Turkish Delight: An Interview with Artful Baker Author Cenk Sönmezsoy
If you like food porn, this week’s podcast guest will have you screaming from the rooftops. Cenk Sönmezsoy is an award-winning food blogger, photographer, and self-described shameless chocoholic from İstanbul, Turkey. He’s also author of the masterpiece, The Artful Baker: Extraordinary Desserts From an Obsessive Home Baker. Cenk took all the food photos you see here, and all 250 images in his 429-page cookbook, which he also styled.
On the podcast, Cenk and I talk about Dolce & Gabbana requesting a custom brownie recipe; why he’s obsessed with the Golden Girls; the success of his celebrated food blog, Cafe Fernando; foods you must try when you visit Istanbul; and more. Subscribe to the Postcard Academy to hear the whole story. Highlights are captured here — as well as a berry tart recipe named in honor of Blanche from the Golden Girls.
Tell us about your award-winning blog, Cafe Fernando. Where did that name come from, and what have you been blogging about?
The name comes from a favorite TV show of mine, The Golden Girls. I am a huge fan, and when I first opened my blog, the first order of business was to find a name. Ever since I had learned that my favorite character from The Golden Girls, Rose Nylund, had a one-eyed teddy bear called Fernando, I’d wanted to name my future dog after it. But I never got a dog, and my blog was the next best opportunity. And after I discovered that Fernando.com was taken, I decided on Cafe Fernando, and launched it on March 21st, 2006.
I find it so sweet, your love and affection for The Golden Girls. Why do you love them so much?
It all goes back to my first day in San Francisco. After a 20-hour, two-leg flight, I found myself in San Francisco International Airport. For the first time in my life I was in the US. My student visa arrived very late, so I had to go directly to the school. I couldn’t find a place to live before I went there, so I had a reservation at this small motel close to the school. I went there, I gathered my things and went straight to the school, and on my way back, I got lost. I think I walked for six or seven hours. And after I finally got in to my hotel room, I took a shower, and then I threw myself on the bed and, you know, switched the TV on, and there they were, the Golden Girls. I was away from my family, my friends, and everything seemed so different, but there they were, and it was the warmth and the comfort. And after that day, it has been an obsession.
You named your blog after them, and you’ve been blogging about baking ever since. Why did you get started baking? How did that happen?
I was cooking through college and stuff, but I had never baked a thing. After I moved back to Istanbul, one day, I received an email from a friend of mine who was still living in San Francisco, and she was sending me a link to her food blog. I had no idea what a blog was. And then I visited her website, and my jaw dropped, because she’d turned her kitchen into a cupcake factory. And I also was missing the things that I ate in San Francisco, and there wasn’t even a decent brownie back then in Istanbul. So, I started baking like that. She was a great inspiration for me. And then I discovered other blogs through her blog, and decided to start my own.
Let’s talk about brownies, and specifically the recipe that got you covered in Washington Post, and helped to really blow up your blog audience.
The recipe is called Brownies My Way. Nick Malgieri emailed me one day, I think it was the first or second year of my blogging, and he was asking for me to contribute a recipe for an article he was writing for The Washington Post. I was gobsmacked, because, I mean, he was one of my baking heroes. I couldn’t believe that he was emailing me for a recipe. And back then, I was-, you know, my mentality was, if it’s a chocolate recipe, there has to be lots of chocolate. So, the brownie was a fudgy brownie, topped with more chocolate, and then sprinkled with pistachios. And it became a classic on my blog, everyone loved it. So, that’s the story of the brownies. And then, I think after a couple more years, Dolce & Gabbana asked me to create a recipe for the launch of their digital magazine, Swide, and I came up with another brownie recipe that became really popular among my readers. It’s called Brownie Wears Lace. It’s also another fudgy brownie, topped with hazelnut ganache, and on top, there is a bittersweet chocolate lace pattern.
And we can find that in your cookbook, correct?
You can find the revamped version of the Brownie Wears Lace. I changed the hazelnut frosting with blonde chocolate ganache. And for the Brownies My Way, you can also find it in the book.
I’s really one of the most beautiful books I have ever seen.
And you did everything for it, right?
Yes. I styled the book, I took the photos, I designed the book. I even attended the first print run of the Turkish book, which lasted about 72 hours, just to make sure the colors were all correct.
Where did you develop all of these skills? Because the photography is quite stunning. Are you a self-taught photographer?
Yes. I am self-taught about everything that is required to produce this book. Baking and taking photos and styling and prop styling, everything is self-taught.
Talk to me about how travel has inspired your creations.
When I taste something that I really like, nothing would stop me from recreating it, and I think it all started with my travel to Paris, way back in my second or third year of blogging. I visited Pierre Hermé, and all the nice pâtisseries in Paris, and when I came back, I was so inspired that, you know, maybe 10 or 15 of the recipes were inspired by that visit to Paris in my book.
Could you share some examples of traditional Turkish baking, and then how you’ve put your own spin on them, based on your experiences?
I don’t have too many Turkish baking recipes in the book. I can name one, it’s called Un Kurabiyesi, which means ‘flour cookies’. It’s a bit different than the version in my book, but it’s all about the texture of these cookies, and I added vanilla beans, which isn’t really traditional, in Turkey. People usually use other spices, or if it’s vanilla, then they would use the powdered version, which isn’t really as good as the beans themselves. There’s also a Simit recipe, the ring-shaped bread. The texture is close to a bagel. It’s covered with sesame seeds. What other things? Oh, there’s a pistachio cookie that I baked for when I first met Nick Malgieri in Istanbul. But I added matcha powder in it, because I was so inspired by the pâtisserie, Sadaharu Aoki, in Paris, and one of the flavour combinations he uses is pistachio and matcha.
You must be quite popular with your friends. With all of these skills.
Well, you would think so, but it’s not the real case. For this book, I have been living under a rock for the past seven years. People think that I bake everything and share them with friends, but that’s not the case, because I have to test how many days they will last at room temperature. You know, how long does a pie dough last in the fridge. So, everything I bake, I test and, at the end, they’re basically inedible, after I take photos and, you know, test how long they will last. So, it’s not like I bake and share them with friends all the time.
What recipe has the most emotional significance for you, in the book?
What are some foods we should try when we’re in Istanbul?
Well, you should definitely try simit, the ring-shaped bread with the sesame crust. Gözleme is a very thin flatbread that they cook on a griddle. The filling is usually either cheese or herbs or potatoes. What else? I brought pistachio paste to my friends in San Francisco this time around, and they all loved it. Also, you can buy Turkish Delights with clotted cream there.
Talk to me about Turkish coffee.
I don’t usually drink too much Turkish coffee because I like to drink coffee a lot, and Turkish coffee is maybe two or three gulps. So, Turkish coffee basically comes in a similar quantity to an espresso, with the grounds still in the cup. The texture is very fine. The most traditional way would be to cook it slowly, on charcoal, but people usually, of course, don’t have that option at their homes. You cook it over a low flame, and you have to put the sugar in while you are cooking it. There are three types, I’d say. One is sade, which means without any sugar; Türk şekerli, which means little sugar; and then Orta şekerli, which means the whole sugar cube.
What is your favorite bakery, and what do you get there?
It’s not like a bakery, it’s more like a pâtisserie. It’s called Art Cafe, and my friends always know that, on my birthday, I don’t bake, and they buy me a cake from Art Cafe called pinoli. It’s a flourless, kind of like an almond meringue cake with pastry, cream and fresh strawberries inside.
Where can people find out more about you?
Cenk named this berry tart — one of 103 baking recipes in his book — after the Golden Girl Blanche Devereaux. Grab your girlfriends and try baking this luscious recipe from scratch. Serves 9.
2 ½ cups (650 grams) chilled Vanilla Pastry Cream (see below)
17 ounces (480 grams) Vanilla Bean Short Tart Dough, fully baked as a 9-inch (23-cm) square tart crust or a 10¼-inch (26-cm) round tart crust and cooled (see below)
1 cup (4.2 ounces; 120 grams) fresh strawberries, hulled and halved lengthwise (top to bottom)
½ cup (2.7 ounces; 75 grams) fresh blackberries
1 cup (4.2 ounces; 120 grams) fresh raspberries
¾ cup (3.5 ounces; 100 grams) fresh blueberries
½ cup (2.8 ounces; 80 grams) stemmed fresh red currants
12 to 15 sprigs fresh chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita f. citrata)
Make the pastry cream and tart dough according the sub-recipes below.
Whisk the chilled pastry cream until smooth and scrape it into the cooled tart crust. Spread evenly with a small offset spatula. Gently shake the pan to fill the corners of the crust and to smooth the top.
Starting with the larger pieces and working your way to the smaller berries and currants, arrange the fruits over the pastry cream, making sure that each slice will get its fair share of all varieties.
Pluck the young and tender top leaves from the mint sprigs and tuck them evenly among the fruits.
Set the tart in its pan on an overturned flat-bottomed bowl (or a wide can) and gently release the ring. Slip the tip of a small knife between the crust and the bottom of the tart pan and run it all around the edge to loosen the crust. Carefully slide the tart onto a serving plate, and serve.
Storage: Blanche is best shortly after she is made, but she will keep, wrapped airtight, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Vanilla Pastry Cream
Crème pâtissière, or pastry cream, should be in every home baker’s arsenal. Thickened with egg yolks and starch and enriched with butter, it may be flavoured with vanilla, chocolate, coffee, liqueurs, fruits, or other flavourings. When made with vanilla extract, this may be considered a master pastry cream that welcomes almost infinite variation. I’ll share two of my favourites—mocha and chocolate—but feel free to play with it by steeping the finely grated zest of a citrus fruit or aromatic tea leaves in the milk, or by adding extracts or liqueurs.
Makes 2½ cups (about 650 grams)
2 cups (480 grams) whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped or 2 teaspoons (10 grams) pure vanilla extract
5 large egg yolks
2/3 cup (133 grams) granulated sugar
1/3 cup (40 grams) corn-starch
Pinch of fine sea salt
3 1/2 tablespoons (1.7 ounces; 50 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
If using a vanilla bean, in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the milk and the vanilla seeds and pod to a simmer. Take the pan off the heat, cover, and let steep for 30 minutes. Retrieve the vanilla pod from the milk, rinse thoroughly with cold water. Set the pan with the vanilla milk over medium heat and bring to just below a boil.
If using vanilla extract, simply bring the milk and vanilla extract to just below a boil. Take the pan off the heat and cover to keep the vanilla milk hot. Fill a medium bowl with ice and cold water. Place a medium bowl over the ice bath with the bottom touching the water. Set a mesh strainer on top.
In a separate medium saucepan, whisk the yolks, sugar, corn-starch, and salt with a narrow wire whisk until the yolks lighten in colour, 2 to 3 minutes. While whisking the egg mixture constantly, drizzle in about half the hot vanilla milk. Add the rest of the hot vanilla milk all at once, then set the pan over medium heat. Cook until the mixture comes to a full boil and is thick enough to mound when dropped from the whisk, constantly whisking and scraping the bottom of the pan with the whisk, about 8 minutes.
Scrape the thickened pastry cream into the strainer over the ice bath and strain, pressing with a silicone spatula. Scrape any pastry cream clinging to the bottom of the strainer into the bowl. Add the butter pieces, whisking until blended. Stir the pastry cream frequently until it reaches room temperature, about 5 minutes. Remove the bowl from the ice water and cover with plastic wrap, pressing it directly onto the surface of the pastry cream to prevent a skin from forming.
Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. The pastry cream is now ready to use.
Storage: The pastry cream will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Vanilla Bean Short Tart Dough
This short tart dough, also known as pâte sablée, is sweet, tender, and rich. It is also too fragile to roll; instead, you simply press it into the pan. I use a combination of vanilla bean seeds and vanilla extract for flavour. With half a vanilla bean plenty for a single batch, I always double the recipe to use the whole bean and freeze half for an impromptu tart.
Makes 17 ounces (480 grams), enough for one 9-inch (23-cm) square tart crust, one 10 ¼-inch (26-cm) round tart crust, one 13 ¾-by-4 ¼-inch (35-by-11-cm) rectangular tart crust, or eight 4¼-inch (11-cm) round tart crusts
9 tablespoons (4.5 ounces; 125 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup (80 grams) confectioners’ sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 tablespoon (15 grams) heavy cream or whole milk
1 teaspoon (5 grams) pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon (2 grams) fine sea salt
1 2/3 cups (233 grams) all-purpose flour
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, sugar, and vanilla seeds at the lowest speed until the sugar is incorporated. Raise the speed to medium-high and beat until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add the yolks, cream, vanilla extract, and salt. Beat until blended, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the flour and beat at the lowest speed just until incorporated. Remove the bowl from the mixer and press the dough into a ball with your hands. Pinch off a teaspoon-size piece of dough, wrap, and refrigerate for patching the baked crust later if needed. (The dough will keep, wrapped airtight, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then let stand at room temperature until soft enough to press into the pan.)
To make a 9-inch (23-cm) square tart crust or a 10 ¼-inch (26-cm) round tart crust, use all of the dough.
To make a 13 ¾-by- 4 ¼-inch (35-by-11-cm) rectangular tart crust, measure out 12.7 ounces (360 grams) of the dough; reserve the rest for another use.
To make eight 4 ¼-inch (11-cm) round tartcrusts, divide the dough into 8 equal pieces (2.1 ounces; 60 grams each). In all cases, use two-piece tart pans with removable bottoms.
For each crust, place the dough into the centre of a tart pan. Using the heel of your hand, press the dough across the bottom of the pan as smoothly and evenly as possible, accumulating excess dough along the seam of the pan. While pressing the excess dough along the seam and fluted sides of the pan with the index finger of one hand, push down on the rim of the pan with the thumb of the opposite hand to make an even and evenly thick edge, making sure it’s not too thick at the seam where the bottom meets the sides of the pan. Transfer the pan to a baking sheet and freeze until firm, 30 to 40 minutes. Meanwhile, set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 340°F (170°C).
Crumple up a sheet of parchment paper and straighten it out half a dozen times to soften it, so that it will fit into the corners of the dough without sharp edges. Line the chilled dough with the parchment paper across the bottom and up the sides, pressing creases at the bottom and top edges. Fill the pan with pie weights or dried beans.
For a partially baked crust, bake for 25 minutes, remove the pie weights and parchment, and continue baking until the edges and bottom are light golden, about 6 minutes longer (about 4 minutes longer for 4 ¼-inch [11-cm] round tart crusts). Patch any cracks or holes in the crust with small scraps of the reserved raw dough.
For a fully baked crust, bake for 25 minutes, remove the pie weights and parchment, and patch any cracks or holes in the crust with small scraps of the reserved raw dough. Continue baking until the edges are golden brown and the bottom is golden, 15 to 17 minutes longer (about 11 to 13 minutes longer for 4 ¼-inch [11-cm] round tart crusts).
Set the baking sheet on a wire rack to cool completely. The tart crust is now ready to use.
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