A Dinner at the Topkapı Serai - mid-16th Century

Dessert Course

Historical recipes translated from Eski Osmanlıca (Old Ottoman) into French and Modern Turkish, with historical information written by Stéphane/Stefanos Yerasimos 2005
Translations from French into English and modern recipes by Ellen Perlman (SCA: Urtatim, formerly known as Anahita) 2006

Şeker burek - Almond-paste topped "cookies"
Senbūse mukallele - Fried almond-filled pastries
Muhallebi - Delicate Rose-Scented Rice Flour and Milk Pudding
Zerde = "Yellow" - Rice Pudding with Saffron and Nuts
Turkish-style Coffee

Şeker burek (Sweet Börek)

Stéphane Yerasimos says:
"The Turkish term börek, which today means a stack of fine leaves of dough [phyllo] stuffed with a filling, savory (meat, cheese) or sweet (almonds, pistachios), seems to correspond in the era to a much broader definition. That is the case of sweet börek (cheker börek), which is in reality a sort of cookie. Otherwise it is the only recipe that bears the name börek added by Shirvānī, who seems unfamiliar with savory börek. Sweet börek are mentioned in the Danichmendnāme, an epic poem relating the deeds of the eleventh century. Börek are cited in the palace accounts of 1490 and they were among the pastries presented during the circumcision ceremonies of 1539. In the dictionary of Meninski (1680), it is described as a pastry made of flour, sugar, and almonds."

Original Recipe
The art of preparing it is the following. Bray almonds, pound them in a mortar, then crush them on a board with a roller. Reduce the sugar to powder, but not too much. Let the quantity of almonds equal that of the sugar, but if the quantity of sugar is greater that is even better. Next mix two parts sheep tail fat and one part good sweet butter, then mix finely ground flour with the fats, and add some water to the dough, add more or less salt, and taste it so that it is not too salty. And if a little yeast is added to the dough that is better. Mix musk with rosewater and add it to the crushed almonds. If a little saffron is added to the dough it will be "saffroned". Whether saffroned or not, elongate it, cut it in pieces, make them into disks with the roller. Next cover them all over with the sugar and almonds. Make designs on them with a pointed iron and then put the necessary quantity of butter in a frying pan and cook them in an oven. Then take them out of the oven, dust them with the powdered sugar, sprinkle them with rose water, and eat them. Use around 12 okkas of sugar [i don't think so...], one and a half okkas of almonds, and one and a half okka of butter as well. Do not cook them too long, so that they do not burn, let them cook just until the surface is golden.
--- Shirvānī, folio 108 recto-109 recto

I have since translated the recipe from Turkish and i am now convinced that the dough is rolled out into circles, the sweetened ground almonds placed on the circle, and the circle is folded OVER the almond filling, then it is cooked. I intend to revise the recipe below, but for now you can experiment with it as i have just described.

Urtatim's Recipe

2 lb. granulated Sugar
2 lb. finely ground Almonds
several Tb. Rosewater
1/4 tsp. Saffron, opt.
several Tb. warm Water
3-7/8 lb. Flour
1-1/8 lb. Salted Butter, at room temp.
Water as needed
1 packet granulated Yeast
powdered Sugar as needed
  1. Mix granulated sugar and powdered almonds and moisten with rose water. Set aside.
  2. Put 1/4 tsp saffron in a small bowl with several TB warm water. Let stand at least 15 minutes.
  3. Mix flour and butter into a dough in food processor or mixer.
  4. Then mix saffron and saffron water and powdered yeast into dough. If needed add a little more water to make a dough that is moist but not sticky. Let dough rest at least 15 minutes.
  5. Make dough into little balls, flatten slightly with a rolling pin.
  6. Cover the top of each disk with the almond paste.
  7. Place disks nut-side up on a buttered sheet pan and bake at 350° F, until golden, about 20 to 30 minutes.
  8. Dust with powdered sugar and sprinkle with rose water.
1. We also made about 1 dozen of these using ground almonds and Splenda™, rather than sugar.
2. We made these with fairly finely ground almonds for the feast. After baking them they were not sweet and almondy enough, so before serving i coated them with additional homemade almond paste. I now suspect that these were meant to be coated with almond paste.

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Senbūse Mukallele (Crowned Triangles)

Stéphane Yerasimos says:
"[Senbūse are]...triangular fritters of pâte feuilletée filled with pounded almonds and sugar that Shirvānī calls mukallele, an Arabic term which can be translated as “crowned.” Senbūse (a Persian term which means “triangle” and which is the source of the word "samosa") are mentioned on several occasions, but the fact that they are seasoned with cinnamon in the Nazmü’t-tebayi’, a medicinal work from the beginning of the 15th century, that the 1,500 pieces fabricated at the palace in 1556 were destined for two religious ceremonies, and that they were again mentioned on the occasion of the circumcision ceremonies of 1582, indicates that they were rather of their sweet version.

Original Recipe
The art of preparing them is the same as that of the senbūse, with the difference that for the mukallele bray sugar and almonds, knead it all with musk and rose water, and fill the dough in place of meat (take the dough, work it into fine leaves, cut it in strips, place the filling, and fashion them into the form of a triangle). Next fry them in the frying pan in sesame oil, and certain people, after taking them out of the sesame oil, plunge them in sugar syrup, then take them out of the syrup, and eat them. They plunge them in powdered sugar mixed with musk or camphor.
--- Shirvānī's translation of al-Baghdādī, folio 69
Urtatim's Recipe
3 lb. ground almonds
2 lb. granulated sugar
1/2 cup rose water
1 package phyllo (about 8 oz.)
1 lb. butter for frying
2 lb. granulated sugar for syrup
3 cups water for syrup
powdered sugar for garnish
1/4 c. ground cinnamon
1 capful small bottle mint extract
  1. Mix almonds, 2 lb. sugar, and rose water to make a paste.
  2. Cover several sheet pans with baking parchment paper.
  3. Fold each sheet of phyllo in half, then fold it in thirds, and cut along folds to make 6 strips.
  4. Place a little of the paste at the end of a strip and fold diagonally into a triangle, then continue folding like folding the American flag before putting it away. [make graphic]
  5. Place each pastry triangle on the parchment on the baking sheet. When a sheet is full, put it in the freezer.
  6. Continue to make and fold Senbuse and put in freezer.
  7. After about 1/2 hour a sheet's worth will be frozen enough to put in a double-zip freezer bag. Keep frozen until needed.
At feast site:
1. Keep pastries frozen.
2. Put one stick of butter into a large wok or other wide pan and heat until it just foams.
3. Fry frozen pastries until golden brown. Regulate heat - butter should not burn, but pastries should brown.
4. As they fry, put them on a plate covered with paper towel
5. As butter is used up add another 1/2 stick.

NOTE: We also made about 1 dozen of these using ground almonds and Splenda™.

1. If desired, simmer 2 lb. sugar and 3 cups water to make a light syrup.
2. Then dip the fried triangles in the sugar syrup.
We skipped this step.
1. Put about 1 cup powdered sugar in a bowl, add ground cinnamon and mix until well-blended.
2. Sprinkle mint extract evenly over sugar, then mix well to distribute evenly throughout.
3. Dust pastries with flavored sugar.
* I used this blend of cinnamon and mint to simulate camphor, which is not really safe for consumption. Camphor has a menthol-like coolness, hence the mint, and is in the same family of trees as cinnamon, hence the cinnamon.

CONCLUSION: People kept wanting more of these - they were a great success.

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Stéphane Yerasimos says:
"It is the only preparation based on milk cited in the era. Moreover it appears in the feasts of the circumcision ceremonies, in the menus of the palace, and in those of Mehmed II. The difficulty of procuring fresh milk in large quantities seems to have made [this] a rare dish. It was added by Shirvānī."

Original Recipe
The art of muhallebi. A quantity of rice flour equal to a quantity of sugar. Let them make first to boil raw milk, let them withdraw it from the fire. When it is cold, let them add rice flour, let it be not too thick or too light. Let them put it on the fire and let them cook it. If it becomes too thick, let them add milk, if it becomes too thin/light let them add rice flour, let them cook it as is appropriate. Let them mix without stopping until it is cooked, on a gentle fire, without letting the bottom stick [scorch]. When the cooking is achieved, let them add salt, neither too much nor too little. Let them add a little sweet butter, and let them leave it to boil. Just before withdrawing it from the fire, let them add sugar, let them adjust its taste, and let them pour in a little sugar in powder. Let them withdraw it from the fire. After having withdrawn it, let them add a little sweet butter and let them next dispose it in bowls, let them asperse it with rose water, let them season it with sugar in powder above mentioned, and let them eat.
--- Shirvānī, folio 110 recto-verso
Urtatim's Recipe
2 gallons milk
3 cups rice flour
1 tsp salt
3 cups sugar
2 to 3 Tb rosewater
  1. Warm the milk slightly
  2. Put the rice flour into another pot (better if wide, not narrow) and pour the warm milk into it, stirring continuously.
  3. Put the pot on the fire and stir continuously while cooking - this may take 45 minutes, so have cooks trade off so no one gets too tired. Someone MUST be stirring constantly or the bottom will scorch and the dish will be ruined.
  4. After a while stir in the salt.
  5. When the mixture begins to thicken stir in the sugar and keep cooking until it is thick.
  6. When thick, remove from fire, and add in rose water, stirring well to distribute evenly.
  7. Pour into serving bowls and chill. The idea is not that the dish should be cold, but that as it cools it will thicken more. I prefer the dish at room temperature, but if it's cold it's ok.

NOTE: We hadn't put quite enough rose water into it, so some diners stirred rose petal jam into their muhallebi.

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Stéphane Yerasimos says:
"Literally "yellow dish", from the Persian "zerd". It is the most popular sweet dish and the indispensable accompaniment to pilaf in all the public soup kitchens/alms houses, where it was served on particular occasions. It is sometimes qualified as a dish of the poor by the account of the celebrations of 1539 and appears only in the common/public feasts. It is replaced in the feast for dignitaries by zerde with milk, where the milk appears with an equal quantity of sugar. The plain zerde appears in the menu of Topkapı in winter."

Urtatim says:
There is no recipe for Zerde in Shirvānī's text. Yerasimos included a modern recipe in his book. The recipe below is reconstructed using a recipe purporting to be from the court of the 17th century Mughal ruler, Shahjahan (see below). In modern Turkish zerde, the rice is cooked with water and sugar, then cornstarch is added to thicken it. Older recipes make a separate syrup which is added to partially cooked rice, then the cooking is completed. This is what i have done.

Original Recipe
Nuskha-e Shahjahani: Pulaos from the Royal Kitchen of Shah Jahan
translated by Salma Husain
Rupa & Co.: New Delhi, 2004
ISBN 81-7167-989-7

Urtatim says:
This recipe supposedly comes from a cookbook from the 2nd quarter of the 17th century. Unfortunately, Salma Husain gives no information about the provenance of the manuscript, other than to say it is written in Persian and that it is "a book on cookery tracing its roots to the reign of the Emperor Shahjahan" (p. 6). These sound to me like "weasel words" to cover up the possibility that the manuscript is from much later, but claims to be from the time of Shahjahan. However, it is a real recipe for Zerde and differs from modern versions, so i suspect it is older, if only 19th C. and not 17th.

p. 23
Zard Pulao
1/2 seer Sugar
Water as needed
5 masha Saffron
1/4 pao Desi ghee
1 seer Rice
1/2 pao Almonds
1/2 pao Raisins
1/2 pao Pistachios
Make syrup with sugar. Add dissolved saffron and desi ghee and set aside.
Parboil rice.
Color it with saffron flavored syrup.
Before putting on dum, pour ghee on top of the rice.
Put on dum.
Garnish pulao with fried raisins, almonds, and pistachios.

p. 10, "Dum literally means "breath". This process involves maturing of prepared dish after the completion of the cooking process. The pot is sealed as tightly as possible either with dough or with a weighted lid. This pot is then placed on hot ashes or a very slow fire. From below, a few coals are also placed on the lid. This process allows the individual flavours of the dish to blend into their own unique flavour. The pot should be opened only before serving."

1 seer = 932 grams
1 masha = 1.5 gm
1 pao = no definition, maybe 1/2 lb.

Urtatim's Recipe
64 quarter-cup servings

1/4 oz saffron
2 cups water
1 lb sugar
2 lb rice
8 cups water
4 oz (1/2 stick) butter
4 oz raisins
4 oz almonds
2 cups water
4 oz pistachios
  1. Heat 2 cups water.
  2. Crumble saffron into warm water, stir in sugar and simmer to make syrup. Set aside.
  3. Cook rice in 8 cups water until tender.
  4. While rice is cooking
    Melt butter in a frying pan on medium heat, and saute almonds until golden, then remove almonds with a slotted spoon, and set aside
  5. Next add raisins to butter and saute until soft and puffy, then remove and set aside.
  6. Remove butter from pan and save.
  7. When rice is done, add the additional 2 cups water and the syrup, stir well, and cook on a low fire, stirring frequently, until somewhat mushy.
  8. When rice is down put into serving dishes and top each dish with an equal amount of almonds, raisins, and pistachios.

NOTE: We were running short of time during the feast, so we cooked the rice, then stirred in the syrup and tossed in the nuts. The rice was not as soft as it should have been... but it tasted good, anyway.

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Turkish-style Coffee

By the mid-16th Century, coffee had made its way to Constantinople/Istanbul. Written evidence indicates that it was being drunk in the Palace, although it does not appear in any surviving purchase records. I decided to serve some at this feast.

I purchased very finely ground Italian Roast coffee from Peet's Coffees & Teas, my favorite coffee source. I know that traditionally coffee is made for only one to four servings at a time, however at a feast the food has to come out at once. So we stirred the coffee into the requisite amount of water and brought it to a boil three times, then stirred it well and poured it into four serving 1-qt. pitchers. Note that this is "sludgy" coffee, as it is meant to be.

Four designated servers each took out a tray with a pitcher of coffee, small cups, along with small bowls of rough cubes of demerra sugar and Splenda. I had hoped to find inexpensive cups -- a friend with a Lebanese family had said she'd seen them at something like $5/dozen. This didn't pan out, so then i scoured Oakland's Chinatown looking for inexpensive tea cups -- i was willing to settle for plastic if need be, but cups had to have a simple blue-and-white design -- no pink roses. This, too, failed. Then i looked for paper espresso cups, which i'd seen at coffee stands. No dice. In the end i settled for a modern horror, styrofoam 6-oz. cups.

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First Course
Choice of two soups:
Buyresiyye (kadin tuzlugu shorbasi) - Sweet-&-Sour Meatball Soup
Terbiyeli Tavuk Chorbasi - Chicken Broth Seasoned with Egg-Lemon Mixture)
Mantı - Seasoned ground lamb enrobed in dough wrapper and boiled, and served with garlic yogurt sauce

Second Course
Flat Bread (purchased)
Fresh Pickled Cucumbers
Rose Petal Jam (purchased)
Merserem - Lamb and Chard in herbed yogurt
Mâhmûdiyye - Chicken and Apricots with noodles and almonds
Kâchkül-i kabak - Spiced Stewed Gourds
Four Colors of Rice
Bulghur with Chestnuts
Beverage Syrups - Morello Cherry and Mulberry

Dessert Course (you are here)
Sheker Burek - Almond-paste topped yeasted "cookies"
Senbūse Mukallele - Fried almond-filled pastries
Muhallebi - Delicate Rose-Scented Rice Flour and Milk Pudding
Zerde = "Yellow" - Rice Pudding with Saffron and Nuts
Turkish Coffee (Peet's, of course)

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