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Turkish breakfast is a ritual akin to American brunch — and it’s every bit as delicious

By Lisa Futterman
Chicago Tribune

It’s a wonder tables don’t break constantly in Turkey — they tend to be so laden with breakfast dishes, I wouldn’t expect them to be able to bear the weight.

While weekdays tend to start with tea and simple fare at home, weekend breakfast is an all-out feast of the country’s freshest produce, expertly cured meats and a few unique bites that help define Turkish breakfast as a meal that should never be missed.

Known in Turkish as kahvalti — literally “before coffee” — Turkish breakfast finds its joy in the bounty of choices. As Turkish tour operator Murat Ozguc told me during a trip last year, “First, your eyes should be satisfied — then your stomach.”

Gather tomatoes, olives, cheese and honey to re-create a version of this spread at home for a fun, yet leisurely brunch option — and a bit of armchair travel especially distracting during the COVID-19 shutdown. A typical spread will be accompanied by many tulip-shaped glasses of steaming hot black tea, but thick, chocolatey Turkish coffee — which requires a ritual all its own — is often served separately from the morning meal.

Menemen is a classic Turkish breakfast dish similar to Indian shakshuka.

Here is a Turkish breakfast roll call of delights to display at your table:

A plate of sliced cucumbers and ripe tomatoes — from the garden or farmers market when in season.

Olives of all colors: Explore a Middle Eastern market and look for grilled olives, a unique choice, or buttery castelvetranos.

Fresh and aged cheeses: Turkey has dozens of native and local cheeses — from beyaz peynir, a brined white cheese similar to feta, to mozzarella-like string cheese, to tulum and aged kashkaval. Breakfast is a great time to show off a selection.

Yogurt: Plain or fruit-flavored — or try ayran, the popular, lightly salted yogurt beverage.

A rainbow of chunky fruit preserves made from cherries, apricots, figs or rose petals. You’ll also need honey, preferably still dripping from its comb.

Kaymak, a wondrous, spreadable clotted cream often made from water buffalo milk. It makes butter seem obsolete (although top-quality butter is a great addition).

Grape molasses: Pekmez is made from grapes and must be boiled gently to create a sweet syrup. For breakfast, it is typically served in ramekins next to pots of toasted sesame tahini. When spread together on bread, they make for the best PB&J you’ve never had.

Hazelnut spread: Serve a plain hazelnut butter or a decadent one that contains cocoa, like Nutella.

Acuka, a flavorful spread of walnut and roasted red pepper.

Fresh fruit like figs, apples and grapes, or whatever is in season at the market.

And bread. Oh! The bread. Stacks of warm pide and other flatbreads; simit, the sesame seed-encrusted bagel sold on every Istanbul street corner; country loaves; and savory breakfast pastries like flaky pogaca, layered borek, acma — a soft, ring-shaped bun topped with poppy seeds; and crisp gozleme filled with cheese, lamb or potatoes.

Then come the egg-and-meat dishes like sucuklu yumurta, which boasts sunny side-up eggs fried in a crock with sizzling sucuk, a mouthwatering beef salami spiced with fenugreek and cumin. Another popular dish features eggs scrambled with dry-cured, jerky-like meat called basturma. And then there’s the classic menemen, a satisfying shakshuka-like scramble of eggs and aromatic vegetables, often seasoned with a bit of Turkish red pepper.

A typical Turkish breakfast spread includes a bevy of cheese, olives, local honey, fruits and baked goods like pogaca and gazleme.

A tradition that crosses cultural and geographic borders, kahvalti is taken daily at home, but is frequently enjoyed with friends or family at a restaurant — like American brunch, it has become a Sunday ritual. Dining outside is common in good weather, and Istanbul hotels like the luxurious Raffles put out a particularly copious spread — Raffles includes a local cook preparing gozleme to order.

The recipes below offer a couple of homemade Turkish pastry options and an easy recipe for menemen, the ubiquitous egg dish presented in a cast-iron pan. Make it the centerpiece of a relaxing weekend meal, or introduce the basics to your table — along with plenty of hot tea.

POGACA

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 15-25 minutes

Makes: 16 buns

Traditionally these breakfast buns are made with yeast, but they come together very easily and deliciously when made with a biscuitlike dough leavened with baking powder. They can be round or crescent-shaped, but always have a shiny egg glaze.

Filling:

1/2 cup feta or white cheese, crumbled

3 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh dill or flat leaf parsley, or a combination

Dough:

2 cups flour, plus more if needed

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups plain yogurt

1 cup melted unsalted butter

2 egg yolks, lightly whisked with a pinch of salt

2 tablespoons nigella seeds or sesame seeds

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine cheese and herbs in a small bowl. Set aside

2. For the dough, combine 2 cups flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Stir in the yogurt and melted butter until the dough comes together. Turn out onto a floured board; knead gently until very smooth.

3. Cut dough into 16 pieces. Roll each piece into a little ball, then flatten and make a hole in the middle. Fill with a small amount of filling. Gently pinch to close; place seam side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Brush generously with egg wash; sprinkle with the seeds.

4. Bake until firm and golden, 15 to 25 minutes. Serve warm or allow to cool.

Nutrition information per bun: 202 calories, 14 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 15 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 4 g protein, 226 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

GOZLEME

Prep: 40 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Makes: about 6 large pastries

If you cannot find yufka (it is available at Turkish grocers like Sahar International in Chicago, or online) you can use packaged filo. If you use filo, which is much thinner, be sure to thaw it well and brush it generously with melted butter in between layers before filling and folding.

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cups cleaned fresh spinach, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

1 cup crumbled feta cheese

2 medium potatoes, peeled, cooked, mashed, about 2 cups

Black pepper

1 package yufka (Turkish pastry leaves)

1. Combine the onion, spinach, oil and 1 teaspoon salt in a bowl; massage thoroughly with your hands to combine. Add cheese and mashed potatoes, mix well, and season with pepper and more salt to taste.

2. Lay out each sheet of yufka and cut if necessary. You are looking for sheets about the size of a standard 8 1/2-by-11-inch sheet of paper, but they don’t need to be perfect or even rectangular. Place a trimmed sheet on a work surface with one corner facing you. Place one-sixth of the filling in the center. Fold the corners in to create a square envelope-shaped parcel. It is OK if there is lots of dough overlap but you want one side to be flat. Repeat with remaining sheets and filling.

3. Heat a large griddle or nonstick skillet and add a splash of oil to coat the surface but not create a puddle. Add a gozleme, flat side down, and cook over medium heat until golden. Flip and brown the other side until heated through. Keep warm while you finish the remaining parcels. Serve at once.

Nutrition information per pastry: 319 calories, 13 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 22 mg cholesterol, 41 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 9 g protein, 1,004 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

MENEMEN

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 15 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 yellow onion, chopped

2 medium peppers, chopped (mild green ones like anaheims, cubanelles or banana peppers work well, but sweet red peppers work too)

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon Turkish red pepper flakes (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

6 large eggs

1. In a large cast-iron skillet, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the onion and peppers; cook gently over medium heat until softened.

2. Add the tomatoes and seasonings; cook a bit more, 2-3 minutes. Whisk the eggs in a bowl, then add to the vegetable mixture. Cook, stirring and scraping gently with a spatula, until soft-set. Serve at once directly from the pan.

Nutrition information per serving: 91 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 62 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 3 g protein, 28 mg sodium, 2 g fiber