I have an MA in English literature and I taught poetry and composition for years, but I feel like I never fully, completely understood metaphor. Like, can something be a metaphor for itself? Maybe that’s more like synecdoche? That being said, I’m not sure this is going to be the most compelling thesis, but I’m gonna go ahead with it anyway: this recipe is kind of a metaphor for itself. On the surface, it looks like a food trend. Savory monkey bread is such a fun twist on a classic—there’s Molly Yeh’s za’atar monkey bread recipe from her fabulous book, and my friend Mai’s delicious recipe for halloumi-stuffed za’atar monkey bread, which inspired my recipe. But at its core, at its cheesy center, this recipe is actually all about my family history.
When my grandmother’s family would celebrate Easter on their farm in Syria, my great grandmother, Yemmah Sourma, would always stuff one of the samoon with a little bit of gubta mtumarta (Assyrian cheese that’s preserved by mixing it with caraway seeds and burying it in clay jars underground), and whichever of their four kids got the cheese-stuffed roll got a little special present. (Although, I think the real treat was probably that the winner got to eat the extra-delicious roll.)
As a millennial who grew up playing for softball teams that awarded trophies to all the kids, I think we all deserve a piece of cheese-stuffed bread (just another reason why millennials are actually secretly the coolest), so don’t worry, no one will be left disappointed here. Although… this certainly kills the suspense of “who’s going to get the cheesy roll?!,” which has its own appeal and history. If you’re looking for a compromise, maybe try leaving one piece empty. After all, a prize might be necessary to console the person who drew the short, cheeseless straw.
My friend Mai’s recipe is similarly generously laden with cheesy centers, and inspired by her childhood memories of eating za’atar and labneh sandwiches with friends at school. Food is such a representation of who we are and where we come from, even when it appears new, yet recognizable, in an unexpected way.
gubta mtumarta stuffed monkey bread
For the parsley oil:
2 large cloves garlic
1 small bunch parsley, washed and dried (reserve and chop a couple sprigs for garnish)
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
For the cheese filling:
2.5 ounces grated parmigiano reggiano (or another hard, salty cheese, like pecorino romano)
6 ounces grated fontina or fontinella
5 ounces manouri (or another soft, mild, crumbly cheese, like ricotta salata or a mild feta)
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
To stuff and bake:
2 pounds pizza dough
cheese filling (above)
parsley oil (above)
parsley for garnish (optional)
- Make the parsley oil: In a food processor, finely mince the garlic. Then add the parsley and pulse a few times to coarsely chop. Add the olive oil, salt, and pepper, and blend until the parsley is finely minced and the oil is green. Set aside in a medium mixing bowl.
- Make the cheese filling: Use a fork to combine the cheeses and caraway seeds (you can mash them until they’re homogenous, or leave them chunky—you’re choice!). Be sure to break up the pieces of manouri/feta.
- Stuff and bake the bread: Divide and shape the pizza dough into 20 balls (lightly flour your work surface if the dough is too sticky).
- Flatten one of the balls and place 1 slightly heaping tablespoon cheese filling in the center. Seal it up by pinching the ends together. Place the stuffed dough ball in the mixing bowl full of parsley oil. Repeat with the remaining balls, occasionally carefully tossing them around in the oil to keep them from sticking together (pace yourself with the filling so you have enough).
- Place the parsley-oiled dough balls seam-side-up in a bundt pan (or another round baking pan). If there are a few drops of oil remaining in the bottom of the bowl, drizzle them over the bundt pan (or discard if you prefer).
- Preheat the oven to 350° F and let the bundt pan rest at room temperature for about 40 minutes before baking.
- Bake for about 40 minutes, until the bread is cooked through and golden brown on top.
- Let it cool in the pan for about 5 minutes before inverting onto a plate. Let it cool for at least 10 more minutes before garnishing with parsley and serving.
Feel free to make this easy dipping sauce to go with it:
jajik dipping sauce (optional)
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons chopped dill (or parsley if you prefer)
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 small clove garlic, crushed with a garlic press or finely minced
- While the bread is baking, stir together the yogurt, dill, pepper, salt, olive oil, and garlic.