Typical is revani which is made from semolina and ground pistachios flavored with vanilla and soaked in syrup, best when served with a dollop of cream. More common is şekerpare which is made using pre-packaged biscuits that can be soaked in a lemon-flavored syrup; each biscuit has a pistachio stamped in the middle of it; Kemalpaşa looks similar but is made from sponge pudding soaked in syrup. Ekmek tatlısı is basic bread pudding sometimes perked up with fruit toppings, especially sour cherry (vişneli).

Given the amount of fruit available in Turkey it’s hardly surprising to see all sorts of fruit-based puddings on sale too. The most common are probably kabak tatlısı (pumpkin dessert), ayva tatlısı (quince dessert), and incir tatlısı (fig dessert), but you will also see plenty of fruit conserves known as hoşaf too.

In a class of its own is aşure which is more or less a meal in its own right and is sometimes called “Noah’s Ark” pudding because of claims that the original aşure was made by Noah’s wife towards the end of the Flood when she mixed together a little of all the 40 separate ingredients left in her store cupboard.

So popular is aşure that there is a whole festival devoted to it, namely the 10th day of the Muslim month of Muharrem (this changes in date every year because the Muslim year follows the phases of the moon). This is the anniversary of the death of the martyr Hüseyin, the grandson of Mohammed, and a date especially important to Shiite Muslims. Most Turks may be Sunni, but the Bektaşi sect based in Hacıbektaş in Central Anatolia follows many of the same rituals and helped secure a home for aşure in the Turkish calendar. Many other events are also tentatively attached to this date: the day Adam met Eve, the day Allah forgave Adam his sins, and perhaps most appropriately the day that Noah finally set foot on dry land after the Flood. In many places in Anatolia women still make aşure and distribute it to their neighbors.

By its very nature aşure is a hotch-potch of a dish, and every housewife has her own favoured combination of ingredients, but typically the pudding might contain any of the following mixed together using a special flour called aşurelik to form what is rather like a rich, sweet soup: barley, chickpeas, lentils, beans, bulgur, sultanas, apricots, cherries, walnuts, hazelnuts, figs, orange peel, pine kernels, and pomegranate seeds. A less commonly cooked variant uses milk mixed with water as a basis. Don’t expect to find exactly 40 ingredients – the number has many important connotations in Middle Eastern culture which probably explains why it was picked.

Aşure is sometimes available in normal pudding shops, but on the day of aşure bayramı (the holiday linked to the marytrdom of Hüseyin) you may see empty shops hosting groups of women who have got together specifically to make and sell it.

A much-loved dessert that is a specialty of the area around Antakya and the Hatay is künefe which is made from a combination of freshly-made sweet shredded wheat and a special gooey cheese that is placed in the middle, then melts into it perfectly. The noodles are made by dribbling a flour, sugar and water paste onto a piping hot griddle as it rotates using a special ladle pierced with a row of holes, and then quickly scooping the crisp end product off again. Meanwhile the cheese is prepared separately ready to be mixed with the noodles before baking – it’s a special cheese that is not used for any other cooking purpose. Then the whole thing is baked until crispy whereupon a sugary syrup is poured over the top and it’s sprinkled with grated pistachios.

Fresh künefe takes some time to prepare so unless you are in a pastry shop that sells nothing else you should order it at the same time as your starter and main course. Perhaps the best thing about künefe is that the cheese takes the edge off the sweetness making it perfect for people who find baklava a bit too syrupy.

If you see bowls of a particularly lurid-looking orange dessert in the windows of a pudding shop it will be zerde,  a rice pudding made from saffron mixed with rose water and thickened with arrowroot or potato flour. Zerde has an interesting history since it was one of the items served to the famous Janissary soldiers when they arrived at the Topkapı Palace for their three-monthly payday. Every Thursday it was also served to the poor from İstanbul’s many imarets (soup kitchens) to celebrate the approach of Friday, the Muslim holy day. The Tarihi Haliç İşkembecisi (Abdülezelpaşa Caddesi No. 315, Fener; Tel: 0212-534 9414, www.haliciskembecisi.com) on the Golden Horn always stocks it.

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