Finding a new apartment is one of my least favorite things to do. It just brings back visions of all of those horrible, horrible tiny smelly flats that I would find myself standing in, with a real estate agent intoning that this was the last apartment available on the planet Earth, so I had to make my mind up in the next five minutes. Antalya, being a complete unknown for both Ali and myself, was no better. We spent one soul-killing day looking at depressing places and it was enough to make me wonder if we should just forget about the whole thing and let Baki’s education go down the drain. Was it really so important that he go to a good school right away?
Then Ali remembered to call in his cousin, Cigdem, who moved to Antalya after she retired a while back. Within the day, she had found us a place to look at just a few blocks away from where she lives. I drove in to see it with Kaya, and it was such a far cry from the places we’d seen, I never looked back. We moved in on the first day of school, September 12 and Cigdem became out neighbor.
Since then, we see Cigdem often, and she has been an invaluable source of information and support. Hooray for extended family!
The Friday before last, after Baki had gone to school, Cigdem called. “We’re making helva. Come over and I’ll teach you.” She and a friend were making a wish, she explained, and they had to make helva to seal the deal. This was flour helva we were talking about. As far as I know, flour helva and semolina helva are kitchen work, while the sesame helva is left to the professionals. Still, flour helva is nothing to be sneezed at. I don’t know anyone who would turn it down, not even Ali, and he is certifiably lacking a sweet tooth. Flour helva is pure evil, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That is to say, it is comfort food that is horribly bad for you.
Cigdem and her friend have on occasion, they told me, appealed to Aceleci Baci. You can ask him for favors, they said, if you promise to make him helva when they are granted. The helva can also be made up front, as they were doing, in which case, for good measure, you could think about your request while stirring. This makes flour helva a good match for the task of concentrated wishing, as there is plenty of stirring involved.
Cigdem’s recipe is simplicity itself:
1 part sugar
2 parts flour
½ part olive oil
½ part butter
The oil and butter went straight into the pan with the flour. Then the stirring began – in order for the helva to taste the way it ought to, the flour needs to be toasted in the fat until it is a nice biscuity brown. Don’t stop stirring, or it will scorch. The smell is a tip off – when it has a lovely nutty smell and is the color of a roasted peanut, you’re there. We took turns. Then Cigdem poured off about a third of the sugar and replaced it with water. She stirred it to make a sugar slurry and poured that into the flour. Stirring briskly to mix it all evenly, she then added the remaining dry sugar “to pull it together,” she said, stirring all the while. A few more turns of the spoon to melt the sugar, and the helva was ready. Cigdem took soup spoons and pressed the helva between them one spoonful at a time to make little egg shaped morsels. Then we sat for Turkish coffee and helva.
(Ali contends that without pine nuts, un helvasi is only half the pleasure it ought to be. If you use them, toast them first.)
It’s a pretty sweet deal (in all senses of the word) that you get to make a wish and eat the helva yourself. And as it turned out, I had a wish of my own. After years of absolute freedom, Baki was having a little trouble adjusting to life in the classroom. He came home every night with piles of homework, mostly due to the fact that, according to the terse notes that I received from his teacher, he was not doing any work at all in class. In addition, he was demonstrating his lack of classroom experience by leaving the room through the window. In short, he was behaving as if he had been raised by wolves. Homework sessions were torturous, and were driving me to madness. The minute that he sat down in at the table, Baki was suddenly bone tired, or starving hungry, or his back was itching. It was honestly the first time since Baki was born that I regretted becoming a mother. So I made a silent wish for Baki to settle down just a little and apply himself ever so slightly to his work.
On the following Monday, Ali and I went in to talk to Baki’s teacher and the guidance counselor at his school. I went feeling pretty defensive and expecting the worst, but it was not a bad meeting at all. His teacher could see that Baki wasn’t misbehaving because he was an animal. As we discussed the matter, it became clear that Baki just didn’t have the patience to sit and do the work, and we would have to slowly acclimate him to it. Last week, I changed my homework tactics and let him take more breaks so he wouldn’t burn out so fast. The homework still took ages, but while he was working he was far more focused.
Then on Friday he came home and he had done so much of his classwork that he barely had any homework at all. Thank you, Aceleci Baci! So on Sunday night when we got back to Antalya from a weekend in the garden, I made a small batch of un helvasi. As I was breastfeeding in the bedroom, I heard Ali offer Baki a piece. Baki was hesitant until Ali explained that it was dessert. “Oh…” said Baki. Silence. “This stuff is awesome!” he said. Another fan is born.