Şükran's Lemon Cake with Butter-Poached Apricots with Walnuts (apricot recipe in Istanbul and Beyond)
On a grey February afternoon we sat on a sofa in Şükran's kitchen, calf deep in bay. As rain lashed at the picture window framing fruit trees, pasture and the roiling Black Sea beyond, a wood-fired stove in a corner gave off heat in waves. The room smelled like potpourri.
Six of us – Şükran and Dave and I, Şükran's 19 year-old daughter, her sister-in-law her mother-in-law – sipped tea and chatted as we stripped leaves from the branches the women had cut that morning, from a bay tree in front of their house. When Dave and I stopped by mid-afternoon on a whim after a morning at an old water mill they had ushered us into the formal sitting room at the front of the house before disappearing into the kitchen to make tea. As we sat in silence I heard laughter from the kitchen. I got up, walked to the door and pushed it open into a sea of leaves and branches.
"Oh no, please wait in the other room," Şükran said, obviously embarrassed by the state of her kitchen. Though we'd met eighteen months earlier we weren't well enough acquainted for her to know that Dave and I couldn't care less about formalities. We sat down, picked up some branches and got to work. Two hours later the six of us were sweeping leaves from the kilim covering the floor into big plastic sacks, which Şükran and her sister-in-law would carry to a nearby soap workshop. They would be paid one Turkish lira a pound for the leaves.
Dave and I met Şükran the way we meet most people in eastern Turkey, via a combination of accident and good luck. One crisp morning in early autumn Dave, in search of photogenic vistas, drove up an unmarked dirt road that dead-ended in front of the houses of Şükran and her husband and children, her mother- and father-in-law, and her husband's brother and his wife. No one seemed particularly surprised to see us. When we got out of the car Şükran's father-in-law stepped from beneath a fig tree and pressed warm fruit into our hands.
Şükran emerged from her yard, her toddler aged nephew clutching at her long skirt and a shaggy brown dog following close behind. She smiled and invited us in for tea. An hour later we were in the car with her father, headed for a nearby port to buy fresh anchovies for lunch; back at his house we ate them dipped in cornmeal and fried crisp. After lunch we sat at the picture window in Şükran's kitchen watching the family's black and white cows graze on vivid green pasture. The weather was fine and the Black Sea was blue and placid, waves gently lapping at the shore. I remember the lemon cake that Şükran pulled from her oven, crackly-topped and tangy with citrus. We talked about food and farming, about the price of wheat and dried corn and fresh cheese, and the plump pears and persimmons oozing syrup that were beginning to show up at stalls at the weekly market in a nearby town. Şükran's daughter practiced her English.
Şükran is fifty years old this year. She has an open face, large eyes and a sweet, soft smile. She laughs easily and she loves to cook. I liked her immediately. But like most homes in rural parts of eastern Turkey hers doesn't have a computer, let alone internet. And who writes letters anymore? I haven't seen Şükran in over two years, and right now I can't say when we'll meet again.
When Şükran opened the door to us that February afternoon she clapped her hand to her mouth. “Robyn! David! Here you are!" Her daughter, married nine months before and living in Istanbul, was home for a visit. We talked easily, and it felt like we’d been in touch all the eighteen months since we last met.
The view from Şükran's kitchen window
Şükran's kitchen is small -- just five or so feet of counter, a sink, a small refrigerator and a wood stove -- but it is as welcoming as a hug. She sets a generous table. After we finished bagging the bay leaves we made supper. Şükran showed me how to make the cake she’d served to Dave and I when we first met, a simple batter flavored with orange juice and zest as a substitute for the lemons that were out of season. While the cake baked we made polenta with the stone ground corn meal I’d bought that morning from the owner of the water mill. When the polenta was almost stiff Şükran turned it out onto a plate and used a spoon to shape it into a ring. She fried eggs laid by her hens that morning in her own fresh butter, slipped them into the middle of the polenta ring, and drizzled browned butter over all.
We six sat around a low table set between the kitchen’s sofas and ate, dipping pieces of bread into broken yolks and alternating mouthfuls of polenta with bites of green pepper pickle and spoonfuls of tangy yogurt. When the eggs were gone we sliced up the rest of the polenta and ate it with pekmez -- thick sweet molasses that Şükran had made the previous fall with figs from her trees.
By the time we finished it was dark. I was stuffed, unable to manage even a bite of dessert. So Şükran cut the cake into quarters and laid a piece onto a stack of paper napkins. She tied the parcel with a string and placed in my hands; the cake was still warm. We kissed each other good-bye, once on each cheek.
Şükran's Lemon Cake
I love this simple cake’s intense lemony flavor (yes, you will need all of that zest) and light crumb. I adapted the recipe from one given to me by my friend Şükran, who lives in a farmhouse overlooking the Black Sea. Şükran’s trees give especially fragrant Meyer lemons; juice and zest from regular lemons will also make a fine cake. In winter Şükran substitutes orange juice and zest and adds a handful of golden raisins to the batter.
I like this cake warm, when its top is a bit crackly and the crumb is especially light, but it’s good at room temperature too. It keeps for three or four days, covered.
Preparation time: About 1 hour
Makes one 9-inch by 9-inch cake
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 1/3 cup sugar
3 large eggs
¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons lemon juice
Grated zest of 6 lemons
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon fine salt
½ cup whole milk
- Turn the oven to 350F (180C) and place a rack in the middle. Lightly butter or oil a 9-inch by 9-inch baking pan.
- In a large bowl cream the sugar and butter until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition. Stir in the lemon juice and zest.
- In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt and add to the batter in three parts, alternating with the milk (finish with the dry ingredients). Do not overwork the batter -- stir just to combine after each addition.
- Pour the batter into the cake pan and place on a rack in the middle of the oven. Bake until the edges of the cake are light gold and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes before serving.