spiced gurdthu with fresh figs

Gurdthu with Cardamom, Vanilla, and Bay Leaves

When writing about Middle Eastern food, it's often impossible to assign particular dishes to particular cultures. For instance, baklawa, hummusgrape leaves, and labneh, (and many, many more) are central to many different cuisines throughout the region. But while there is a lot of overlap and influence, there are also some important differences and nuances, and each cuisine has its own specialties and unique creations.

That's all just to say that I often blog about dishes that Assyrian cuisine has in common with many other cultures (some are our own inventions that have become widespread, and some are dishes that we have adopted from the many nations we inhabit), but there are some things that we make that are unique to our culture. As far as I can tell, gurdthu is one of those things.

Yogurt and Rice

Gurdthu marries two of the most important staples of our cuisine, yogurt and rice, to create the creamiest rice porridge imaginable. To make very traditional gurdthu, we ferment yogurt from scratch, but we let it go extra long until it becomes very sour. Then we mix together the yogurt, rice, egg, and water and stir it constantly while bringing it to a simmer. Once it's simmering, we reduce the heat to low and let it cook until the rice becomes very soft and the whole thing thickens into a beautiful, rich, velvety custard.

cardamom, vanilla, bay leaves

Gurdthu is delicious plain, but it's also traditionally served with a variety of toppings. If you tend to like sweet rice pudding, it's lovely with a drizzle of honey or date syrup. My favorite traditional gurdthu topping is melted butter, and swirling in both butter and honey makes this comfort food at its absolute best. Some people even like to eat gurdthu with Turkish coffee dusted on top, but that's just a little too efficient for my taste.

I'm currently working on a traditional gurdthu post, with homemade yogurt and the whole shebang, but for now I'll leave you with my current favorite, since I love finding new ways to enjoy gurdthu. Lately I've been steeping it with bay leaves, cardamom, and vanilla, and then drizzling honey on top and serving it with fresh figs, which are at their sweetest right now. Bay leaves seem to have become pigeon-holed in savory foods, but they can add flavor to a lot more things than a pot roast. They work perfectly with vanilla and cardamom, and give everything a floral flavor that's not too cloying. But the flavor of bay leaves is subtle, so it's important to make sure you're not using expired ones.

Gurdthu with Cardamom, Vanilla, and Bay Leaves

spiced gurdthu with fresh figs

yield: 8 servings
total time: 40 minutes
active time: 20 minutes
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  • 4 cups plain whole milk yogurt (1 quart container of non-Greek yogurt or 1/4 of a homemade batch)

  • 1 1/2 cups water

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1 beaten egg

  • 2/3 cup medium grain rice, rinsed (e.g., Calrose)

  • 1 vanilla bean, scraped

  • 1 large or 2 small bay leaves

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom, plus more for sprinkling

  • Honey, for serving

  • 6 to 8 figs, cut into pieces (or another fruit if figs are not in season, such as berries or cherries).

  1. In a stock pot, whisk together the yogurt, water, and salt.

  2. Beat the egg in a small bowl and then whisk it into the yogurt mixture.

  3. Stir in the rice, vanilla bean pod and scrapings, bay leaves, and cardamom, and place the stockpot over medium heat. Stir constantly while you bring it to a simmer, about 10 to 15 minutes. Once it comes to a simmer, lower the heat until it is maintaining a bare simmer (low or medium-low heat).

  4. Continue to stir occasionally for 20 minutes, until the rice is cooked through and the yogurt has thickened. Remove the bay leaves and vanilla pod once it is done.

  5. Serve it hot or let it cool to room temperature. Serve with a drizzle of honey, a pinch of cardamom, and a few fig pieces.

Gurdthu with Cardamom, Vanilla, and Bay Leaves

botanical baklawa

Rose Pistachio Baklava

A few months ago, I was making quite a lot of buttery cardamom baklawa to make sure the recipe was absolutely perfect before posting it. Baklawa (also known as baklava) is the kind of thing where you make a huge batch and then share it with friends and family, so I was bummed that I couldn't share any with my friend, Laura. She gave birth to a beautiful baby girl in October, and since she's been breastfeeding, Laura has stopped eating dairy. So one day, when I was going on and on about baklawa (maybe it's not surprising that this is something I tend to do), I asked Laura if she had any ideas for making it dairy-free, and she suggested replacing the butter with extra virgin olive oil. I was immediately intrigued because lemon olive oil cake is one of my favorite desserts—why not use the same flavors in baklawa?

Unbaked Baklava
Olive Oil

So we got together to test out this theory, and as we suspected, olive oil works perfectly in baklawa. It somehow tastes even butterier than butter and makes all of the layers extra crispy, so they completely shatter with each bite. It might sound kind of strange if you've never tried using extra virgin olive oil in dessert, but trust me when I say that it absolutely does not make the baklawa taste like you drizzled it with a vinaigrette, or worse, kalamata olive brine. It just somehow works.

The olive oil adds another interesting nutty flavor to the walnuts and pistachios, especially when the pistachios are a little roasted. I decided to add rose, which is a very traditional baklawa flavoring, to contrast with these earthy flavors. Rose petals and rosewater add an intoxicating fragrance that brings out the botanical qualities of the olive oil, cardamom, cinnamon, and honey. When the fragrant honey and rosewater hits the earthy, crispy filo, walnuts, and pistachios, the whole thing smells like a rainy garden.

After our successful olive oil experiment, I called my grandmother, the woman who first taught me how to make baklawa, to tell her the exciting news about our innovation. She listened patiently to my story, and then casually broke the news to me, her millennial granddaughter, that this has certainly been done before. "We used to make baklawa with olive oil whenever the bishop or cardinal would come to our house. We would make everything with olive oil because they keep a vegan diet." So there you have it: there is nothing new under the sun.

Pouring Honey on Baklava
botanical baklawa
Rose Pistachio Baklava

Botanical Baklawa

yield: approximately 3 to 6 dozen pieces (depending on how you slice them)
active time: 35 minutes
total time: 2 1/2 hours
more baklawa

1 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus an extra tablespoon for greasing
16 ounces walnuts, about 4 cups medium-chopped
5 ounces powdered sugar, about 1 cup
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
16-ounce container of filo dough sheets (do not open until the recipe tells you to)
16 ounces honey
1 to 3 teaspoons rosewater (to taste) *
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons finely chopped pistachios
3 tablespoons crumbled edible dried rose petals (optional) **

  • Preheat the oven to 350° F.

  • Use the extra tablespoon of olive oil to grease a rimmed sheet pan (at least 12" x 16").

  • Combine chopped walnuts, powdered sugar, cardamom, and kosher salt, and set aside.

  • Once everything is mixed together, open the filo dough container and place half of the filo dough on the sheet pan. Be careful to work somewhat quickly so that the filo dough does not dry out.

  • Spread the chopped walnut mixture evenly over the filo dough.

  • Place the rest of the filo dough on top of the walnut mixture.

  • Cut the baklawa into diamonds by slicing straight across in the short direction, then diagonally in the other direction (see more instructive photos here). It's best to work with a very sharp or serrated knife so that you don't tear, stretch, or dishevel the filo. It's alright if a few of the pieces go a little awry, but you want everything to stay pretty lined up.

  • Drizzle the olive oil evenly all over the baklawa.

  • Cook the baklawa in the oven for about 25 to 30 minutes, until it has lightly browned. (Start checking after 15 minutes of baking).

  • While the baklawa bakes, gradually add the rosewater to the honey, until the honey is properly fragranced. The potency of rosewater varies a lot from brand to brand, and also depends on freshness, so taste as you go. You should be able to distinctly taste the rose, but it should not taste soapy or perfumey.

  • Cool the baklawa at room temperature in the pan for about 5 to 10 minutes, until it's still warm, but not radiating heat from the top. Once cooled to this point, immediately pour the rosewater honey evenly over the top.

  • Immediately top with ground pistachios and rose petals.

  • Let it sit until it comes to room temperature, at least one hour.

  • Cut through the same lines you made before baking and serve. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or the freezer for up to 3 months.

* You can find rosewater at Middle Eastern or Indian markets. You can also find it online (just make sure you find an edible one, rather than a cosmetic one). Different varieties vary in strength, so you should taste as you go.
** Dried edible rose petals can be found in most tea or spice shops, or online. Most of the rose flavor in this recipe comes from the rose water, but if you leave these out, just add a touch more rosewater to compensate.

Note: If you have any leftover baklawa, you can freeze it and turn it into baklawa frozen yogurt. In the frozen yogurt recipe, add about a teaspoon of rosewater to the yogurt and substitute cinnamon for half of the cardamom.

botanical baklawa