All home cooks have to clean their pantries from time to time, sorting out older grains, nuts and dried fruit. But imagine that task from the perspective of Noah and the human passengers aboard the Ark - what a state that pantry must have been in after 40 days and nights on a sea of floodwaters.
According to Islamic tradition, when the Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat in what is now Turkey, Noah and his crew (his wife, three sons and their wives) cooked their remaining grains, beans, nuts and dried fruit together to make a sweet pudding, which they ate in celebration and gratitude.
The prophet Muhammad later marked the date as the 10th day of Muharran on the lunar calendar, which roughly coincides with Jan. 19 on our solar schedules.
The holiday is called Ashura, which means ten. And this weekend, in the kitchens of Turkish Muslim families from Abington to Ankara, home cooks will mix up huge batches of a sweet, eggless custard called ashure or Noah's Pudding.
And this being an occasion for great joy and thankfulness, the pudding is made in massive quantities and shared with neighbors and the poor as a gesture of goodwill and in the spirit of unity with one another and the creator.
Ashure can be made with any combination of grains, beans and dried fruit, boiled and then simmered together for as long as five hours, cooled and then topped with a colorful mix of nuts, figs, coconut and pomegranate. (See recipe.)
Ertan Ergezen, a native of Istanbul who came to the University of Pennsylvania five years ago for a doctorate in engineering, recalls eating ashure as a boy.
"It's a very common practice in Turkey to make the pudding," he said. "It takes a full day. You have to soak the beans overnight. My mother always made it at this time of year. I can't tell you how she made it, but she made big pots of it."
Suzan Aydin, who serves on the board of directors of the Turkish American Friendship Society, says she's made Noah's Pudding so many times that the recipe is in her head - the measurements exacted in her eyes, and the consistency time-tested by her fingertips.
Aydin, who lives in Abington and returns often to her native Ankara, agreed to write down her recipe. But in order to do that, she had to make a batch - this time using measuring cups and spoons, noting the time and temperature for each step.
"Everybody has a slightly different way of making it," Aydin said when we showed up at her kitchen door. "And that's as it should be."
She held one hand aloft.
"Look," she said, "Are your fingers all the same?"
Her fingers were spread apart, to demonstrate her belief that difference is a natural state of being.
And just then, as if to drive the point home, Aydin's friend Gunes Hepcakar, who was visiting from Long Island, spoke up.
Hepcakar puts figs into the pot for the final half hour or so, until they are soft. Aydin uses figs only in the topping she sprinkles on the finished pudding.
"If you put the figs in while it's cooking, it alters the color of the pudding."
Hepcakar prefers to eat ashure warm, like porridge; Aydin likes it chilled. And when Aydin sprinkles a dash of rosewater from a decorative container known as a gulebdan, Hepcakar pipes up: "Don't put any in mine!"
Orange zest can replace the rosewater. Instead of the walnuts in her recipe, pistachios, hazelnuts, filberts or chestnuts can be used. And some people make ashure so thick you can cut it with a knife, Aydin says.
In Turkey, Aydin says, many cooks insist on starting with grains of whole wheat. But she and Hepcakar prefer barley because it cooks faster and is easier to find in this country.
Like so many of the foods that become entwined in our ethnic identity, ashure is savored for its effect on the soul. It's a dish that for Hepcakar recalls memories of a warm home, filled with friends.
"My mother would make a party for the whole neighborhood," she says smiling, "Everybody would bring ingredients and musical instruments and while the ashure was cooking, people would play and dance."
It is entirely possible that Noah and his human entourage also made a more savory stew with other leftovers, but legend doesn't lead us in that direction. Still, Ergezen, the Penn student, recalls that his grandmother's ashure was salty instead of sweet - and thin, like soup.
"Who knows what Noah put in it?" Aydin says pragmatically. "God knows - he may have had only two grains of rice."
Ashure or Noah's Pudding
Makes 25 servings
For the pudding:
1 1/3 cups barley, soaked overnight
2/3 cup long grain white rice
1 cup canned white beans
1 cup canned chickpeas
3 cups sugar, or more to taste
2/3 cup golden raisins, soaked overnight
1 cup dried apricots, cut in small cubes
3 tablespoons rosewater, optional
For the topping:
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1/4 to 1/2 cup figs cut in small cubes
2 tablespoons Zante currants
2 tablespoons coconut flakes
2 tablespoons slivered almonds
2 to 3 tablespoons pomegranate kernels
To make the pudding:
1. Drain the barley, discard the water. Fill a 3- to 5-quart pot with fresh water, add the barley and rice. Bring the water to a boil, then simmer for roughly one hour, stirring often. (Additional water may be necessary as the pudding cooks, so keep a kettle of hot water on another burner and add as needed if the liquid becomes too thick before all the ingredients are soft. Keep the water level constant.)
2. Drain the chickpeas and white beans, add to the pot. Continue cooking and stirring. After roughly 30 minutes, add the sugar gradually, then the golden raisins and apricots.
3. Continue cooking and stirring. After roughly two hours of total cooking time, test for doneness: Using a slotted spoon, lift some of the ingredients from the pot, cool and taste. If any of the ingredients still seem too firm, continue cooking and taste again in another 30 minutes. The liquid in the pudding should be creamy but not thick.
4. Rosewater may be sprinkled into the pudding at this point.
5. Remove the pot from the heat. Cool approximately 30 minutes and then transfer into glass or Pyrex containers for additional cooling. When the pudding is room temperature, refrigerate. Serve slightly chilled or at room temperature in small bowls, sprinkled generously with topping and kernels of pomegranate.
To make the topping:
1. Mix the figs, walnuts, almonds, currants and coconut flakes in a small bow. Cover until ready for use.
2. Remove kernels from fresh pomegranate and keep in a separate bowl until ready for use.
216 calories, 4 grams protein, 48 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams sugar, 1 gram fat, no cholesterol, 26 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.