Pillows of comfort
If there is one single food that signifies Ramadan in Turkey, it must be the pide, the puffy soft flatbread that comes hot out of the oven just before the break of the fast. As I have previously written, much debate goes on whether the first to taste should be a sip of water, or a pinch of salt, or whether the first bite should be the olive or the date, in reality, it is the first morsel of pide that everyone’s eyes are on. Soft and slightly bouncy, pulled with an almost unnoticeable resistance, pide is the ultimate bread of Ramadan.
For foreigners, the term pide (pronounced pee-deh) is often a bit confusing. Sometimes explained in guides as the Turkish term for pita, which is not exactly the same, it is much more diversified depending on the region, even depending on the baker master, and in the way it is to be consumed. When pide bread is to be consumed as a bedding for kebabs, it is punched down flat with fingertips, the fingertips creating an embossed closely knitted pattern. The result is not as puffy, but soft and spongy enough to soak up the dripping of grilled meat pieces. The pattern created by the finger tips gives the name to such pide varieties, they are called “tırnaklı pide,” the direct translation would be “pide with nails” or “nailed pide.” The word “tırnak” is the word for nail in Turkish, implying that the patterns are actually created by the nails of the baker. Then there is pide with toppings, this one often described wrongly as Turkish pizza, but again of course it is much more, with various shapes and an amazing array of toppings which can be anything from meat to vegetables, cheese to eggs and a combination of many. But these pide types are not about the Ramadan pide, which is uniquely made for the month of fasting.
Ramadan pide can be the humblest yet most satisfying version of all pide variations, may be due to the long fasting hours, the first bite of a still warm pide is unmatched. In order to achieve its pillow-like softness, my baker friend Hakan Doğan, who might be the most knowledgeable person I know in bread culture in Turkey, says when he was apprenticing as a small kid in their family-owned baker, he was not allowed to participate in making the Ramadan pide. His father would not let him interfere with making the dough, saying that it was not the kid’s stuff. He was only allowed to sprinkle the sesame and nigella seeds as the last touch, funnily from a tea can, pierced with a nail at the bottom, a sort of a makeshift seed sprinkler. He says the attention to making the dough is the whole point, the dough needs to be quite sticky, with almost equal amounts of flour and water, and of course the quality of both makes a difference too. The dough must be kneaded long enough to be shiny but not to be pruned for long, the most of the leavening takes place during the kneading process. He starts with making a rather stiff dough using all of the flour but only two thirds of the water, when the dough starts to shine during the constant kneading, he adds the wet yeast, and adds more water, when all is well incorporated goes in the salt and more water. Interestingly the baker jargon for this gradual water adding process is called “şerbet vermek,” meaning the giving of the syrup, a term used by baklava masters and even in households when the syrup is poured over a dessert that comes out of the oven. During this constant kneading, the dough becomes pliable and the gluten is revealed, giving this irresistible slightly stretchy quality of the Ramadan pide.
Another trick I have seen was filmed in a documentary years ago filmed by Rob Tate and his team, led and guided by the leading food writer Hülya Ekşigil. The theme was Ramadan in Istanbul, and I was to take part in the güllaç section, but this is another story. Covering all the essential tastes of Ramadan, they filmed a bakery in Çengelköy, a district on the shores of Bosphorus on the Anatolian side. The old baker used to add loads of ice cubes to the dough to prevent its rising during the kneading process in the machine, fearing that it would overheat and cause the dough to lose its stretchy elasticity. The month was late July, so it could well be a seasonal trick, but it deserves a mention in the world of bakers’ tricks. Last but not least is the egg-wash or glazing on top. Again, as mentioned, there are versions omitting the egg glaze, or adding water, milk, yogurt whey to the egg-wash, but by description Ramadan pide is usually with a brushing of shiny egg finishing. This finish also holds the sprinkling of sesame and nigella seeds in place, the tasty touch to the pide.
Pide is the ultimate accompaniment to “iftariyelik,” the little titbits of small bites tasted to break the fast, then it is the must-have accompaniment to the soup course, an essential course not to omit at an iftar feast. In the old times there was also an egg course, usually served fried, and of course it would be pretty meaningless to enjoy that one without dipping a morsel of pide to the runny egg, and mopping the pan with its spongy texture. The list goes on endlessly on how to enjoy pide most. My top choice would be to split open and tuck in little cubes of cold butter and while it is being melted in the still warm pide, enjoy its cold to warm melting goodness. Tucking in a few slices of razor-thin sliced pastırma will add to the pleasure. But there is one downside to pide, it goes stale very quickly. In reality, it does not really go stale, but loses its freshly baked appeal, but then the tradition of using stale bread in recipes comes to the rescue. Here is one that is super-easy and tasty that makes pide another indulgence item.
The name may not seem politically correct, but it is not used in a pejorative manner here, rather it implies to a make-shift dish made quickly in a pan, as gypsies are on a constant move. I discovered this recipe in Gaziantep, the capital of baklava, when I was compiling the book “A Taste of Sun & Fire. Gaziantep Cookery”. It was so tasty that it quickly made its way into the book. Break morsels of a pide from the embossment lines or cut into lozenge shapes in the size of baklava pieces. Melt down three-four big tablespoons or serving spoons of Antep molasses and about two-three serving tablespoons of clarified butter or butter in a pan large enough to hold all the pide pieces. A wok could be handy. Add the pide pieces, slightly toasted if you like, and toss until they all soak up the buttery syrup and are coated by the glistening glaze of the molasses. Note that Antep molasses is thick like a breakfast spread, you may use ordinary molasses or just honey instead. Feel free to adjust the amounts as pide sizes do vary according to region and bakery. Serve warm and dig in.