Face it, you don’t always have frozen filo on hand, and how many people make their own? But sometimes you just want something crisply flaky and nutty. Something baklava-ish.
The 13th century is here to help. A Syrian cookbook from that period, “Kitab al-Wusla ila al-Habib” (“The Link to the Beloved”), includes a pastry that must represent one of the intermediate steps that took place along the road to the invention of filo. The 13th-century product is much simpler than filo, and it has a charm of its own: It is crumbly-crisp with an appetizing browned aroma.
The book gives two names for it. One is kul wa-shkur — Arabic for “eat and give thanks” — which is still the name of a Syrian pastry, though the modern version is made with multiple layers of filo and a nut filling, while 13th-century kul wa-shkur consists of single sheets of a sort of ultra-thin fried pasta, merely scattered with nuts.
The other name is qarni yaruq, which means “split belly” in Turkish. When you make it, you see what that means: The pasta sheets are folded over and no effort is made to attach the edges, since there’s no filling, so the packets remain open on the sides. This general shape is still characteristic of kul wa-shkur today, in fact modern kul wa-shkur is, in effect, small baklava-type pastries formed by folding over, rather than stacking or rolling.
The Turkish connection
At an Istanbul food history conference some years ago, I presented a paper on Turkish influences on Arab food before the period of the Ottoman Empire, and in it I happened to mention qarni yaruq. Was it really something invented by Turks? It’s possible. The Turks did have a tradition of layered breads and pastries going back to their nomad days in Central Asia, but the reason for this pastry having two names is lost in time. Still, I said, the existence of a Turkish name must imply some Turkish connection.
The Turks were fascinated and slightly scandalized by this news. In present-day Turkey, karni yarik (the modern spelling) is not the name of a pastry — it’s a long eggplant split lengthwise, stuffed with ground meat and stewed. When I told Turks about qarni yaruq, they reacted like Americans wrestling with the idea that “the tomato is really a fruit.” A Turkish radio station had to interview me about my bizarre discovery.
When this pastry fries, it looks a little like fried won tons, tan and slightly blistered, but it’s really something unique. You make it with noodle paste enriched with butter, which is what makes it fry up with such an appealing crumbly texture.
One note: You may be intrigued to see some of these fritters puff up. Fun to watch, but the puffed ones don’t cook up as evenly as flat ones and don’t develop the proper split-bellied look of open edges. Prevent puffing by brushing the paste with butter all the way to the edges.
Another note: The original recipe says to fry the pasta in sesame oil, which is rather hard to find in this country, even in Middle Eastern markets. (What’s needed is raw sesame oil, not the toasted oil used as a flavoring in Chinese cuisine.) You can substitute a neutral oil such as canola (or, if you’re the sort of person who tries to stay away from health food, clarified butter). Or, I suppose, you could use peanut oil and substitute peanuts for the pistachios. That would certainly scandalize them in the 13th century.
For the syrup:
¾ cup sugar
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon water
½ teaspoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon rose water or orange blossom water, or 1 pinch cinnamon
For the pastry:
6 ounces (1½ sticks) butter, well softened
1 cup flour
4-5 tablespoons water
Oil for frying
⅔ cup pistachios, minced
1. Combine the sugar, water and lemon juice in a small pan and heat, stirring occasionally, until it boils and turns clear. Set aside to cool.
2. When cool, flavor with rose water, orange blossom water (or a mixture of the two) or cinnamon.
3. To make the pastry, work 1 ounce (¼ stick) of the butter into the flour. Add water to make a firm paste, as if you were making noodles, and knead hard for 10 minutes. Cover and set aside for ½ hour.
4. Cut the lump of paste in half and cover one half. Lightly dust the other with flour and put it through your pasta maker. When you’re getting close to the finest setting, cut the sheet of paste in half, leave one half on a plate or any handy surface and put the other half through the finest setting.
5. Transfer this thin sheet of paste to a work surface. Cut in half (the reason for this is that it’s hard to fold long lengths of paste when it’s this thin) and square off the ends.
6. Melt the remaining butter in a pan and generously brush the top of one of the two lengths of paste with butter.
7. Carefully fold over one of the long ends; you will have a folded sheet about 8 inches long and two inches wide. Cut into approximate squares and transfer them to a very lightly floured work surface; you should have anywhere from 4 to 6 squares, looking like sad and empty ravioli.
8. Repeat with the remaining sheet on your work surface. Then repeat this process with the sheet of paste that set aside earlier, the one that has not yet been put through the finest setting. Finally go through this whole process again with the lump that you covered when you started using the pasta maker.
9. Put about ¼ inch of oil in a large frying pan and heat over high heat until one of the pieces of paste will start sizzling immediately when put in. Reduce the heat to medium high and fry, watching them carefully, and turn over when lightly browned and blistered on one side; the sign is that the edges will visibly start to brown.
10. To serve, arrange the qarni yaruqs on plates, drench with sugar syrup and sprinkle with the minced pistachios.
Photo: Qarni yaruq Credit: Charles Perry