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Simple, smooth and soothing, they satisfy the child in everyone. But milk puddings can also be gorgeously sophisticated.
Twenty years ago in Istanbul they were everywhere, and there are still a few around – special little shops with a couple of marble-topped tables and Thonet chairs, not there in the name of fashion, but simply because that was when the place was last refurbished. A white-aproned waiter hastily wipes a table to make room for another customer. In a way these shops are as much a part of Istanbul life as cafés are in Vienna, though the food and the concept are entirely different, and there is not the same panache, of course. These simple shops offer only one speciality: milk puddings. Called muhallebici, they are pudding shops – milk parlours, if you like – and they operate quite separately from restaurants and patisseries.
Muhallebi is a sweet, milk-based cream, thickened only with starch (unlike custards and crème pâtissière, it contains no eggs), and it is a familiar dish from Crimea to North Africa, from the Balkans to India. Even the name varies little from place to place. Only in Europe is it unknown, or perhaps forgotten. In Turkey muhallebi forms part of everyone’s diet, from babies to grandmothers, for it is wonderfully nourishing. It has two essential ingredients: pure starch – whether from the flour of rice, wheat, corn or potatoes – which is entirely digestible; and milk, which is rich in protein, calcium and vitamins…
In the distant past, before ready-made rice flour existed, and corn and potatoes were waiting to be discovered in America, rice flour was made at home. Whitened, short-grain rice grains, which contain more starch than long-grain rice, were ground or pounded and sifted to the desired fineness. To obtain the pure starch – nişasta in Turkish – the powdered rice was washed in hot water and filtered through layers of muslin.
The consistency of the muhallebi varies according to taste. Personally, I prefer a fairly creamy, rather than a dense, texture. You can obtain a thicker cream by increasing the ratio of rice or other flour to liquid. One kind of muhallebi, known as taş (or stone) muhallebisi, not surprisingly, is pretty solid.
Inexpensive, healthy, delectable, muhallebi itself is the cream, as it were, of a whole variety of milk puddings, all of which share much the same method of preparation. Because they all take their flavour from the milk, which is the main ingredient, a creamy full-fat cow’s milk is preferable. Modern dieticians may frown at this, and at the addition of sugar and starch. Yet not one of the puddings featured here has anything like as much in the way of calories or fat as, say, a crème brûlée. An entire food culture grew up around muhallebi. The special heart-shaped silver spoons with the maker’s stamp that you find in antique shops are just one reminder. When the puddings had cooled, it used to be the custom to cover them with a paper stencil and shake powdered cinnamon over them. When the stencil was removed, the puddings might bear – in stylised calligraphy – the words Afiyet olsun (Bon appétit) or “Long live the Sultan” or some such greeting. Later, under the Republic, they were replaced by a cinnamon crescent and star. Today, only the sprinkling of cinnamon remains.
I vaguely remember in my childhood seeing these stencilled crescent and stars in muhallebi shop windows. Less blurred is my memory of dozens of china dessert bowls, some delicate, others plain, all filled with muhallebi left to cool on the table in my grandmother’s kitchen. Later I would be served with my own bowl with my initial, B, in cinnamon. My grandmother had cut a stencil for every one of my cousins, too…
Muhallebi (Milk Pudding)
3 cups milk
4 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons rice flour
Much easier to make than any custard or mousse, muhallebi can be made with any starch available if rice flour is not to hand. Vanilla, mastic, lemon rind, cocoa powder or ginger can be added to flavour the muhallebi, which also makes a practical cream for filling cakes and lining tarts.
1 Combine the milk and sugar in a heavy saucepan, and heat over a medium-high heat, stirring a little to dissolve the sugar.
2 Meanwhile, mix the rice flour in a small bowl with a little cold water, using a teaspoon, until it is well blended and forms a thin batter the consistency of single cream.
3 When the milk is hot and steaming, add the cornflour mixture to the pan, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent lumps from forming. Continue stirring until the mixture comes to a boil and is the consistency of a thick sauce. Cook for a further 3–4 minutes until it no longer smells of raw flour, continuing to stir so as to prevent it sticking to the pan.
4 Remove from the heat and ladle the muhallebi while still hot into individual bowls. Hold the ladle high while pouring to create the desired bubbles on the surface of the muhallebi.
5 Serve cold, sprinkled with powdered cinnamon. Muhallebi tastes best the day it is made, but can be stored for up to three days in the fridge.
6 If you wish to stencil the muhallebi, cut the desired motif out of wax paper, place it on the surface of the muhallebi after it has cooled and set, and lightly sift powdered cinnamon over it. Remove and repeat with the remaining bowls. Alternatively, you can lightly stamp the tops with a biscuit cutter dipped in powdered cinnamon.
Su Muhallebisi (1) Water Muhallebi
1 tablespoon rice flour
3 tablespoons cornflour
4 cups water
4 cups milk
1 cup sugar
In the Anatolian countryside this pudding is sometimes eaten with pekmez (fruit molasses) rather than syrup. It is an oddly understated juxtaposition of unsweetened jelly and sweet, milky syrup – an acquired taste but curiously addictive – and combines extreme simplicity with extreme sophistication.
1 Prepare a batter by mixing the rice flour and cornflour in a pan with one cup of cold water. Add the remaining 3 cups of water, and cook, stirring, over a moderate heat. When the mixture has thickened to an opaque jelly (called pelte in Turkish), rinse out a shallow dish and, without drying it, pour in the mixture to a depth of less than an inch (1.5cm) and set aside to cool. Then chill in the fridge.
2 Prepare the syrup by boiling the milk with the sugar and chill.
3 When serving, cut the set pelte into squares or lozenges. Put one piece in each bowl and ladle the syrup over. The pelte should float like an island in the middle of the syrup. Both the components should be very cold.
Su Muhallebisi (2) (Water Muhallebi)
3 tablespoons cornflour
3 cups milk
2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons rosewater
5 tablespoons icing sugar
This variation of su muhallebisi is easier to like at first taste than the previous one and is popular pudding-shop fare in Istanbul.
1 Mix the cornflour and sugar into the cold milk and cook, stirring, over a moderate heat until it thickens. Cook for a further 4–5 minutes. Rinse out a shallow dish or individual bowls and, while they are still wet, pour the mixture in to a depth of less than an inch (1.5cm).
2 Leave to cool, then chill.
3 Serve cut into squares or turn the bowls out onto individual dessert plates. Sprinkle each serving generously with rosewater and spoon on the icing sugar.
Also in this article are easy recipes for Kuymak (Wheatflour Milk Pudding); Keşkül (Cream of Almond Pudding); Tavuk Göğsü Kazandibi (Caramelised Cream of Chicken Breast); Sütlaç (Rice Pudding);Kaymakli Dondurma (Salep Ice Cream); Muhallebili Güllaç (Rose-scented Pudding)
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