Balkan bites: Classic Sephardic treats

Sephardi Jewish cuisine hailing from Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Sarajevo, Italy and Morocco all include filo dough dishes.

(photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
I love the relationship I have with my readers, and almost every week, I receive requests for special recipes – sometimes interesting dishes you tasted at a wedding, or in a restaurant overseas. Other times people are trying to reconstruct foods they remember eating as a child.
One woman asked me recently to include recipes from Turkish cuisine, which I covered in a column a few years ago. I figured that it was long enough ago that I could do another column on the unique flavors coming out of the Balkans.
So, I decided to call Ruth Oliver, a pastry chef whose work I am familiar with. Oliver has led cooking and baking classes in a number of Israeli cooking schools, has had numerous articles published, leads tours in markets around Israel and writes a blog called Oliver’s Twist.
Oliver was born into the Castel family, which can trace its lineage back to Spain in the time of the Inquisition, and loves creating Balkan dishes. She grew up in Jaffa, which was known for its large Bulgarian community. Oliver’s grandfather ran a large bakery in Jerusalem, and her mother was known as an incredible cook and baker of Balkan delicacies.
Oliver was so infatuated with Balkan cuisine that she decided to go live in Bulgaria for three months so she could learn intensely how to prepare authentic Balkan dishes.
One technique that she learned during her investigation of Jewish Sephardi cuisine was steaming food after it’s been fried in oil, such as sofrito. Another famous Balkan treat is pastry prepared with filo dough, and then stuffed with cheese, vegetables or meat. Sephardi Jewish cuisine hailing from Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Sarajevo, Italy and Morocco all include filo dough dishes.
These sweets are served at weddings and other happy occasions. They can be made with water or milk. If you use milk, they should be kept in the fridge until serving.
Use a silicon cupcake pan.
Makes 12 pieces.
100 gr. butter
1 cup semolina
100 gr. pine nuts
2 cups milk or coconut milk
1 cup sugar
Thin strip lemon peel
1 tsp. vanilla cream
1 cup sweet cream, whipped with 2-3 tsp. powdered sugar with ½ cup Amarena cherries
Cold ice cream with roasted pine nuts
Melt the butter in a medium pan. Add the semolina and pine nuts. Mix and cook over a low flame, mixing continuously until the semolina browns.
Pour the milk into a separate pot and add the sugar, lemon peel and vanilla. Mix and bring to a boil. Cook while stirring for 5 minutes. Drain.
Pour the milk on the semolina while stirring. Continue cooking for 3-5 minutes. Pour into muffin tin and let cool on the counter.
Remove the sweets from the muffin pan and place on a serving platter. Fill a pastry bag with cream and add swirls on each sweet. Add cherries on top of cream. Alternatively, you can serve with ice cream and pine nuts.
Level of difficulty: Medium.
Time: 60 minutes.
Status: Dairy.
Makes 4 servings.
2 large carrots
4 leeks
¼ cup oil (vegetable of olive)
1 level tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
¼ tsp. black pepper
¼ cup lemon juice
½-¾ cup of water
2 heaping Tbsp. rice
Slice the carrot diagonally into 1-cm.-thick slices. Cut the leek diagonally into 2-cm.-thick slices.
Heat the oil in a small flat pan. Add the carrots and sauté for 1 minute. Add the leek and sauté another 4-5 minutes. Stir often.
Add the salt, sugar, black pepper, lemon juice, water and rice. Mix well.
Cover the pot and lower the flame. Continue cooking for another 15 minutes or until the rice has softened. Make sure that enough liquid remains. Taste and adjust seasoning (should be a nice balance between sweet and sour). Serve hot as a side dish or as a cold salad.
Level of difficulty: Easy.
Time: 30 minutes.
Status: Parve.
1 large cauliflower, separated into small florets
Oil for deep frying
Tempura coating:
½ cup white beer or cold soda water
1 egg white
½ cup crushed ice
1 cup flour, sifted
For dipping:
½ cup lemon juice
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped finely
Salt, to taste
½ cup chopped parsley
Serving suggestion:
Lemon quarters
To prepare the tempura coating, add the beer and the egg white to a bowl and beat quickly. Add the crushed ice and mix. Add the flour and mix well. The texture should be like cream – if it’s too thick, you can add a little more crushed ice.
Dip the florets into the coating and then fry in very hot oil until they turn golden brown. When they’re done, place the florets in a medium pot. Pour the lemon juice and chopped garlic on top and sprinkle with salt. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Shake the pot every few minutes so that the sauce covers all of the florets.
Transfer the cauliflower to a serving dish and sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve hot or cold with lemon quarters.
Level of difficulty: Medium.
Time: 60 minutes.
Status: Parve.
This is a Greek treat. A similar dessert exists in Turkish cuisine, with corn flour in place of semolina.
Use a 30-cm. x 40-cm. pan.
1½ cups water
3 cups sugar
2 Tbsp. honey
1 stick cinnamon
Semolina pudding:
150 gr. (1 cup) semolina
200 gr. (1 cup) sugar
500 gr. milk
500 gr. sweet cream (or half milk and half cream)
50 gr. butter
2 tsp. vanilla
Lemon zest
4 eggs
15 filo pastry sheets
100 gr. melted butter
Place all of the syrup ingredients in a pot and heat until it boils. Then, lower the flame to medium and cook for 5 minutes until syrup thickens. Remove from flame and let cool.
Heat oven to 180°.
To prepare the pudding, place in a pot all of the ingredients except for the eggs and bring to a boil while stirring continuously. Remove from the flame and let it cool for a bit, then add the eggs while stirring.
Brush 7 sheets of filo dough with butter individually and use them to line a pan. Pour the pudding on top and flatten. Place 5 buttered sheets of filo dough on top. Cut the last 2 sheets of dough into small squares or pieces. Crumple them up and place them on top of the filo dough. Brush with melted butter.
Bake in an oven that has been preheated to 180° for 30 minutes or until the pastries have turned golden brown.
Remove from the oven and pour cold syrup on top. Cool pastries and then serve. You can cut them into pieces before pouring the syrup if you want.
Level of difficulty: Medium.
Time: 90 minutes.
Status: Dairy.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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