Holy sweet trio
This year is the time when three sacred holidays of monotheistic religions coincide. When Ramadan falls in April, the Ramadan holiday follows Passover and Easter, and in Istanbul, this means a procession of special tastes, and of course, especially sweets. Now it is time to highlight commonalities. It should be emphasized that before these holidays, for the practicing faithful, there is an abstaining or fasting period which requires serious devotion to worship requiring both spiritual and physical rituals. Even if they are applied differently, after the restrictions of the fasting period, feasting is a well-deserved and long-awaited moment where the pinnacle of celebration treats are sweets.
The succession of the Jewish Passover, the Christian Easter and the upcoming Ramadan Bayram has this sweet connection where every community has its own particular sweets connected to each holiday. The good thing is those special sweets are not usually confined to a single community but are enjoyed by the others as well, especially the Istanbul style Easter bread is magnetic to all with its intoxicating aroma of mastic and mahlab, the divine duo of spices.
Fear of crumbs
The Jewish Passover started on April 15. During the week, no leavened food will be eaten, and the Seder table that brings the whole family together will be set on April 23. During the Passover period, leavened food made from not only wheat flour but also all kinds of grains, such as barley, millet, rye and oats, should be avoided. Grain-based products such as pasta or biscuits and cookies are eaten even if they do not contain any yeast or are leavened, and grain-based drinks such as beer, vodka and whisky are also avoided. All these products are emptied from the kitchen, even the whole house, office and car are cleaned of crumbs, every corner is swept and wiped, and pockets are checked in case there is a single crumb remaining. Normally, other religions also include that thorough cleaning of the house process, but it does not have that religious aspect, it is more like a usual full spring cleaning, after all, the house should be clean and be ready for the holiday. Coming back to the flourless diet, of course, no leavened bread is eaten either, only matzah is allowed, a flat cracker made of flour and water, pretty much like a diet cracker. Though some like to call it a bland cardboard-like thing, actually very tasty sweet and savory dishes are made from matzah during the Passover or as it is called in Turkey Pesah period. For a savory Pesah treat is soaked in water and squeezed, turns to a sort of pulp like a dough, and mixed with chopped spinach, egg, oil, white cheese and kaşar cheese, spread on a tray like a börek or pie, baked golden, the bland cracker becomes the most delicious dish. For a sweet treat after the soaking and squeezing process it can be passed from a grinder or finely crumbled to achieve a doughy consistency, mixed with eggs and a pinch of salt, formed into balls and fried in oil and then either dusted with powdered sugar or drenched in syrup or honey. These small sweet bites called bimuelos resemble Turkish lokma and are much loved as a substitute.
There are other sweets special for Passover, one favorite must be the nutty “Gato de Pesah,” or Passover cake, which is made with finely ground walnuts instead of flour. Sometimes matzah flour, which is simply powdered matzah cracker, is used in addition to the walnuts, but walnuts are essential, better if it is all nuts. The key is whipping the eggs really stiff. When there were no household appliances such as electric beaters that made life easier at home, during the Pesah time, the streets of Balat would echo with the sound of wire whisks, with women whisking eggs all day long in cortigo’s and gossiping at the same time.
Magnetic ‘Paskalya Çöreği’
On Sunday, April 17 was Easter for many of the Christians, but the Orthodox Christian world will celebrate Easter on Sunday, April 24. Catholics use the Gregorian calendar for calculating religious days, while Orthodox use the Julian calendar, and that is why western and eastern churches celebrate Easter on different days. Even if the dates are different one taste is common in Turkey, which I like to call the magnetic Easter bread, aka Paskalya Çöreği, Paskalya being the word for Easter in Turkish, and çörek is a generic name that can be given to cakes, cookies, rolls, sweet buns or breads. It is simply a braided yeasty slightly sweet Easter bread, but the appeal comes from two flavorings, mastic and mahlab. Mastic is the resin, or the gum droplets that are obtained from the wild pistachio tree, and mahlab (mahlep in Turkish) comes from the tree Prunus mahalab, which is the wild cherry. Mahlep is the powdered form of the tiny minuscule bitter almonds or kernels inside the wild cherry pit. These two spices, or more correctly flavorings, obtained from the wild pistachio and wild cherry work wildly together creating a magical blend of flavors. Very fragrant, almost intoxicating, definitely alluring. Because of this attractive smell, Paskalya Çöreği has gained an almost trans-religious stand, is enjoyed by all and has become a popular Istanbul flavor throughout the year.
Ramadan is not without baklava!
Fasting during the month of Ramadan does not restrict food types, unlike fasting in other religions. On the contrary, efforts are made to have plenty of all kinds at the iftar tables. Desserts such as güllaç are special for Ramadan tables. Desserts such as the southeastern specialty kerebiç and the pistachio-filled semolina cookies, which used to be made only during Ramadan, are so popular that it is now possible to find them all year round, just like Easter bread. But if there is one Ramadan holiday dessert, it must be baklava. Even in small remote villages, trays of homemade baklava are prepared for the Ramadan holiday. This is also the case in all countries that were once Ottoman lands. Whenever there is a feast, beyond the religious differences, a tray of baklava always appears for every celebration. After all, there is an intention mirroring the Ottoman court, as it is known, there used to be a baklava procession held in Topkapı Palace on the 15th day of Ramadan that attracted great attention, people would flock to the streets to have a glimpse of the show. That’s why baklava would be the first choice during the Ramadan feast where the best of sweets is eaten, and that is the reason once Ramadan holiday was called the Candy Feast.