Istanbul’s dessert culture mirrors the richness of its broader culinary diversity and depth, and the city is home to numerous classic establishments that have essentially perfected favorite Turkish sweets. There’s Özkonak’s tavuk göğsü, a dense, thick pudding made with shredded chicken breast and topped with cinnamon, and Mahir Lokantası’s irmik helvası, a subtly sweet mound of semolina paired excellently with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.
Despite these and numerous other beloved desserts having firmly established their places on Istanbul’s menus, the city also has a penchant for being consumed with the latest trends, often hybrids of local staples or imports from afar. In 2012, we remember lots of folks going berserk over trileçe, a version of Latin America’s tres leches cake, which one can guess from the name is traditionally made with three types of milk. It had managed to cross the Atlantic in the last decade, reaching Albania and Turkey – and prompting many diners here to think that it had origins in the Balkans, when it had really reached the region due to the popularity of Brazilian soap operas.
Then there was the San Sebastian cheesecake craze of 2017, sweeping the city even before regular cheesecake had become ubiquitous. We recall staring aghast at the line down the block of one Beşiktas cafe that quickly became famous for serving a mean slice, and almost nothing but that. Just one year earlier, there was a surge in the popularity of lokma, a traditional, doughnut hole-esque sweet of the region, which were served in baths of different types of chocolate, syrups and nuts. (Some may be familiar with its Greek iteration, loukoumades, which were also being reinvented across the pond that same year.) Dozens of shops serving this variation of the lokma sprung up like weeds within a matter of months, though most have since closed as the ravenous appetite for this dessert quickly faded, moving on to the next sweet sensation.
This decade’s trends include the İzmir bombası, a plump cookie with a light, floury dough encasing an explosive mouthful of dripping chocolate. The dessert has its roots in the Aegean city of Izmir, but has invaded Istanbul within the past couple years and still remains popular. Even more recently, soğuk (cold) baklava has become all the rage, with many baklava retailers and dessert shops prominently displaying signs in their windows indicating that this version of Turkey’s most iconic dessert is now available.
We were skeptical at first, but became more intrigued after learning that the dish – made with bitter chocolate and a milky sherbet (in lieu of baklava’s typically simple syrup), and served cold but not frozen – has its origins in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır, a culinary destination in its own right. It is believed to have been invented there in 2017 by baklava usta (master) Mehmet Altunbay, who drew his inspiration from the classic milky desserts güllaç and sütlü Nuriye, the latter of which closely resembles baklava but uses a dairy-based syrup. Altunbay noted that less dough and sugar are used in making soğuk baklava, and the presence of milk makes it lighter than other desserts.
Soğuk baklava became very popular in the summer months of 2021, and eventually made its way to Istanbul, where it is even served at Karaköy Güllüoğlu, the city’s most iconic baklava maker. On a warm day at the tail-end of October, we were in the mood for something cool and sweet, and popped into Pürtat, a local chain with a branch on the main street of the Kurtuluş neighborhood. We ordered a four-square portion and quickly dived in. The harmony of the dish was a pleasant surprise, with the bitter chocolate deftly intermingling with the layers of crushed pistachio and creamy milk sherbet, taming the otherwise shockingly sweet taste that can overwhelm even the best baklava.
Thinking about the various trends that have come, gone or stayed, our minds eventually moved on to some of the city’s traditional, long-standing dessert spots. Quince becomes ripe in autumn, and as a wet drizzle and blanket of fog arrived alongside November, we found ourselves at Beyoğlu’s Sakarya Tatlıcısı in front of a plate of ayva tatlısı. Half a quince is soaked in syrup, boiled and then baked, transforming the fruit from bright yellow to ruby red. The texture is perfectly soft and slightly chewy, and the dollop of kaymak (clotted cream) ensures just the right balance. We washed it down with a glass of black tea, no need to add sugar. Tucked away in a backstreet near the buzzing Nevizade area, Sakarya Tatlıcısı has been around for more than half a century serving top-notch Turkish desserts (including what many claim to be the best baklava in the city). As good as it may have been, we aren’t so sure that soğuk baklava can withstand the same test of time as classics like these.