I don't like baklava. Not one bit.
I feel safe admitting it in the relative anonymity of cyberspace. Face to face with a Turkish person, well, this confession gets slippery. Hurt feelings sometimes follow. More often than not, they wink knowingly and say, "you just haven't had real baklava. I'll get you some from my guy." Before I know it, I'm presented with a thoughtful, pricey giftbox of the stuff. I fawn over the pretty packaging, I take an obliging bite, I swallow it down with a locked grin. Then I take a huge swig of the nearest liquid and gargle it a little when no one is looking. It might be the most highly rated baklava in Istanbul, I just don't like the stuff.
What I do like is dessert though, and what I don't like is offending people. Living in Turkey, a nation of proud gourmands, I've made it my mission to seek out the tastiest desserts in the land, preferably the kind that don't involve slimy sheet pastry. Research has been extensive, but now I'm prepared when the baklava question comes up (and when you visit Turkey, it does come up). Now I can say, "well my real favourites are...." Flattery accomplished. No lies necessary. Here's that list.
Ah helva; the sight of great slabs of it in a bakery sets my mouth watering. It's my favourite Turkish treat; a grainy, buttery, not-too-sweet tahini paste flavoured with vanilla, cocoa, or (my favourite) whole roasted pistachios. It's sliced up like fudge and presented after meals with a dainty fork. I eat it unattractively with my fingers.
This ice cream is usually sold in dense tourist areas by moustached vendors in red velvet vests, hollering "hello! hello! come here!" in halting English. If you're as suspicious of touts as I am, you might raise an eyebrow at a dish being peddled to visitors and not locals. But you know what? This stuff is dee-lightful. Also, rest assured that while the song and dance of costumed vendors might be a tourist show, everyone eats dondurma. Made with goat's milk and orchid resin, it's a chewier, stickier, more elastic version of the Baskin Robbins favourite. Mado is a Turkish dessert chain with a great selection of the stuff.
Turkish rice pudding is served just the way I like it; rich with a hint of vanilla and a mini-Everest of cinnamon on top. The pudding is baked in individual ramekins (or tin foil cups, depending on the fanciness of the eatery), then stored in the fridge. Don't be fooled when a cooked dish appears before you: it won't be remotely hot. What it will be is delicious; the sauce smooth and thick without a trace of Jello pudding graininess; the rice cooked to the perfect degree of mushiness. Creamy, simple, tasty stuff.
Before I ever sampled Turkish waffles, they were described to me by a friend as "candy burritos." I pictured a stomach turning Wonka factory concoction, and boy was I (mostly) wrong. A hot waffle is pulled from the waffle iron and piled with sweet sauces, fruits, candies, scoops of ice cream and sprinkles. They're sold as messy kid-pleasing fare on seaside boardwalks. They're sold with exotic fruits and artful chocolate drizzle-work in trendy cafes. They're sold in mall food courts, with a point-and-choose topping system that resembles an American sundae bar (with pistachio as a dominant flavour - we are in Turkey after all). They're just delicious.
My most recent after-dinner discovery fills a spot in my stomach for the cafe comfort foods of home. Kurabiye is a blanket term for non-pastry baked fare, and applies to cookies, turnovers, or sweet biscuit-like rolls, all made with the same dense dough. My favourite version is in my neighbourhood bakery; dense and cakey like a scone, with a hard sugary crust like a muffin top. They're flavoured with carrot, walnuts, and cinnamon. Well worth the crumbs caught in my scarf, and totally worth the stares when I bite off a mouthful right there on the street.