The muezzin echoed over the city, signalling the call to prayer. It was a sweet (and loud) reminder that I was far from home, exploring a new culture and city that had so much to offer. I loved hearing that sound. Istanbul is a colourful and busy city, bustling with tourists and locals. Straddling the Bosphorus strait, the “East meets West” concept is evident as the mosques dominate over the Asian side, while remain subtly placed over the European landscape in the West.
We saw the aromatic spice market, filled with brightly coloured mounds of spices – sumac, cinnamon, cardamom and everything in between. Sweet baklava and Turkish delight was piled high at each stall. The bustling Grand Bazaar spilled out to the streets lined with stalls and more shops.
As we walked through the Aya Sofya and Blue Mosque, it was impossible to ignore the architecture that holds such incredible history. Now a museum, the Aya Sofya (church-turned-mosque) surpasses all others with its beauty, humbling size and rich history. Previously a basilica until overrun by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, mosaics covers the walls and pillars to depict the previous Christian empire.
We visited the Blue Mosque, covering our heads out of respect and religious tradition. The daylight streamed in, highlighting the beautiful and brightly coloured ceramic tiles.
We stepped out of the mosque, and the scent of charcoal-grilled meats immediately made us hungry. Oh the food!! As I sit here writing this post, my stomach is grumbling even though I just ate (no surprise really!). The spicy lamb kebabs fresh off the grill, warm simit bread with tahini and molasses (it’s like peanut butter, but 10x better!), honey drizzled over clotted cream, meat-filled pasta topped with cool yogurt and chilli . In all honesty, as we toured the city, all I was wishing for was our next meal. But what Turkish meal would be complete without a sinfully sweet and syrupy slice of baklava?
It was our daily ritual. Piled high and fresh from the oven, the smell of baklava floated through the streets. It was my job to choose the baklava, my nose pressed onto the plexi glass, “oooh-ing” and “aaah-ing” at each flavour. A glass of Turkish coffee or tea was served in a dainty glass and accompanied by our selected piece of baklava. The pastry was always flaky and crackling as you stuck your fork in it. The layers were filled with crushed nuts and covered with butter (I never said it was healthy!) before being baked in the oven. Once it was out of the oven, a simple sugary syrup was poured over the baklava and left to soak for hours before being served to excited customers like me.
It seems fitting that I would include a recipe for baklava. It was my dessert obsession in Turkey and it still is, so I suppose this post is really just an excuse to bake baklava! The flaky pastry just barely holds in the mounds of crushed pistachios and walnuts, coconut and melted chocolate chunks. The syrup oozes out of each crevice as you bite into it. The smell reminds me of Christmas, deep flavours of cinnamon and nutmeg that make your eyes dilate and taste buds tingle. The butter gives a rich brown colour to the pastry and taste that is only outdone by the warm chocolate drizzle over the baklava slices.
- 1 ½ cups crushed pistachios
- 1 cup crushed walnuts
- 1 cup coconut
- 1 cup chocolate
- 1 tsp cinnamon powder
- 1 tsp nutmeg powder
- ½ tsp allspice powder
- 1 cup of brown sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 roll of phyllo pastry, thawed
- 2 ½ sticks of butter, melted
- 1 cup water
- 1 ½ cups brown sugar
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1 vanilla bean (sliced lengthwise) or 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Combine the crushed nuts, coconut and chocolate chunks in a large bowl. Mix in spices, sugar and vanilla extract and set aside.
- Brush melted butter along the bottom of a 9x13 inch pan. Layer 8 sheets of phyllo pastry, brushing melted butter between each layer. Place ⅓ of mixture over the pastry. Layer 4 more sheets of phyllo pastry with melted butter. Repeat this until the nut mixture is done - it should produce 3 layers of the nut mixture. Layer the final 8 phyllo sheets with melted butter and top with any remaining melted butter.
- Place the baklava in the fridge for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350F. Once you're ready to bake the baklava, cut the baklava into diagonal pieces and then bake in the oven uncovered for approximately 20 minutes until the pastry starts to brown. Then cover with tin foil and bake for another 20 minutes.
- While the baklava is in the oven, make the sugar syrup by combining the water, brown sugar in a sauce pan over medium heat. Once the sugar melts into the water, add in the vanilla bean, cinnamon stick and honey. Let it simmer until it thickens, approximately 15 minutes.
- Take the baklava out of the oven and immediately pour the sugar syrup over top. Let it soak for a few hours to overnight before serving.