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Fine fast food

Trade Secrets

Most fast food is heavy, greasy and bad for your health. Güllaç pancakes, by contrast, are beautiful organza-thin leaves, light as a feather and made from the simplest ingredients. What’s more, they keep for an age. Berrin Torolsan sees the best gullaç in the making

Hans Dernschwam went to Constantinople in 1553. Like his travelling companion, Ogier de Busbecq, envoy of the Holy Roman Emperor, he described his observations in painstaking detail in a journal dedicated to his wealthy patron. It was a time when Europeans were hungry for new ideas – and anything they could buy and sell, whether for the battlefront or for the home. The Ottoman Empire was the superpower, instilling fear and exuding sophistication as its army camped outside Vienna. Through the Ottomans, Europe would discover coffee, croissants, tulips, horse chestnuts, possibly pizza and strudel, not to mention Turkish delight. This was a time when scholars wore turbans in Italy.

And so it was that Dernschwam observed the paper-thin pancakes now known as güllaç being made, although he himself did not give them this name. “Strong flour is beaten with egg whites and spooned onto a warm flat pan,” he wrote. “It becomes like a plate. Over it is sprinkled finely minced almonds or other nuts mixed with sugar. One [leaf] is placed on top of another. It will become a finger thick. This is sprinkled with rosewater and pistachios.”

Three hundred years on, Turabi Efendi described güllaç in his Turkish Cookery Book – published in England after he prepared a famous royal banquet on the Thames in 1862 – as “a kind of delicate confection prepared with rosewater”. “Twenty egg whites, mixed with about half a pound of wheat starch to form a very thin batter” are cooked on a circular, slightly domed iron sheet. “The cakes have the size of a large dinner plate or larger” and are “very white and as thin as tissue paper”.

Turabi gives the classical recipes for güllaç pudding, the dessert made with güllaç pancakes and the most common form in which they are eaten. Less common now are his güllaç fritters (parcels moistened with rosewater and wrapped around a nut filling, fried and sweetened with a sugar syrup), or güllaç paluzesi, a jelly prepared by saturating güllaç pancakes with syrup and letting them set – the jelly is then served with rosewater.

Turabi Efendi advises his foreign readers that “these cakes [güllaç] are sold ready made in Constantinople and can be obtained through any Turkish merchant residing in this country … a delicate and most delicious dish when properly done.” It is impossible not to agree.

Güllaç is still popular, especially in the month of Ramazan, which falls this year [2002] in November. It is traditionally served at the end of iftar, the evening breakfast, and is prized for its lightness and daintiness.

In Istanbul during Ramazan you see large round white parcels of güllaç pancakes hanging from the wall of every grocery or market. At other times of year they are rarely seen outside the Spice Bazaar in Eminönü. There are several makers, but one is outstanding.

The Saffet family has been making güllaç pancakes for three generations. Great-grandfather Saffet Abdullah arrived in Istanbul from the Crimea after fleeing the 1876 Russian invasion, and found a job with Bekir Efendi, a güllaç maker in Şehremini, an old district of Istanbul inside the city walls. The Saffet family live and work there to this day. Saffet Abdullah proved a good apprentice, mastering the skill of making the finest pancakes. He took over the shop in 1881 and worked in it for forty years. It has passed from father to son ever since. The few staff are equally loyal – all are husbands and wives or brothers and sisters of other employees.

In the pristine ground-floor kitchen, the family still makes nothing but pancakes. With just a handful of assistants they produce no less than 100 tons of güllaç a year. The quantity is staggering if one considers how feather-light the pancakes are: each weighs 25 grams, which is why it is called a güllaç leaf. The mind boggles at the mountain of 4 million leaves, most eaten in the space of a month.

The leaves are still prepared more or less as Demschwam described. A thin batter is ladled over a hot, slightly convex pan. The batter cooks and dries instantly into a delicate, round sheet like silk organza. The sheets are deftly transferred to a tabletop, to be sorted and packed into neat white paper parcels. There could hardly be a simpler foodstuff. Even the glue for the labels is made of water and flour.

True, there have been changes: copper pans and charcoal braziers have been replaced by steel pans and gas (though the pans are still handbeaten by specialist craftsmen). Egg white is no longer used. Great-grandfather Saffet Abdullah would have ground wheat and extracted its starch. Today the Saffets use readymade cornstarch with a little wheat flour (a ratio of five to one). It tastes better and lasts longer, they say. lndeed if kept dry and airtight and out of sunlight, güllaç pancakes keep almost indefinitely.

Güllaç pudding - from güllü aş, or dish of roses – is one of the simplest, finest desserts in the world. Earlier recipes made it using a simple syrup of water and sugar. Today it is almost always prepared with a milk syrup. Fillings range from nuts (pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts or almonds) to kaymak (clotted water buffalo cream), but, as Turabi Efendi was keen to point out, güllaç takes both its name and its flavour from rosewater (gül suyu) which provides an indispensable final touch.

Using a few leaves at a time, you can experiment with different fillings. In the last issue of Cornucopia, Issue 26 we gave a recipe for güllaç with a milk-based muhallebi filling. The recipe below is another classic.

I cup almonds
4 cups milk
I cup caster sugar
6 güllaç leaves
I tablespoon rosewater
Ground pistachios to garnish

1 Blanch the almonds, boiling them briefly in water so that the skin comes off easily. Spare a couple to decorate the pudding; chop the rest on a board and reserve.

2 Prepare a milk syrup by boiling the milk with the sugar.

3 Break a güllaç leaf into pieces and arrange in the bottom of a pie dish (a glass one looks attractive). Ladle the hot milk over it generously.

4 Wait until the pancake has absorbed most of the milk, then place another layer on top and ladle over more milk. Repeat with the third leaf.

5 Spread the chopped almonds evenly over the third layer and add three more layers of güllaç and milk syrup as above. Pour on any remaining syrup, to cover. Leave to soak and cool.

6 Cover and chill until needed. If all the milk is absorbed, add a little extra cold milk to keep the pudding moist.

7 Before serving, sprinkle with rosewater and decorate with almonds and pistachios.

Saffet Güllaçcı pancakes are sold in most grocery stores in Turkey in the run-up to, and during, Ramazan. They come in 400g parcels of 14–16 leaves.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 27
  • The Platonic Bowl

    The pots of Alev Ebuzziya Siesbye have an ideal serenity and timeless beauty, as visitors to her retrospective in Istanbul have discovered. But their cool simplicity belies the passion that goes into creating them. Alistair McAlpine met the artist in Paris.

  • Drama in the Round

    Robert Ousterhout, who fell in love with the Kariye Camii, the Church of the Chora, 25 years ago. Here he makes an impassioned case for preserving this 14th-century masterpiece.

  • Travels with Turhan

    Brian Mathew pays tribute to the late Turhan Baytop, Turkey’s pre-eminent botanist

  • Parallel Lives

    Both were ambitious men with a penchant for poetry who suffered extremes of fortune. David Barchard charts the ties between two dominant figures in nineteenth-century Turkey, the British Ambassador Stratford Canning, and the Ottoman sultan Mahmut II

  • Grape Expectations

    Wine is now the most popukar alcoholic drink on the planet, says Esat Ayhan, ‘and we in Turkey are benefitting from this positive wind.’ Owner for the past twenty-two years of a fashionable Cihangir şarküteri, stocking everything from De Cecco pasta to bacon and paté, Esat Bey took the opportunity to expand its renowned La Cave wine section into an entire floor devoted to the grape.

  • Beaufort’s Hunt

    Francis Beaufort’s epic 1812 survey of Turkey’s southern coast and its classical sites sparked a European treasure hunt. It also very nearly cost him his life. By Nicholas Courtney with photgraphs by Kate Clow and James Mortimer

  • Wish you were here

    Max Fruchtermann (1852 –1918) was the publisher who took the postcard to Turkey and thereby took Turkey to the world. His cards sold by the million. Mert Sandalcı – historian, archivist and librettist – has assembled thousands of these cards into three mammoth volumes. Elizabeth Meath Baker leafs through their pages.

  • The Birth of the Big Apple

    Wild apples, with their pink or white blossom in spring, are still a common sight in Turkey. They are collected in the autumn, when they ripen, and preserved for winter.
    More cookery features

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Issue 27, 2002 Sublime Simplicity
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