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This past January, I took a seventeen-day trip to Turkey and Greece, basically because I found an absurdly cheap plane ticket.
But maybe, when I got right down to it, I had decided to go to for the Turkish food. Our first stop was Istanbul, where the thousands-year-old historical sites and grand mosques were well and nice, but I was determined to get the best baklava and would not be stopped until I had sampled every single one.
Though I had spent hours researching the best spots for mackerel sandwiches, simit, and full Turkish breakfasts, I had barely looked into the city’s nightlife scene. Istanbul does not have a widespread bar culture; instead, young people cluster around cafés, chain-smoking skinny cigarettes and sipping tulip glass upon tulip glass of cay, an omnipresent black tea typically drunk with sugar. We decided to follow the locals’ example.
We settled ourselves in a crowded café and asked for a menu. It was laminated and had English translations, which is typically a bad sign, but we went with it. After deciding it was too late for caffeine, we decided to try a dessert. (Turks have a notorious sweet tooth, and almost every café has a quality selection of sweets.) As staunch tahini-philes, we ordered the caramel tahini soufflé and sat back to watch the stray cats of Istanbul weave their way between the legs of the chairs.
What arrived at our table was more than either of us could have ever expected.
In the middle of the plate was a tan, circular cake, garnished with pink-streaked ice cream and mint leaves. The outside of the cake was set, but when we broke into it with our spoons, tahini filling spilled out. We took a bite. The tahini flavor hit us first—nutty and rich but tamed by a kick of salt. Then came the luxe sweetness of the caramel and, finally, that slightly bitter tahini aftertaste that kept us sticking our spoons back in for more. It was like a molten chocolate cake, but infinitely more interesting. And more addictive.
After we had scraped the last of the tahini filling off the plate, we sat in awe. We contemplated ordering another one, but decided that we would return again before we left.
We never did.
But at each place we ate for the remainder of the trip, we checked the dessert menu for tahini soufflé. The closest we found was a tahini pudding (sadly, nothing to write home about). And online research yielded next to no information about tahini soufflés—they seemed to exist off the grid.
I knew I had to share this incredible dessert with the world. The beauty of the tahini-fied molten cake had to be replicated. And I was the woman to do it.
The recipe hack:
When I returned home to the U.S., I spent hours scouring the internet for tahini soufflé recipes, to little avail. Turkish cookbooks were similarly mum on the subject. Finally, I stumbled upon a Greek blog (thank you, Google Translate!) that featured a similar-looking dessert. The post named the ingredients for the recipe but did not give any instruction for how to combine or bake the actual dessert. Finally, I came across a molten peanut cake from Katie Button, chef and co-owner of Asheville, North Carolina’s renowned tapas restaurant Cúrate. The structure of the cake seemed similar to the one I had eaten in Istanbul, at least from the photo. I decided to fuse the two sources and build a recipe of my own.
I took my general ingredient measures from the Greek blog and my instructions from the Cúrate recipe. However, I used only granulated sugar, and reduced the amount of egg whites from four to two, so that the fat from the yolks could really shine. I also reduced the flour from 90 grams (almost 3/4 cup) to two tablespoons, since that first measurement seemed like a lot and the Cúrate recipe had no flour at all. (But so many—eleven!—egg yolks!)
Once I made my tweaks, I began to bake.
My first attempt came out a bit too puffed, more akin to an actual souffle than a gooey molten cake. It also stuck horribly to my ramekin, despite the fact that I had buttered and lined it with parchment paper. The flavor, however, was great—though maybe a bit too sweet and mild.
For my second attempt, I upped the tahini and the salt, cut out the baking soda in an attempt to flatten out the cake, and used a nonstick cooking spray instead of butter and parchment paper to grease the ramekin. The flavor was much improved and the cake unmolded without a hitch, but the inside was way too liquidy, while the outside was barely set. I wanted a higher cake-to-goo ratio.
For my third attempt, I lowered the oven temperature and baked the cake for twelve minutes, until the center was just short of set. And it was just right.
I have attempted to hack several recipes before (rabbit pasta from Maialino in New York, lentil salad from Public... the list goes on), but never with such little to go on—or to such success. It may not be a carbon copy of the dessert I tried in Istanbul, but my soufflé is a product of passion and invention, with a little tahini thrown in.
I don’t care if I got it exactly right—my recipe tastes damn good.
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup tahini, stirred
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs, separated into white and yolks, plus 4 additional egg yolks (6 eggs total)
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- Confectioners sugar, for dusting