When I was in Istanbul a few years ago, it was in the middle of a very hot summer, one so humid that I constantly found myself on the verge of wilting, with little pools of sweat constantly forming in the creases of both my legs and arms. To cool off in the afternoons, the Greek and I would either visit a juice shop and drink any blend that we could ever imagine or take refuge in one of the many cafes in the center that offered a variety of flaky pastries, from boreks stuffed with meat and cheese to small pieces of crispy baklava covered in chopped pistachios. Despite my personal allegiance to Greece, this type of baklava remains my favorite of them all and seems to be more prevalent in Turkey than in Greece. Of course, many kinds of baklava–which itself is believed to have come from the Mongolian word “bayla,” to tie or to pile up–exist throughout the Balkans and Middle East. In Turkey, however, baklava is viewed through a particularly narrow prism; no matter what its filling, and this can range from sour cherries (visenli baklava) to a combination of the more bitter walnut with the naturally sweeter pistachio (saray sarmasi), baklava, according to one Turkish culinary expert, “must never be made with honey” (i.e. something that you will find in Greece), “but with a simple sugar syrup” and real butter (usually clarified). In a favorite cookbook of mine, I even recently (re)discovered something called Istanbul baklava, which is layers of phyllo dough filled with a puree of oranges mixed with vanilla bean and topped with a fragrant syrup made of orange juice, sugar and orange blossom water. 

This baklava was most intriguing to me and not only as a vehicle for showcasing my favorite winter citrus. In the recipe’s headnote, Rowe calls it “the undisputed queen of baklava” and explains that, after trying it in a restaurant in Istanbul, she wanted to be able to prepare it for her loved ones. But when she asked the restaurant for the recipe, they refused to share it with her, and she was forced to come up with one on her own. She says that, despite her research, she could find no record of this dessert in any of the cookbooks she consulted, though one recipe did come “close.” Personally, I wish she had described what made this recipe a close approximation of the baklava she had tasted, as well as mentioned the place where you can enjoy orange baklava in Istanbul (research suggests that it might be Konyali Pastanesi), but I suppose it is enough that she offers a way to recreate the culinary experience for those dining thousands of miles away from Istanbul.   

The method of preparation is also rather unique, requiring that you boil two oranges for an hour before first pureeing them and then squeezing out as much of their liquid as possible. In fact, it reminded me of Claudia Roden’s famous custardy Orange and Almond Cake from The Book of Middle Eastern Food, which also includes steps for boiling whole oranges, pureeing them, mixing them with eggs, ground almonds, sugar and baking powder and then baking the mixture until it sets. The similarity between these recipes makes me wonder whether this method of preparing citrus originated in the Arab world, or if it was introduced to the region by the Ottomans. I also find myself curious to use this method to experiment with other citrus. Though not naturally as sweet as oranges, couldn’t the same results ultimately be achieved with lemons (like this tart made famous on Food52), limes and blood oranges, leading to any number of strikingly-colored baklavas with citrus as a main ingredient? 

Baklava, after all, is essentially a pie, and pie is the embodiment of versatility: sweet fruit or custard encased in a buttery shell. Whereas American pie filling is usually quite wet (think pumpkin or macerated berries), this one, even after stirring in a few tablespoons of marmalade, was thick and dry to the touch, more like a paste than anything else. And when I snuck a quick taste, I also discovered that it was, despite its bright orange appearance, incredibly, mouth-scrunchingly bitter. This alone explains why syrup has emerged as an essential ingredient in Turkish, Greek and Middle Eastern baking; it often singlehandedly provides the dessert’s sweetness. When pouring it on top, you really can’t be shy; you may be overcome by an American impulse to cut back on sugar or to save some of the syrup for other things (a cocktail or pancake syrup), but this simply won’t cut it. Without the full amount, the baklava–especially this one with its flecks of orange peel–would retain a bitter bite.
While it may be as intimidating to work with phyllo as it is to roll out a crust for an American-style pie, it ultimately is not as difficult as it may seem. I have even found that, much to my surprise, phyllo can be quite forgiving. If one of the delicate sheets develops a tear when you are working with it, it won’t affect the final product at all; just generously brush it with melted butter, using it to mend the dough, and then gently place the next sheet on top. Truly, the only thing that you absolutely cannot forget when working with phyllo is to score the top layer before the pie goes into the oven; skipping this step doesn’t quite invite disaster, but it does result in a crisp golden shell that will splinter as soon as you cut into it. And after all of your efforts, you really don’t want this to happen, although we all know that even an imperfect pie can be delectable.

 I am cutting it close, but this is still in time (just barely) to wish you all a Happy Pi(e) Day!

Orange and Vanilla Baklava with Pistachios (Istanbul Baklava)

from Silvena Rowe’s Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume
yields about 20 small servings

For the syrup: 
1 3/4 cups superfine sugar
1 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons orange or clementine juice
1 1/2 tablespoons orange blossom water

Combine the sugar, water and clementine juice in a small saucepan and bring to a soft boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the syrup for 10-15 minutes, or until it has thickened slightly. Remove from the heat and stir in the orange blossom water. Let cool completely while you assemble the pie.

For the filling: 
2 medium-sized navel oranges (500 grams/.5 kg/18 ounces)
2 tablespoons orange marmalade
seeds of one vanilla bean or 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the oranges. Simmer until the fruit has softened and the orange peel has slightly darkened and become shiny, about 50-60 minutes. Remove the oranges with a slotted spoon and place in a strainer. Once cool enough to touch, slice the oranges into several smaller pieces and place them in a food processor. Puree until smooth (some smaller bits of orange peel will be visible). Spoon the orange puree into a nut milk bag or into a few layers of cheesecloth and squeeze out as much of the liquid as possible. The orange mixture should be dry and thick, almost like a paste. Transfer this puree into a small bowl and stir in the orange marmalade and vanilla bean seeds. Set aside while you prepare the base of the pie.

For the baklava: 
16-20 sheets thawed phyllo dough
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup coarsely chopped pistachios

Preheat the oven to 350 F and brush a 9×13 cake pan with the melted butter.

Begin to loosely layer the phyllo sheets one by one, brushing each sheet with butter and making sure to cover the unused pastry with plastic wrap and a damp towel. Create a base of 8-10 sheets. Once this base has been prepared, spoon over the orange puree, gently pressing down to ensure that the filling is evenly dispersed. Then, repeat the phyllo layering process, amply brushing each sheet with butter before loosely laying the next sheet on top. The number of sheets used on the top should be the same as the number of sheets on the bottom.

 Score the uncooked baklava, cutting it into either small squares or diamonds. Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, then reduce the temperate to 300 F and bake for about 20 minutes more, or until the the dough has turned golden and puffed up.

While the baklava is still hot, slowly pour the syrup over it. Sprinkle the finely chopped pistachios over the top and let cool. When ready to serve, cut into small pieces and sprinkle with additional pistachios or top with mascarpone (Rowe’s recommendation), creme fraiche (my recommendation) or nothing at all (the Greek’s recommendation; to him, toppings border on blasphemy).

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