Dairy delights from the Levant

For Shavuot I relish Sephardi specialties, like Turkish cheese burekas.

cheese 88 (photo credit: )
cheese 88
(photo credit: )
For Shavuot, as much as I love to make my mother's Ashkenazi dairy treats like cheesecake and blintzes, I also relish Sephardi specialties, like the famous Turkish cheese boregi, or burekas as they are called in Israel. A couple of months ago I began planning my Shavuot menu, when I tasted a delicious cousin of burekas at the Anatolian Cultures and Cuisine Festival in Irvine, California. It was a warm, crisp, finger-shaped pastry with a flavorful feta cheese filling in a filo shell. At the burekas booth at the festival, the women fried the pastries in oil in a skillet and they were scrumptious. This was not the first time I had tried this Turkish treat, which is called peynirli sigara boregi, or cigar-shaped burekas with cheese. I sampled these rich appetizers during my visits to Istanbul, and later at Sako's Mediterranean cuisine, a Turkish restaurant in Los Angeles. Because the pastries are slim and small, they often have a more intensely flavored cheese filling than many burekas. Like a similar speciality from the southern shores of the Mediterranean - Moroccan cigars - part of their charm lies in the pleasing contrast of the crisp shell and the flavorful filling. But unlike the Moroccan cigars I have sampled, these savory starters have a dairy filling and thus are great for a Shavuot dinner. Sephardi Jews in Turkey made a triangular shaped version of these pastries called filikas. In her book, Cuisine Judeo-Espagnole, Esther Benbassa wrote that the filling of these filo pastries is made from white sheep's milk cheese (a type of feta) and grated yellow cheese mixed with mashed potatoes, eggs and parsley. The pastries are fried and served hot. Meri Badi, author of 250 Recettes de Cuisine Juive Espagnole, specifies that either thin or thick filo dough can be used. For the yellow cheese, she prefers kashkaval. A finger-shaped cheese pastry is also made in Lebanon. According to Ibrahim Mouzannar, author of La Cuisine Libanaise, you make it by filling thick filo dough with grated kashkaval or Gruyere (Swiss-type cheese) mixed with chopped onion and parsley; for a more delicate filling, you mix labaneh with chopped onion, parsley and a pinch of nutmeg. After rolling up the pastry into finger shapes, you either fry it in olive oil or bake it with margarine. For serving the cheese pastry fingers as a festive Shavuot appetizer, I like to bake them with butter and accompany them with a fresh mushroom sauce. SAVORY CHEESE FILO FINGERS Cigar- or finger-shaped pastries are one of the most popular forms of cheese-filled beurreks. Their appeal is in their rich, layered dough and flavorful, cheesy filling. Cigar-shaped beurreks can be baked, pan-fried or deep fried. Some like their filo buttery, while others prefer to brush theirs with olive oil or margarine. For frying the fingers as crisp hors d'oeuvres, the dough is not brushed with oil during the process of shaping it; instead cooks brush a little water at the end of the filled pastry to seal it. The filling is easy to make. Choose the balance of cheeses according to your taste - pungent or mild. In the Mideast the most popular cheeses for fillings are feta type cheeses, semi-soft, sliceable salty cheeses like ackawi, or grating cheeses like kashkaval or Swiss. To balance feta's sharpness, it is often is combined with a bland cheese like farmer's cheese or ricotta, as in this recipe. You can shape these pastries and freeze them, then bake them without thawing. Allow about 5 extra minutes for them to heat through. 225 gr. filo dough (about 8 to 10 sheets) 1⁄4 cup farmer's cheese (dry cottage cheese) or ricotta cheese 3⁄4 cup finely crumbled feta cheese or grated Gruyere, Swiss or kashkaval cheese, or half feta and half grated cheese 1 large egg, beaten lightly 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried (optional) 2 to 3 Tbsp. chopped parsley salt (optional) and freshly ground pepper to taste 85 gr. to 110 gr. or 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup melted butter, mild olive oil or mixture of butter and oil, for brushing dough If filo sheets are frozen, thaw them in the refrigerator 8 hours or overnight. Let filo sheets stand at room temperature, still in their package, for 2 hours before using. To make the filling, mash farmer's cheese with feta cheese in a bowl and stir until blended. Add egg, dill, parsley, pepper and salt if needed. Mix until smooth. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or butter them. Unwrap filo sheets and unroll them on a dry towel. With a sharp knife, cut stack in half lengthwise. Immediately cover filo with plastic wrap. Work with only one sheet at a time, keeping remaining sheets covered so they do not dry out. Remove one filo strip from pile. Brush it lightly with melted butter. Spoon 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons filling in a strip near end of filo closest to you, arranging it to extend nearly to the edge. Fold bottom edge of filo over filling. Fold the two sides of the filo, to your left and right, inward slightly over filling, then roll up tightly in a finger shape, brushing dough with more butter halfway through rolling if you like. Set pastry, seam side down, on baking sheet. Brush lightly with butter. Shape more fingers with remaining filo and filling. Preheat oven to 175º. Bake pastries for 15 minutes or until very light golden. Cool slightly on a rack before serving. Serve them warm, not hot, or at room temperature. Makes about 15 to 18 pastries, about 5 or 6 servings. MUSHROOM SAUCE Serve this sauce separately, for each person to add at the last moment, so the filo fingers won't get soggy. The sauce is also good as an accompaniment for potato- or spinach-filled burekas or tossed with cooked pasta. 2 or 3 Tbsp. butter, or half butter and half olive oil 1 small onion, minced 170 gr. to 225 gr. mushrooms, halved and sliced salt and freshly ground pepper 1 tsp. sweet paprika 3 Tbsp. all purpose flour 11⁄3 cups vegetable broth 1 Tbsp. tomato paste 1⁄4 cup whipping cream or milk 1 tsp. dried thyme hot paprika or cayenne pepper to taste 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley Heat butter in a large saute pan or skillet, add onion and saute over medium heat 5 minutes. Add mushrooms, salt and pepper. Saute over medium heat about 3 minutes, then over medium-high heat about 2 minutes, or until mushrooms and onions are light brown. Transfer mushroom mixture to a medium saucepan. Heat over low heat. Add sweet paprika and flour and saute mixture, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Off heat stir in all but 2 tablespoons of the vegetable broth. Bring to a boil, stirring. Blend remaining 2 tablespoons broth with tomato paste and stir into sauce. Add cream and return to a simmer, stirring. Add thyme. Simmer sauce for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thickened to taste. Add hot paprika. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in parsley just before serving. Serve hot. Makes 5 or 6 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast and of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.