Creamy Turkish delights for Shavuot

Rich but refreshing, basic mallabi is as easy to make as vanilla pudding.

Just in time for Shavuot, the Anatolian Festival was held in early May and gave us delicious cooking ideas for the holiday of dairy delights. We had the chance to indulge in a variety of classic Middle Eastern specialties at the largest Turkish festival in the world, which took place in Irvine, California.
Inspiration for Shavuot seemed to be everywhere, beginning with the feta-filled pancake-like flatbreads called gozleme, and continuing with the rich, cheese-filled boereks, which we know in Israel as burekas. Cheese burekas served with a long-cooked brown egg was our favorite after-work treat in Tel Aviv. A sign, “burekas Turki,” sometimes posted on good burekas bakeries, was an indication that the establishment was serving authentic, superior burekas.
Most luscious of all was the festival’s selection of sweets. There was irresistible kunefe, known as knafe in Israel, made of kadaif (shredded filo) pastry, sweet cheese and pistachios, assembled and baked before our eyes. As if the buttery, lavish, nut-filled baklava that cooking demonstrator Oskur Yildiz prepared wasn’t rich enough, he recommended serving baklava with kaymak, the ultra-rich Turkish cream that resembles a sweet version of creme fraiche.
The selection of creamy puddings, which are traditional for Shavuot among Jews of Turkish origin, took us back to our favorite kind of eatery in Istanbul – the muhallebeci, or pudding shops. Actually, the exact translation would be muhallabi shops because they feature an array of wonderful, creamy desserts of that name, a Turkish specialty known in Israel as mallabi. Composed basically of milk, sugar and cornstarch, it’s the careful cooking and the variety of flavorings added, from rosewater to pistachios to almonds to chocolate, that make this dessert so delicious. Served cold, these sweet treats often have toppings – cinnamon, shredded coconut, chopped almonds, pistachios or dried cherries.
You could say that in Turkey, city children “are born under the sign of muhallabi,” wrote Istanbul-born Esther Benbassa, author of Cuisine Judeo-Espagnole, a book devoted to Turkish-Jewish specialties, who lovingly described these shops. “From birth, this velvety cream takes you on a milky path that you continue to follow as an adult. As soon as you put your nose outside your door, you find those store windows showing your palate the wealth of sweet dairy delights that sharpen your appetite without pity.”
At these muhallebeci, “you are condemned to enjoy sweet rice that melts in your mouth and... all the creamy sweet creations that the oriental imagination puts at the disposition of incorrigible gourmands... one sells one’s soul to the white goddess, mistress of this paradise of milk and cinnamon.” For us, these pudding shops were, indeed, heavenly. Growing up in Givatayim, Yakir loved mallabi, and he introduced me to this creamy dessert.
At the festival we enjoyed gullac (pronounce gullatch), a creamy, delicately sweet, walnut-topped dessert sometimes described as white noodle pudding. When we tasted it, we thought it was made of Chinese-type rice noodles, but we learned that the “noodles” are actually Turkish “gullac sheets” made of wheat flour and cornstarch that come dry and are traditionally moistened with milk.
We also sampled a creamy rice pudding known as sutlac (pronounced sutlatch), popular on Shavuot among Jews of Turkish as well as Greek origin. Made in many different versions, sutlac features rice or rice flour and can be a stovetop pudding or a baked dessert browned in the oven. Flavorings range from grated orange zest to rosewater to ground almonds to praline made of caramelized almonds. Slow simmering and stirring over low heat is the key to its superb flavor, noted Nicholas Stavroulakis, author of Cookbook of the Jews of Greece, who includes variations of the dessert from Rhodes and Salonika, and called sutlac “a great delicacy throughout the Near East.”
Rich but refreshing, basic mallabi is as easy to make as vanilla pudding and so is this more lavish version, made with almonds. It tastes best with a vanilla bean infused in the milk, but if you don’t have one, simply flavor the pudding with a little extra vanilla extract; add it after the dessert is cooked.
Whole milk is best but mallabi can be prepared with low-fat milk as well. If you’d like to make it parve, soy milk or rice milk work beautifully. If you like, serve the mallabi with sliced fresh ripe peaches or sweet berries.
3 cups milk
1 vanilla bean
1⁄4 cup finely chopped blanched almonds
1⁄4 cup cornstarch
4 to 5 Tbsp. sugar
1 to 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract or rosewater, or to taste
Heat the milk and vanilla bean to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let stand for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove vanilla bean.
Grind 2 tablespoons of the chopped almonds to a fine powder; reserve. If you like, lightly toast the remaining chopped almonds; reserve for garnish.
Mix cornstarch with 1⁄2 cup cold milk to a smooth paste. In a heavy saucepan combine remaining milk with sugar and bring to a simmer, stirring. Stir cornstarch mixture again until smooth and pour it gradually into the simmering milk, whisking rapidly. Bring to a boil over medium-high, stirring constantly. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring, for 5 minutes or until mixture becomes a thick, smooth pudding. Stir in the ground almonds.
Remove from heat and cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. Stir in vanilla. Transfer to shallow dessert dishes and refrigerate. Sprinkle with chopped almonds.
Makes 4 servings.
This recipe is from The Complete Book of Turkish Cooking by Ayla Esen Algar. She begins the pudding using the technique we learned in Paris, of cooking the rice first in water to soften it before continuing to cook it in milk; this method is much faster than cooking the rice directly in the milk. Unlike French rice pudding, this one contains cornstarch.
Some Turkish cooks prefer sutlac with a golden brown crust, as it is often served at Turkish pudding shops. If you prefer it that way, follow the note below.
1⁄2 cup white rice, short or long-grained
23⁄4 cups water
8 cups milk
5 Tbsp. cornstarch
11⁄2 cups sugar
Cinnamon for sprinkling
Combine rice and 2 cups water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover and simmer over low heat until rice is tender and the water is absorbed, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Combine milk and cooked rice in a large, heavy-based saucepan and bring to a boil.
Spoon cornstarch into a small bowl and gradually stir in 3⁄4 cup water. Gradually add cornstarch mixture to the simmering mixture of milk and rice, stirring constantly. Cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Add sugar and continue cooking until the mixture thickens slightly. Remove from heat, pour into individual bowls, and chill in the refrigerator. Serve sprinkled with cinnamon.
Makes 12 servings.
Note: If you’d like to serve sutlac with a golden crust, as it is often, pour the pudding into a buttered baking dish or individual buttered ramekins and bake it at 175º for 15 to 30 minutes or until the top is light golden. If you prefer a deep brown topping, brown the pudding in the broiler instead; if you do this, watch it carefully.

Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.