Cuisine at the Crossroads:
For the Love of Hazelnuts
I’ve been familiar with hazelnuts–or filberts as my mother called them–since I was a child, but I first learned to love the buttery-rich fruit during my travels in Turkey, the country that grows over 75% of the world’s crop.
At Christmas time, when I was growing up in Michigan, my mother would put a bowl of mixed nuts in their shells on the coffee table along with a metal nutcracker and picks. The rough-shelled walnuts with their soft nuts inside were easiest to crack. And, the dark triangular shell of the Brazil nut intrigued me with its white nutmeat that squeeked when you bit into it. .
I avoided the hard-shelled filberts. They were small, smooth and difficult to grasp between the metal nutcracker tongs. Even if I managed to crack through the tough shell, it was hard for my small hands to break it open and I often crushed the nut. Or, more often than not, the nut would slip out at the slightest pressure and fly across the room.
Many years later, when my younger sister Loretta met and married David Smith from Corvallis, Oregon, a horticuluralist at Oregon State University (OSU), I learned from him to call those ornery little filberts, hazelnuts. OSU is renowned for its hazelnut research and David’s studies led him to a career in the breeding of some of the world’s best tasting and most disease-resistant hazelnut varieties. David possesses the patience and intelligence necessary for the study of a single species and has traveled to Chile, Spain, Italy, and Turkey, learning and teaching new methods of propagation and cultivation of hazelnuts.
According to David, the oldest known hazelnut orchard in Oregon was planted in 1903. Yet, the filbert (thought to be named for a fifth century French monk, Saint Philbert, whose feast day is celebrated on August 20th at the time of hazelnut harvesting), was identified as far back as 3,000 B.C. in China. The Turkish name, findik, is derived from the Greek word pontic for the Pontikon Karyon, or the Black Sea region known as the The Pontus.
In the fall, David and Loretta fill their freezer with fresh, shelled hazelnuts; and in December, when I visit, they provide me with jars of chocolate-covered, roasted hazelnuts, tied with a red velvet ribbon. Their holiday ritual of roasting and dipping the crunchy nuts in dark chocolate is a welcome and healthy gift to friends and family. And the marriage of the unique flavored, anti-oxidant and oil-rich hazelnut combined with equally oxidant-rich dark chocolate leads me to stuff my suitcase with bags of the raw, shelled nuts before I return home to southern California to make the confection for my friends.
Another delight that eluded me during my earliest visits to Turkey is the classic Armenian, Greek, and Turkish dessert: baklava. The chewy-crisp, honey-ladened confection, which I first tasted in a Greek restaurant in San Diego, was too sweet and not to my taste. But, that was before I traveled to the small town of Ağva on the Black Sea about sixty miles north of Istanbul one late November weekend with my friend Sami.
We drove from Istanbul along the Bosporus to the Black Sea through a misty veil of rain, and stopped for lunch in the Polish village of Polonezköy. The restaurant owner, fluent in Polish, whose descendants emigrated to Turkey in 1855 during the Crimean War, served us hearty bowls of cabbage, mushroom, and meat stew. Pastry desserts were offered, but Sami suggested we wait until we reached our destination to “taste the special Black Sea baklava.”
“The Black Sea region is where the findiklar are grown,” said Sami, using the Turkish plural for hazelnuts, when we arrived in Ağva. The small seaside town, filled with picnickers and beachgoers in the summer, was deserted in late fall. Sami parked the car in front of a nut roaster and bakery where steam filled the window.
The toasty scent of pastry and nuts enveloped us when we entered the stone-walled room where a wood-fired oven gave welcome relief from the chill Black Sea wind. Burlap bags filled with raw hazelnuts lined one wall opposite aluminum racks stacked with trays of freshly roasted nuts.
The shopkeeper greeted us, scooped up warm, roasted nuts and placed them in my hand. I tasted the aromatic, slightly sweet, buttery hazelnut and loved its complex flavor.
“If you eat findiklar everyday you will be stong and healthy,” Sami said. “But along the Black Sea, this is the best way to taste the flavor of hazelnuts,” he added, and turned my attention to a rack of fresh-from-the-oven baklava.
Sheets of tawny pillows in diamond, round, and square patterns were still hot to the touch. After we bought a dozen pieces, the roaster dipped a ladle into a kettle of syrup – a mixture of sugar, water, and a hint of lemon – and poured the mixture over the pastries. The baklava sizzled and danced in the pan like a happy chorus, and greedily soaked up the syrup.
We can never eat that many, I mistakenly thought to myself when the pastries were placed in a foil-lined box.
With our fingers, Sami and I each plucked a square from the box. I took a small bite, expecting to gag from the sweetness. The layers of buttery pastry mixed with finely chopped hazelnuts melted in my mouth. Yes, the baklava was sweet, but not overly so. The balance was perfect. I ate another, and another. In fact I ate a half dozen pieces before we got to the car. By the time we returned to the highway, the box was empty.
“It is the lighter simple syrup, and not honey, that makes Turkish baklava less sweet than Greek baklava,” explained a Turkish/American friend when I’d told her of my new love affair with the dessert. “You must eat it fresh from the oven whenever possible. The layers of pastry, sometimes as many as forty, will get tough if they sit too long in the syrup. This is why they do not cover the pastry with syrup until you make a purchase. Also,” she continued. “Only along the Black Sea where hazelnuts grow is it traditional to use hazelnuts for baklava. In the southeast, in Gaziantep where pistachios grow, they make some of Turkey’s most prized baklava.”
Later, when Joy Stocke and I were writing our memoir, Anatolian Days & Nights, we visited Gaziantep to cook with our friend Bekir’s family and friends. Bekir’s nephew brought us to “the best baklava shop in all of Turkey,” Güllüoglu, where he was on a first-name basis with the bakers.
Güllüoglu opened in 1871, and the pristine store glistened with stainless steel and glass. A smiling shopkeeper showed us trays of layered and rolled pastries filled with pale green pistachios admonishing us to “choose your favorites.” We sampled lighter-than-air pastry, letting the crunchiness of the nuts mingle with the flavor of butter and and lemon-scented syrup.
We are loathe to pick favorites, and while we love baklava filled with pistachios, we looked at each other. in that instant, we knew: Our hearts remain devoted to baklava made with the humble hazelnut.
Baklava with Hazelnuts
Makes 45 One Inch Pieces
Recipe modified from Classical Turkish Cooking, by Ayla Algar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, use a 9”X15” baking dish
1 lb hazelnuts, shelled and roasted
To roast hazelnuts: Preheat oven 325 degrees. Spread nuts on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring twice to evenly roast during baking process. Cool and remove the skins from the nuts by rubbing them between your palms. You can do this step ahead. Nuts will keep for a week if you seal them in a container and keep them refrigerated.
1/8 cup sugar
1 lb filo pastry
2-3 sticks unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon lemon juice
(Optional: Add 1 tablespoon maple syrup or ½ teaspoon rosewater or orange essence.)
To Assemble Baklava:
Keep filo dough in refrigerator until read to use. If frozen, thaw dough for one to two days in the refrigerator.
Remove filo from refrigerator. Unfold dough and place a damp towel over it to keep the dough from drying out.
Grind nuts and 1/8 cup sugar in a food processor.
Melt two sticks of butter. Reserve an extra stick in case you need additional butter.
Using a pastry brush, spread a layer of butter over the bottom of the baking dish.
Place a sheet of filo on top. Spread another layer of butter over filo covering all the dough. Working quickly so that the filo doesn’t dry out, alternate dough and melted butter until you’ve used half the filo sheets.
Spread the nut/sugar mixture over the buttered filo. Press down and continue to layer the filo and butter until you’ve used all the filo sheets. Brush the top with a final layer of butter. Press down again on the pastry.
With a sharp knife, cut through pastry on the diagonal diagonal. Begin at one corner and make one-inch diagonal cuts across the pastry. When finished, begin at the other corner and cut diagonally to create triangular-shaped pieces.
The pastry can be made up to a day ahead at this point by covering well in plastic wrap. Refrigerate baklava. Bring it to room temperature before baking.
Baklava may also be frozen for up to six weeks.
Place in the middle rack of the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes. Turn the temperature down to 300 degrees and bake for another 15-25 minutes, being careful not to overbake. The top should be lightly brown. You can place a sheet of parchment over the top to avoid overbrowning.
For the Syrup:
Make the syrup while the baklava bakes by mixing the sugar and water over medium heat. When the mixture reaches a boil, lower to a simmer for 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice and optional flavoring if you wish; and simmer for another 4-5 minutes. Take off the heat and let cool to room temperature.
When baklava finishes baking, remove from the oven and pour the syrup evenly over the top, letting it “sizzle” into the pastry. If pastry has baked and cooled, heat syrup to a full simmer before pouring on top.
Recut pastry to loosen each piece. You may let it sit for a few hours before serving…if that is possible!
Chocolate Covered Hazelnuts
Makes 16 One Ounce Servings
1 lb raw hazelnuts, shelled
12 ounces good quality chocolate, preferably 65% cocao or more. Break whole chocolate into pieces, or use chocolate chips.
A cookie sheet or shallow pan lined with parchment, wax paper, or a Silpat.
To roast hazelnuts: Preheat oven 325 degrees. Spread nuts on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring twice to evenly roast during baking process. Cool and remove any skins from the nuts by rubbing them between your palms. You can do this step ahead. Nuts will keep for a week if you seal them in a container and keep them refrigerated.
To melt chocolate for dipping: Fill a pan or double boiler 1/3rd of the way with water. Bring water to boil and turn heat down until water is simmering, careful not have water too hot or the chocolate will seize.
Remove bowl from heat. With a fork, dip nuts into chocolate. Lift out. Let additional chocolate drain and place on pan.
Let chocolate set for at least an hour or half hour in the refrigerator. Nuts may be refrigerated or frozen for up to three months. They may be stored for up to two weeks in a tightly sealed container.
Excerpted from the forthcoming cookbook: Anatolian Kitchen – Cuisine at the Crossroads. A collection of stories and the cultural history and connection between cuisines from the old world to the new, and back again.
For further reading and recipes:
Freelance writer and illustrator, Angie Brenner, is a contributor to the online magazine, Wild River Review, covering PEN World Voices Festival and Los Angeles Times Festival of Books events, international topics, current events, political issues, and author interviews such as those with Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak, and Pico Iyer.
Brenner is currently writing a cookbook with co-author and Wild River Review founder, Joy E. Stocke, Anatolian Kitchen: Turkish Cooking for the American Table, to be published by Burgess Lea Press in the fall of 2016. Her first book, a travel memoir, also co-authored with Stocke, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints was published in March, 2012, by Wild River Books.
Brenner left the security of a managerial job to follow her passion and opened a travel planning service, Journeys by Angie, where she created personalized travel itineraries for clients that included researching history, art, and cuisine. Later, she bought and operated a travel bookstore, Word Journeys, in Del Mar, CA. For nearly ten years, Brenner nurtured her inner travel bibliophile by buying and selling travel literature. She closed her store in order to travel and write.
With a business background, Brenner worked in the health care industry in Southern California for several years, and later as Business Manager for a public school district. Yet, a love of travel and a curiosity of foreign cultures led her to explore Europe, East Africa, Vietnam, and South America. For over twenty-five years, she traveled the four corners of Turkey, and became immersed in all aspects of Turkish culture from food, to politics and religion. She is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
It was during a research trip to Turkey that Brenner began to sketch and watercolor, and to create the illustrations that are included in her memoir. A certified yoga instructor, Brenner lives, writes, and facilitates weekly yoga classes in Julian, California.