Of the many memories of my trip to Israel about twenty years ago, one stands out in particular. Waiting in Tel Aviv for sofagirl to arrive, I took myself to Jaffa, the oldest part of the city, and wandered around without seeking anything in particular.
Jaffa has a kind of souk, a flea market, where I bought a $5 sundress I still wear around the house – much to my mother’s chagrin, who deems it “just awful” . Feeling hungry, I eyed what seemed to be a very popular stall selling all kinds of baked goods ,and I stood in line. Mistake. As in Italy, in Israel queuing up will get you nowhere. At first timidly, surrounded as I was by Israeli soldiers with rifles and housewives with menacing shopping bags – and speaking not a stitch of either Hebrew or Arabic – I began elbowing my way in and pointing randomly at what seemed attractive.
I didn’t quite know it at the time but in the paper bag I carried all the way back to the hotel were a couple of cheese bourekas.
Bourekas are ubiquitous – under slightly different names – all over the Middle East and Eastern Europe. They probably originated in Anatolia and worked their way south. Made either with phyllo dough or puff pastry (the most common type in Israel), they are triangle-shaped pastries with fillings mostly centered on local cheeses. In Israel, they come in a million variety of flavors, from chickpea to mushrooms, from mashed potatoes to cheese and they are often consumed for breakfast or as a lunch on the go.
Even Tuscany has its own bourekas, otherwise known as burecchi, which are served as appetizers. Puff pastry is indeed the easiest options if you need an appetizer or some cocktail munchies that will look more elegant and time consuming than they actually are. I am a big fan.
Recently I worked with a Tuscan recipe which called for beef but which I made using ground turkey instead. I also made a classic version with just feta cheese and spinach, always a crowd pleaser. You can make a whole bunch, freeze them, and take them out as necessity arises, or guests show up at your door unannounced.
Start with some good store-bought puff pastry – I prefer all butter pastry. Thaw the sheets and, while still slightly hard, cut them into squares, no smaller than 2” by 2”. Set aside.
For a feta cheese and spinach filling, use a ratio of 2:1 feta to spinach. Cook some spinach (either fresh or frozen), squeeze all the water out and chop it. Mix it in a bowl with feta cheese, one egg, a generous sprinkle of pepper and a bit of salt (as the feta is salty, go easy and taste as you go).
For a beef filling: cook some ground beef in a bit of olive oil. Add salt, pepper and a splash of milk. Let cook until all the water is absorbed. In the meantime, soak one or two slices of bread in milk. Mix the beef with the bread, squeezed of as much liquid as possible, one egg, a dash of cinnamon and a handful of raisins.
Place a generous heap of filling at the center of each square of puff pastry.
Fold the square in half to form a triangle and lightly pinch the border together.
Brush some egg yolk diluted with a bit of water over the top of the pastry and sprinkle some sesame seeds on top.
Bake at 375F/190C for about 15 minutes, or until golden. Serve warm or at room temperature (if baking straight from the freezer, increase baking time by 7 to 10 minutes).