Counting sheep

Boasting many particular and surprising health benefits, sheep’s milk and cheeses are well worth your attention

June 21, 2011 09:31
4 minute read.

Cheese. (photo credit: MCT)

I’ve always had a certain fondness for sheep. They are fluffy. I love to see them grazing in the field.

The little lambs are adorable, and they have such sweet expressions. And growing up a city girl as I did, I never thought to associate my mother’s delicious lamb chops with… a formerly live lamb, just like most people don’t think “sheep” when they’re enjoying one of the succulent Arab-style lamb dishes.

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Interestingly enough, I also never gave much thought to sheep’s cheeses.

We’re all intimately familiar with cow’s milk and cheeses, because they are the most widespread and popularly consumed (and more cost-effective for manufacturers to produce), and many people know that goat’s cheeses are considered healthier and better for human consumption than their cow counterparts.

But sheep’s milk? Although in some countries, like Italy, home of the Pecorino (from pecora, meaning sheep in Italian), sheep’s milk is revered. But in Israel it is sorely downplayed. In fact, while “cow” always appears on cow’s milk products, and “goat” always appears on goat’s milk products, most dairy manufacturers use the word tzon, a biblical word for sheep and goats together, for their sheep’s milk products, which is actually misleading since goat’s and sheep’s milk are never mixed in one cheese.

And what a shame, because much like goat’s milk, sheep’s milk has some particular health benefits.

Some surprising facts about sheep’s milk include: more calcium than cow’s or goat’s milk; 150% more protein than cow’s milk; twice as much iron as cow’s or goat’s milk; three times more vitamin C than cow’s milk; low in lactose.

In addition, sheep’s milk is richer in vitamins A, B and E, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium than cow’s milk, and contains a higher portion of short- and medium-chain fatty acids, which have known health benefits. Only 93 grams of sheep’s cheese meet daily calcium requirements and those of riboflavin and five of the essential 10 amino acids.

Good to know, right? There are many cheeses besides Pecorino based traditionally on sheep’s milk, like the Cypriot haloumi, Spanish manchego and Greek feta, and several of these are available in local versions as well. According to the Dotan (sheep) dairy, one of its best-sellers is sheep’s ricotta cheese, but it also has cheddar, Brinza and Tzfatit.

Other artisanal dairies making sheep’s cheese include Hanoked and Shirat Ro’im, the latter in Kfar Kisch in Galilee.

Hanoked even offers seminars in cheese making, an ideal way to get your goat. Or sheep.

Makes about 40 to 50 (recipe can be halved)

This classic family recipe is from Gil Hovav, a cookbook author and television personality who was born in Jerusalem in the 1960s to a Ladino-speaking family that has lived in the city for generations.

For the dough:
✔ 31⁄2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
✔ 1 Tbsp. salt
✔ 1 cup butter
✔ 2 Tbsp. vinegar
✔ 3⁄4 cup yogurt or sour cream

For the filling:
✔ 2 medium eggplants
✔ 120 gr. sheep’s feta cheese, drained
✔ 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
✔ 1 egg yolk and 1 Tbsp. water for brushing
✔ Sesame seeds

1. Place the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor and drop in cubes of butter until coarse crumbs are formed. Add the vinegar and yogurt and pulse until a ball forms around the blade.

2. Remove, knead briefly and divide into 3 balls. Cover each with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator overnight or at least 4 hours.

3. Roast the eggplant on all sides. Place in a paper bag, close and let sit for 10 minutes before peeling the eggplant and scooping out the flesh with a spoon.

4. Place the eggplant flesh in a wire mesh strainer and let stand 30 minutes to drain.

5. Mash the eggplant with the feta cheese and black pepper.

(Do not use a food processor.) Set aside.

6. Preheat the oven to 180ºC, and line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let stand till easy to work with (but not too soft).

7.Roll out one ball thinly on a lightly floured surface and use a 5- to 7-cm. wide glass or pastry cutter to cut out circles. Gather up the remainders and roll out again to form more circles.

Repeat with the other balls of dough. You should have between 40 and 50 circles.

8. Lay the circles on top of the parchment paper. Keep the bowl with the filling and a bowl of cold water on the side. Put a level teaspoon of the filling in the bottom of each circle, and use a finger dipped in water to moisten the edges. Fold over to form a half-moon shape, pinching the edges tightly shut. (Don’t be tempted to put too much filling in or the bourekas will burst open during baking.) Repeat with the rest of the circles.

9. Brush the bourekas with the egg yolk beaten with water, and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm.

Can be frozen before or after baking. (If freezing before baking, do not defrost.)

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