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It can be the star at family feasts or the perfect fast food. Berrin Torolsan serves up ten irresistible recipes. Photographs by Berrin Torolsan
My grandmother was a fine lady with a taste for the good things in life and boundless energy for creating those little pleasures that make life more enjoyable. Besides big lunches on festive days, one of those pleasures was her impromptu midweek börek lunch parties. They would often be announced at short notice, but I don’t remember a single invitation being turned down. Appointments were shifted around, and my father and uncles would be sure to come home from work specially.
There was usually one savoury pastry dish on the menu, along with plenty of salad and fresh fruit. Sometimes it would be Tabak Börek, sometimes Tatar Börek. But it was Puf Börek that reigned supreme. We would gather round a mountain of these puffed-up böreks displayed in the centre of her large dining table. Sometimes the pile was so high that I couldn’t see the person sitting opposite me. Amid the jolly chatter, there were occasional sighs of “I’ve lost count” as someone reached for yet another golden puff. And as soon as one mountain vanished, another pile appeared from the kitchen, freshly fried, to take its place. “Mother, who is going to eat all this?” my mother and aunt would exclaim. But my grandmother would take not the slightest notice and, more often than not, at the end of the meal not a single börek remained. On the rare occasions when any were left over, they would be wrapped and given to a guest to take away as a welcome snack for later.
What exactly is a börek? Put simply, it is a savoury pie: a filling, usually of cheese or meat, is sandwiched between sheets of thinly rolled-out dough. It is baked, or pan-fried or deep-fried, which allows the ingredients to combine in a delectable marriage as the filling melts, blending to a creamy consistency inside a crisp casing of pastry.
Although böreks come in an almost infinite variety of shapes and sizes, the common denominator and chief inspiration is the fine sheet of pastry known as yufka. A yufka (or yupka, as it is spelt in Mahmut al Kashgari’s eleventh-century lexicon of Turkic languages, Divanü Lûgat-it-Türk) is a thin sheet of dry-cooked unleavened dough. Yufka was an ingeniously practical invention. These dry, feather-light leaves of bread could not have been more appropriate for people with a nomadic way of life.
The French nobleman Bertrandon de la Brocquière, “first esquire carver to Philippe le Bon”, who travelled across “Turcomania” on his way from Palestine to France in 1433, came across Turkmen nomads near Adana, in southern Anatolia. With their customary hospitality, they offered the passers-by cheese and grapes and “a dozen of thin cakes of bread, thinner than wafers: they fold them up as grocers do their papers for spices, and eat them filled with the curdled milk, called by them Yogort”.
A few days later he “lodged” at another Turkmen encampment of round felt “pavilions”. “It was here I saw women make those thin cakes I spoke of. They have a small round table, very smooth, on which they throw some flour, and mix it with water to a paste, softer than that for bread. This paste they divide into round pieces, which they flatten as much as possible with a wooden roller [oklava] of a smaller diameter than an egg, until they make them as thin as I have mentioned. During this operation, they have a convex plate of iron [sac] placed on a tripod [sacayak], and heat it by a gentle fire underneath, on which they spread the cake, and instantly turn it, so that they make two of their cakes sooner than a waferman can make one wafer.”
Yufka is still a rural staple today, and a coarse homemade yufka is as widely consumed as bread in most Anatolian villages. Yufka rolled around a spread of grape molasses is a popular shepherd’s snack. The village woman’s quick meal of katlama (literally “folded”) – crumbled cheese and butter wrapped in yufka and toasted on a hot griddle – is still hugely enjoyed in the countryside. Finer leaves of yufka are sold to make börek in markets, bakers and yufkacı shops all over the country. Rolled out into large circular, gauze-like sheets, 60cm (2ft) in diameter, they will have been lightly dry-cooked on both sides on a hot iron griddle, exactly as Bertrandon described six centuries ago. The ingredients, even the utensils, are the same. Only the fuel has changed, as camp fires have given way to electricity.
Simple snacks evolved over time into more complicated tray-baked böreks, employing ever more varied ingredients and cooking facilities, and, above all, calling for a large, well-organised community to gather round the börek tray and enjoy a shared meal.
Plain yufka dough made with wheat flour and water came to be enriched with eggs to create a softer pasta dough. Flaky pastry came from working in butter, fat or oil, leading in turn to strudel and puff pastry. All could all be used to envelop a delectable filling and be baked or fried as neat parcels of every shape and size.
The börek has an extensive place in Turkey’s culinary repertoire, and the choice of fillings is infinite. Something that is protein-rich to complement the carbohydrate of the pastry makes for a perfect nutritional balance. From cheese to spicy ground meat or sautéed meat cubes with nuts and raisins; from chicken or turkey to fish and lentils; from offal such as brain or tripe to vegetables – the list is almost endless. Spinach, leek, potato, aubergine, courgette, pumpkin, cabbage and spring greens, sorrel and nettle can all be included. And fillings are often further enhanced with butter, yoghurt, milk, eggs and fresh herbs.
As to the cooking, theoretically one needs an oven, whether modern or rustic, in which to bake böreks. But delicious tray böreks are still cooked, as they would have been in earlier times, on an open fire and covered with an iron lid, with the embers piled on top to create an oven-like effect. Or else they can be simply cooked very fast on an open flame, then flipped over like a pancake and cooked on the other side.
Perhaps the forerunner of all pastries, yufka must have opened up a whole new culinary horizon, leading the way to a constellation of böreks, and a further galaxy of baklavas – for that is what you have when the pastry is given a nut-based filling, sweetened with honey or sugar syrup. Baklava calls for yufka rolled out into paper-thin leaves so fine that you can almost see through them: it may have anything from forty to eighty leaves, with a nut filling in between, yet be no thicker than two fingers. Another sweet idea is to take little morsels of fried börek and saturate them in syrup or honey; the result is crisp sweetmeats oozing with sweetness. But these call for a well-equipped kitchen, more time, and helping hands to tend to the frying while others are being served.
As the börek evolved, increasingly intricate dishes were devised in palaces and wealthier households, and above all by Ottoman sufi dervishes, for whom cuisine played a symbolic role on the path to perfection. By the fifteenth century the börek was already a classic dish. We know that Mehmet II, one Saturday in 1474, was served a börek that had been baked in the imperial bread ovens and was therefore called furun böreği, or “oven börek”, which suggests that other techniques were also practised.
By the seventeenth century, according to the chronicler Evliya Çelebi, there were a staggering 4,000 specialist börek shops in Istanbul. These were strictly not to be confused with bread and biscuit shops. Even the mills producing the quality white wheat flour for the börek shops were different from those supplying the bakers.
Börek shops nowadays are less specialised. Tray böreks are sold in baklava shops by the portion or the kilo; others made from flaky pastry are sold individually in patisseries, along with croissants and millefeuilles. A 1780 decree governing Istanbul’s börek sellers stipulates that böreks should contain no less than 250 dirhem (802g) of mutton which must be “unadulterated with other meats”. (Offenders would be severely fined.) Some things have changed little. Judging by the quantity of filling, böreks must have been baked in large trays and sold cut into rectangles, as they are to this day, for a börek with a savoury filling, then as now, makes the perfect quick meal.
I still miss my grandmother’s böreks, the delicious smells wafting from the kitchen, and the gasps of delight as a mound of hot, golden pastry puffs appeared at the table. And above all I miss the conviviality of those carefree börek parties.
A note on yufka: A variety of buttered paper-thin pastry – known by its Hellenic name, filo or phyllo – is well established in Western cuisines. Filo is manufactured around the globe, and böreks made from it are very popular outside Turkey, especially on London restaurant menus. The first five böreks described here are made with ready-made yufka dough, which is less brittle than filo and lighter when fried or baked. If you cannot find ready-made yufka, use filo pastry, or better still make your own with flour, water and a pinch of salt.
Berrin Torolsan’s easy recipe for Puf Böreği that melts in the mouth
About 4 cups wheat flour
1 cup water
1/2 cup olive oil
Parsley and dill (finely chopped)
250g Turkish white cheese or feta
This puffed-up börek – photographed on the opening pages – is the superstar in the constellation of böreks. Its delicate, flaky, melting-in-the-mouth texture makes it addictive. The use of a traditional oklava makes it easy to roll out the pastry into a large, fine sheet.
1 Knead the flour, water, salt, one of the eggs and the olive oil into a pliable dough. Cover and leave to rest for about an hour.
2 Divide the dough into six identical pieces. Roll each piece into a circle about 20cm in diameter. Brush with olive oil and place them one on top of each other.
3 When finished, fold up this stack of circles, knead briefly once more and roll into a ball. Divide into two equal pieces and cover with a damp cloth.
4 Prepare the filling by breaking the second egg into a bowl. Beat it with a fork and add the parsley, dill and cheese. Blend well to a creamy consistency.
5 On a spacious surface lightly dusted with extra flour, or better still rice flour, roll out one of the balls as finely as possible with a rolling pin or oklava into a sheet about 60cm (almost 2ft) in diameter. Down one side of this sheet of dough, about four finger-widths in from the edge, place small mounds of filling in a row, spacing them evenly about four finger-widths apart. Leave enough space at the edge to fold the dough over the filling (see picture below). Flip the outer edge over the filling and, press the rim of a glass or small metal lid into the dough to cut small semicircles around the mounds of filling. This seals the filling inside. Transferring cut börek pieces to a clean kitchen towel, repeat, row by row, with the rest of the dough and again with the second ball of dough. Knead the trimmings into another ball and repeat with the remaining filling.
6 Heat plenty of olive oil in a deep pan and deep-fry the böreks on both sides. Serve hot and puffed up, perhaps accompanied by a refreshing compôte freshly made with seasonal fruit.
For more börek recipes, buy Cornucopia 33
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