(For the competition I had several pastries laid out on an ornate dish and sprinkled slivered almonds and powered sugar over them.
Sheker Burek is the ancestor of the the modern börek pastries which are found in Turkey and the nearby region. While the origins of this dish have been suggested to be unleavened flatbreads cooked by nomads on griddles (Malouf, 265), they are today most often comprised of a savory filling encased in dough similar to phyllo. Another modern form of this food has a pasta-like dough that is filled and boiled (Roden, 132).
Historically, Muhammed bin Mahmûd Şirvanî, a 15th century Ottoman physician, translated an earlier 13th century cookbook at the request of Sultan Murad II (and in his translation he included an additional eighty recipes) (Samancı, 1981). In this volume of work, the only the sweet version of this burek is mentioned. (Yerasimos, 128)
This dessert is also listed in the palace accounts from 1490 and was among the items served at a circumcision feast for Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s sons in 1539. (Yerasimos, 128; Samancı, 1981) Occasions such as a royal circumcision were grand festivals, and with books compiled to commemorate these festivities. In these tomes, called surname, were incorporated the details for everything from processions, to the entertainers and to the foods served during the feasting that were part of such grandiose holidays.
Also worthy of note, the residents of the 16th century Ottoman Empire had developed a love for sweets that included sweetened rice dishes, fruit preserves, candied nuts and fruit and even included large-scale sugar sculptures that were displayed during festivals. So valued were these sugared dishes that there were even special kitchens on the palace grounds dedicated to the production of sweets. (Yerasimos)
A Note Regarding Sources
I was fortunate to be able to get two translations of this period recipe from Urtatim al-Qurtubiyya bint 'abd al-Karim al-hakam al-Fassi al-Sayyida from the West Kingdom. She provided me with translated material from Stephane Yerasimos’s French translation of the Şirvanî’s text and also, later, with the modern Turkish translation by Mustafa and Çakır. In addition to those translated passages, I also have the redacted recipe by Yerasimos, but found it no more valuable than the translations of the original recipe in recreating the dessert. (Due to copyrights, I did not include the translations here.)
Sheker Burek – My Recipe
3 cups flour
1 cup warm water
One packet of yeast and a bit of sugar
4 T butter
100 grams sugar
100 grams almond flour
Preheat oven to 350.
To make the filling, mix together the sugar and almond flour. Sprinkle in just a bit of rose water and mix. The mixture will just stick together and there should not be enough water to make it syrupy.
Add a bit of sugar to a cup of warm water and stir in the yeast.
Melt butter and add to the flour. Add four pinches of salt. Add the yeast/water to the four and mix until a dough forms. Knead until smooth. Let rest for 15 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a floured board and cut into small pieces (I used a coffee cup to make circles from the dough 3-4 inches in diameter). Add a spoonful of the filling to the center of the circle and fold in half. Use a fork to press the edges closed.
Add the sheker burek to a cookie sheet greased with butter and back until the tops are just start to brown.
Issues with Recreation and My Adaptations/Changes
- Given that I have no access to sheep’s tail fat (and while it is supposed to be more delicate in flavor than fat from other areas on the animal, I do not know that many people would be willing to consume a dessert made with this ingredient), I used butter only as my fat.
- For the almonds, I chose instead to use almond flour rather than whole nuts as I assume that the directive to grind the almonds them with a mortar would indicate that they should be very finely ground for this recipe. (Additionally, my kitchen was already well stocked with almond flour.)
- I tested both a mixture of granulated and powered sugar together and just granulated sugar for the filling, and did not notice a perceptible difference in the the two after baking.
- I had two failed attempts when adding the yeast directly to the mixture, so instead, I chose to activate yeast in warm water with a bit of sugar and then used that water to create my dough.
- It took two tries to get the water/flour ratio correct for producing a dough that I could roll out and cut.
- I initially had only the recipe from A la table du Grand Turc and it called for 150 grams of sugar and almond each as a topping and 250 grams of flour in the dough. The almond mixture was to be used as a topping in this version and no matter how much I piled on, there was more than half of it left. In a discussion later with Urtatim, she sent me the translation from the Turkish version, which called for the almond/sugar mixture to be used as a filling. This worked much better and the result looks something like a pierogi (which some sources claim is to be a related dish to modern savory börek) and is definitely similar to the boiled borek that the Foat Tugay (author of Three Centuries: Family Chronicles of Turkey and Egypt) describes in the passage quoted in Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.
- I find the filling to be exceptionally sweet, almost too sweet for my tastes in her commentary on recreating these recipes, Yerasimos noted that the modern inclination would be to reduce the sugar. I did not for the purpose of this recreation, but would possibly do so in the future.
- The version presented to day has no saffron, but I will continue to work on a saffroned version and getting the correct amount of the spice in the recipe.
Argunşah, Mustafa and Müjgan Çakır. Yüzyıl Osmanlı Mutfağı, (Urtatim al-Qurtubiyya bint 'abd al-Karim al-hakam al-Fassi, West Kingdom/ Ellen Perlman, Trans.) Istanbul. 2007.,
Malouf, Gred and Lucy. Turquoise: A Chef’s Travels in Turkey.
Chronicle Books, 2008.
Roden, Claudia. The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. Random House, 2008.
Samancı, Özge. “Food Studies in Ottoman-Turkish Historiography.” Writing Food History: A global Perspective. (Ed. Clafin and Scholliers.) Berg, 2013.
Yerasimos, Stephane and Belkis Taskeser. A la table du Grand Turc. (Urtatim al-Qurtubiyya bint 'abd al-Karim al-hakam al-Fassi, West Kingdom/ Ellen Perlman, Trans.) Sindbad/Editions Actes Sud, 2001.