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Hush: The Sound of Perfect Pastry


In the '60s, foodies discovered filo. In the '70s, they started to get a little tired of it.

Understandably. They'd made pan after pan of baklava and spanakopita. They'd rolled up cigar pastries by the bushel. They'd folded boreks without end. They'd erected Moroccan bestila pies and invented all sorts of flaky Brie balls and cunning hors d'oeuvre cups in their quest to take filo to the limit.

So when California Cuisine exploded onto the scene in the '80s, filo was ungraciously ignored, like the guest who shows up at the party a couple of hours before the crowd. But foodies had actually gotten nowhere near the end of its possibilities.

It turns out that there are more shapes for this paper-thin pastry than they'd ever tried, and more cooking techniques. You don't have to butter each sheet of dough, for instance; you can get the filo to butter itself. These days, you can buy flavored and colored filos, which expand the horizons further. Even in the tradition-minded Middle East, cooks have experimented with new ideas for baklava fillings.

The tradition is far more various than we knew in the first place. Cooks in the '70s usually drenched their baklava with syrup (or honey, though it's not as traditional as syrup), but the favorite baklava in Turkey is "dry" baklava (kuru baklava), a crisp, lightly syruped variety associated with the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. All over the country, you find kuru baklava shops run by a Gaziantep family named Gulluoglu.

In Gaziantep itself, many connoisseurs think the best baklava comes from the shop of Burhan Cagdas. Since this is the pistachio capital of Turkey, Cagdas' window (like the window of every other pastry shop in town) is all more or less green, from ordinary baklava with a mossy tone blushing through the pastry to lurid green cylinders called dolama, which are just a whole lot of sweet pistachio paste wrapped up in a single sheet of filo.

There's the familiar baklava cut into diamond shapes, each a plump golden mound shading to tan at the top, and there's havuc dilimi ("carrot-shaped") baklava, cut in narrow pie wedges about 9 inches long; the different shape means the top bakes up higher and crisper. Sobiyet is like a triangular borek stuffed with walnuts and pastry cream.

Gaziantep has its own version of bulbul yuvasi (nightingales' nests). In Istanbul, these are cigar-shaped pistachio baklavas coiled into circles and sprinkled with more pistachios in the middle of the "nest." In Gaziantep, the "cigars" are rolled empty, without a filling, to make them extra-crisp, and they're crowded into the pan with each "nest" resting partly on its neighbor to the left. And that's just the beginning of the shapes.

Burhan Cagdas is a third-generation pastry-maker, so he's full of baklava lore. He tells a story about a feud between two 19th century baklava dynasties that ended when the son of one family married the daughter of the other. As part of the wedding formalities, he took his new in-laws a tray of baklava, and when he left, the father of the bride said to his own sons, "A gold coin to whoever can tell me what was wrong with that baklava."

"The syrup was too thick," said one. "The pastry was too damp," said another. "They hadn't clarified the butter properly," said a third, and so on, until all seven sons had had their say.

"No," said the father. "This is the correct answer: When you bite into a baklava, it should go hush, but that one went moojook."

That's a little baklava humor for you. Actually, the point of the story is that all the sons' criticisms were correct, and they could have been summed up as a question of hush--a delicate, yielding crispness in which you can practically feel each layer of filo as you bite through the pastry--versus a clumsy, soggy moojook.

It's fascinating to watch a traditional filo factory at work. Some workers make dough with a little oil in it, knead it hard and divide it into golf balls. Then others roll each ball into a circular sheet and stack up a dozen of them, putting plenty of cornstarch between the layers to absorb the moisture that will be forced out of the dough when the stack is rolled.

Then they roll the whole stack several times until the sheets are paper-thin, separating them and dusting them with more cornstarch every time. Filo can also be made by stretching the dough on a table or by a combination of rolling and stretching. The process is much easier today but it still involves a lot of cornstarch.

This laborious product was probably invented by the chefs of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, who had plenty of time on their hands. Baklava actually predates filo--east of Turkey, there are primitive baklavas made with plain old noodle paste, seven layers of dough to six of ground nuts. Baklava appears to be the Central Asian idea of layered bread meeting the Middle Eastern idea filling a baked pastry with nuts.

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