I have had a long standing and complicated relationship with the Middle East and its cuisine. It all started with my step-father taking my family to Turkey when I was seven. It was my first food exploration and something that has left an impression on me ever since. Whether it was sampling my Babane’s lovingly made Turkish home cooking, eating tiny fried fish from a stand on the bosphorus or biting into a simit roll fresh out of the oven, Turkey started it all.
It wasn’t until last year when I realized how powerful my connection with the Middle East was. Maybe it was my new connection with Israel, maybe it was my Turkish background but whatever it was, working at Anatolia Mediterranean Cafe as a server really solidified my passion for the region and its food. The job was average to say the least, with decently long hours and little pay. I was never in it for the money originally but just I figured this would be the last opportunity I would have to work in the service industry as a college student.
Surprisingly, what really inspired me was not the delicious kebabs, eggplant tava, or falafel, but the incredibly crafted filo sweets that each patron got at the end of their meal. Anatolia hands down has the best baklava in town, a far cry away from that awful, dry baklava you get in the store. Before Anatolia opens its door to start the day, Umut, one of the owners, bakes up a delightfully light filo-creation stuffed with nuts and decadently submerged in a honey simple syrup. The Baklava itself is a perfect vessel for that sweet syrup, soaking up every last drop of it. The end result is a bite of perfection, hitting all the tastebuds at the same time. Sweet, rich, nutty and umami; the best combination of less than five ingredients you are going to find.
The baklava enamored me but it was simply a starting point. Middle Eastern desserts became a passion, and I had to learn how to recreate them. They were everything that western desserts weren’t. It is a different breed of sweetness, of decadence. No chocolate, stuffy french techniques or whipped cream topping to be found.
My first experience cooking a middle eastern dessert came when my grandmother gave me a recipe from her Arabic cooking instructor from the 80’s. The recipe was something called Basboosa, a staple in the Arabic and middle Eastern food. Basboosa was a cake but embodied all the techniques and thought behind baklava. I had to try and make it, and make it I did.The cake itself is dense, consisting of a base of dried coconut and semolina flour. Once the cake is baked it is soaked in a lemon simple syrup, creating a sticky baked exterior with a moist supple center.
Up to this point, I have made Basboosah, or as the Turkish call it, Ravani, a full two times with each coming out a bit differently but equally as delicious. Basboosah is a great intro, but I had just unlocked the mysteries of the Levant with my eyes set creating Kanafe (Arabic cheese cake), Turkish Delights, Baklava and Kadayif. The dream hasn’t ended yet, and I will be unveiling further culinary exploits in my coming blogs
- 1 Cup Semolina Flour
- 1/2 Cup Dried Coconut
- 1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
- 1/2 Cup Sugar
- 1 Cup Buttermilk
- 1 Tablespoon Melted Butter
Mix all ingredients except butter then spread in an 8″ x 8″ greased baking pan. Bake at 350 for about 1/2 hour or until golden brown. Spread Butter on top while hot and immediately power 1 and 1/2 cup of hot syrup over. Let sit for at least one hour
- 2 Cups Water
- 3 Cups Sugar
- 1 Teaspoon Lemon Juice or Rose Water
Boil 3 cups sugar in 2 cups of water for about half an hour. Add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice, or for a Saudi Arabian twist, add 1 Teaspoon rose water.