Glow of moonlight
It was almost nonexistent and having a feather-light touch as if it would fly off my hands. I had a freshly made güllaç sheet in my hands, holding it in front of a camera to show how thin it was. When I raised it above to the sky to show the almost see-through translucent thinness, I uttered the words “like the wings of a fairy,” likening the fragile starch wafers to a magical creature. It was also almost luminescent, reflecting the light like the moon. To describe best, it felt as if I had captured the glowing moon in my hands.
This was several years ago when I took part in a food documentary featuring Ramadan in Istanbul in which I was asked to talk about the iconic Ramadan dessert güllaç. We were at the workshop of Saffet Abdullah, the foremost güllaç maker of the country. I was not trying to be poetic in particular, but there is something about güllaç that makes one feel like a poet. My description of this iconic dessert was not the first of its kind. Almost a millennia back, ninth-century poet Ibn al-Rûmî described the thin wafers as wings of a grasshopper. I find my version a bit more romantic and definitely more appropriate for such a fine ingredient that creates the most delicate dessert of Ottoman cuisine. However, I have rivals. Early sixteenth-century Ottoman poet Lâmi’î Çelebi likened them to jasmine petals, which I admit to finding it creative, especially remembering the flowery quality of the final dessert, perfumed with a generous dousing of rose water.
Güllaç is one of the indispensable foods of Ramadan in Turkey. The thin starch wafers are specially made for a milky sweet named güllaç, which can be translated as a rose-dish. “Gül,” which is the name for rose in Turkish, once referred to all kinds of flowers, so güllaç can also be translated as flower food. Güllaç is considered to be the sultan of desserts in Ramadan, and though we can now find it all year round, once it was only confined to Ramadan -- these ready-made paper-thin güllaç leaves could never be made at home and were only available in the market during the month of Ramadan. The technique to make güllaç differs a little from other milky puddings; the milk is not thickened with starch or ground rice but simply sweetened, flavored with rose water and soaked up by layers of papery starch wafers, which swell to form a layered pudding with a nutty layer, usually of ground walnuts. Imagine a superthin spring roll skin of Asian cuisines but used in a totally different manner to result in a silky, rosy and milky pudding. There are also rolled and fried versions of güllaç desserts, pretty much like the sweet version of spring rolls, but that is a more Arabic version of its use. This time, it is out of our scope.
Today ready-made güllaç desserts in the market almost always appear in their simplest form, that is layered. Güllaç leaves are wetted with some lukewarm sugared milk to soften and then are layered on a tray with more milk poured over with a single layer of nuts in between the layers. When the layering is finished, it’s cut into portion-sized squares so that the last showering of milk penetrates the whole dish evenly. The tray is kept refrigerated for a few hours to let the güllaç leaves absorb the milk. The trend which became almost essential is to decorate the otherwise pale white dish with vibrant ruby red pomegranates and the greenest pistachios. In the past, the decoration was not as colorful, at least in our house -- a sprinkling of a few pomegranate seeds, only when in season, or some walnuts, which did not add much to the color scene.
Speaking of taste, the filling traditionally consists of walnuts, as it used to be the case with homemade baklava, but then there is a critical tip to follow. My paternal grandmother always reminded me that care should be taken when using walnuts so that the filling would not change the color of milk syrup. Walnuts would give a grayish brownish hue to the milk, which is the most unwanted thing, as known walnut skin is a good source of black coloring. She insisted that the güllaç leaves should not be layered but bundled or molded in a small cup so that the walnut filling will not stain the pure whiteness of the dish. I remember my two aunts, painstakingly, used to dip each güllaç leaf in milk syrup in a huge tray, cutting the outer rougher edges of the leaves with scissors and then cutting each into quarters. Later, with each quartered sheet of güllaç leaf, they would wrap individual parcels with the walnut filling as if making a rolled börek, and then shape each parcel into a domed form using a cup or a small serving bowl as a mold. Each molded one was then placed onto a tray, packed neatly in rows, as if the domes of the covered bazaar, and then the last showering of milk syrup was given onto these domes. The tray was kept in a cool corner to soak up the milky goodness. Just before serving, additional ground walnuts would be placed carefully on the tip of each little cup-sized dome, or sometimes with one to three seeds of pomegranates.
Of course, the filling can vary; the best traditional choice is almonds, with its amazing compatibility with milk both in taste and in color. I do not recall any pistachios used with güllaç; this seems to be added nowadays more as a decoration. Seldom, but at least once a year, a more elaborate version was made by using “kaymak” as a filling, but that depended on the season. “Kaymak” is a thick layer of clotted cream, best made with buffalo milk. Along with “kaymak,” walnuts could be used or could be totally omitted, leaving the stage solely to the milky goodness of the cream. This version can best be described as a culinary ton-sur-ton effect, intensifying the milky taste.
Sometimes güllaç takes on a very humble form. Forget about all the layering, folding, or wrapping, or thinking about which filling to choose. In the old times throwing away food, even the crumbs were considered to be sinful, so the leftover bits, crumbs and cut-off rougher parts of güllaç leaves from a former pudding would be saved aside and then turned into a simpler version of the dessert. The brittle torn pieces or crumbs were used to make a palude or paluze, sort of jelly; a delicate taste long vanished from Turkish cuisine. When the gathered crumbs make up to a sufficient amount, they are simply cooked with milk and sugar to the consistency of a pudding, flavored with rose or orange flower water traditionally, of course, modern versions can include vanilla, bitter almond essence or cardamoms, and then are portioned into individual cups to be turned over like jelly before serving. It is as light as a feather and shines like moonlight!