Shavuot feasting, Sephardic style

Linda Sendowski kezadas: Sephardic rice and cheese pies. (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Linda Sendowski kezadas: Sephardic rice and cheese pies.
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Growing up in an Ashkenazic home, I always loved Shavuot because of my mother’s delicious cheese blintzes, cheesecakes and sour cream noodle kugels.
Different Shavuot delicacies were on the childhood table of Linda Capeloto Sendowski, the author of Sephardic Baking from Nona and More Favorites. Her mother, who was the Nona (Ladino for grandma) of Sendowski’s children, baked savory, dairy-rich borekas, bulemas (stretched filled pastries) and panezikos (halla rolls).
There was a special pastry that Nona baked specifically for Shavuot – the rice and cheese pies known as kezadas. Sendowski describes kezadas as open-faced sisters of potato-and-cheese burekas. She fills them with cooked rice, eggs and a combination of three cheeses – Parmesan, feta and kashkaval. (See recipe.) Sendowski’s spinach bulemas, which, she noted, are called boyuz among Sephardim from some regions, are coiled pastries made of yeast-leavened dough enriched with olive oil and filled with chopped fresh spinach mixed with four kinds of cheeses. (See recipe.) Nona served the Shavuot feast to the family and guests after they returned from services at the synagogue. Sendowski wrote to me that the holiday meal included a fish entrée, such as salmon in parsley tomato sauce or fried halibut or cod served with egg and lemon sauce. On the table there were also slices of quajado – a thick cheese and vegetable fritada (see recipe), plates of sliced tomatoes and cheese, olives and small pickled mild chili peppers, as well as homemade yogurt and lots of fruit, especially melon. For dessert there was sutlaç – Turkish-style rice pudding.
Sendowski’s ancestors were among the Jews who left Spain in 1492.
Her father’s family settled on the Greek island of Rhodes and her mother’s family in towns on the coast of Turkey’s Sea of Marmara.
“One of the fondest memories in our family,” wrote Sendowski, “is all of the wonderful things Nona baked for Jewish holidays and Shabbat dinner and lunch. My mother and grandmother truly had blessed hands, or as they say in Ladino, bendicias manos.
The person with the title of bendicias manos embodies a certain amount of skill, patience, artistic ability, and devotion to the celebration of Jewish holidays and family.”
“Sephardic food,” writes Sendowski, “offers me a connection to my past and my heritage and gives me comfort in the security and tradition of it all.”
The writer is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and of Aruhot Halaviot [Dairy Dinners].
For Shavuot, wrote Linda Capeloto Sendowski, “since dairy food is traditionally served for the celebration meal, Nona always made these kezadas along with the usual desayuno or Sephardic breakfast and brunch pastries.”
Sendowski finds it convenient to bake these open-faced pastries ahead. They freeze well and can be “easily reheated uncovered in a 150ºC (300ºF) oven to their oven-fresh state.”
Makes about 42 kezadas
■ 1 cup long-grain rice
■ 1¾ cups water
■ 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
■ 225 gr. (8 ounces) feta cheese, crumbled
■ 1 cup grated sharp cheddar or kash kaval cheese
■ 2 extra large eggs
■ 4 ¹⁄3 cups all-purpose flour, unbleached if possible
■ 2 tsp. salt
■ 1 cup ice water
■ ¾ cup safflower oil or other vegetable oil
■ 1 egg
■ ¹⁄3 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
To make filling, place rice and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook rice until it is steamed through and all the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir cheeses directly into rice in saucepan. Add eggs and mix until all is combined. Put rice filling in a container in the refrigerator to cool and stiffen while you prepare dough.
To make dough, combine flour and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Whisk cold water and oil together in a 2-cup measuring pitcher. Add liquid to flour, mix with your hands to a dough and gather dough together in a ball, making sure all of flour is incorporated.
Place rack in middle of oven and preheat oven to 205ºC (400ºF). Separate dough into 42 walnut-size balls. With your fingers, roll balls until smooth (smooth balls will roll out more easily and uniformly).
Line rimmed baking sheets with Silpat or parchment. On a wooden or stone surface, roll each ball into about a 7.5-cm (3-inch) circle using a wooden rolling pin. Take care not to roll over edges of rounds, or else the edges will be thin and the centers thick.
Place a mounded tablespoon of filling directly in center of each disc. Using your thumb and index finger, pinch six or more points around the kezada to form an open-faced kind of star. Place on lined baking sheets. For topping, beat egg and brush over tops of kezadas using a pastry brush. Sprinkle with a bit of Parmesan cheese.
Bake kezadas on middle rack of oven until golden and puffy, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on racks. Store in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to two days, or in the freezer.
Makes 16 large pastries
For her bulemas, also called boyuz, Sendowski prefers a yeast dough, which has a special aroma and gains flavor from olive oil. “Crispy with just enough chew, it is the perfect pocket for a lightly salty, cheesy spinach filling.”
“The trick for getting the dough to stretch effortlessly,” wrote Sendowski, “is to make a soft dough, not handle it too much, and let it rest after rising and stretching.”
Sendowski stretches each piece of dough in two stages to make the process easier. For the final stretching and shaping, she prefers a wooden work surface.
You can freeze the baked bulemas; reheat them in a 150º C (300º F) oven for about 10 minutes.
■ 1½ tsp. dry yeast
■ 1 Tbsp. sugar
■ 2 cups lukewarm water
■ ½ cup plus 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
■ 5½ cups bread flour (high-gluten), plus extra for kneading and dusting
■ 2 tsp. sea salt
Filling and topping:
■ 900 gr. (2 pounds) prewashed baby spinach
■ 225 gr. (8 ounces) mild feta cheese, crumbled
■ 110 gr.(4 ounces) sharp cheddar, coarsely grated
■ 1¹⁄3 cups finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
■ ¹⁄3 cup medium-grated kasseri or kashkaval cheese
To make dough: In a 2-cup glass measuring pitcher combine yeast and sugar. Add lukewarm water and stir. Add oil and let stand until foamy, about 8 minutes.
Place flour in a large mixing bowl, add salt and mix. Add foamy yeast mixture. Mix to a dough, working with your hands to incorporate all the flour, and gather to a ball. Turn dough out onto a floured work surface (marble, granite, Silpat or wood) and knead for 5 minutes. Dough should be very soft and easy to knead.
Place dough in a large oiled bowl, loosely cover it with plastic wrap and then with a tea towel. Place bowl in a warm, draft-free place. Let rise about two hours or until at least doubled in size.
Gently press dough down to deflate.
Divide dough into quarters. Form each into a flattened ball without working the dough. Set the four balls of dough onto a Silpat- or parchment-lined baking sheet greased with a bit of olive oil. Loosely cover dough and let it rise for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, prepare spinach filling: Chop spinach into thin ribbons and then cut crosswise. Place chopped spinach in a large bowl and combine with the cheeses. Do not do this too far in advance because spinach will begin to release water.
Divide each ball of dough into 4 pieces; you will have a total of 16 pieces. With your hands stretch each piece until it is about 13 by 18 cm. (5 by 7 inches). The dough should stretch easily. Set the stretched pieces on a work surface. Let them rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 205ºC (400ºF). Place a few drops of oil on a wooden work surface. Oil your hands and stretch the previously stretched pieces of dough into large rectangles, about 25 by 46 cm (10 by 18 inches, using the backs of your hands. The dough will be very thin and transparent, and will stretch easily. Don’t worry if you get a hole; it will get covered when you roll up the bulema.
Take a handful of filling, about ½ cup or more, and spread it in a narrow line along the long side of the dough, about 5 cm. (2 inches) from the edge. Roll up the bulema into a long cylinder and then coil into a circle. Place it on a lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with a little Parmesan.
Repeat for each piece of dough until all of filling is used up.
Bake bulemas for about 20 minutes or until crisp and golden all the way around. Remove from oven and place on a cooling rack so the bottoms stay crisp.
Makes about 15 slices
Various vegetables and cheeses are used to make quajados, wrote Sendowski. Instead of cheddar, she sometimes uses grated Jack cheese, a mild, white semi-hard cheese.
Sendowski also makes a similar dish called a fritada, using spinach instead of zucchini, and the same three cheeses.
■ 2 to 3 Tbsp. safflower oil or other vegetable oil
■ 6 medium zucchini (2.5 cm. or 1 inch in diameter and 15 to 20 cm.. or 6 to 8 inches long)
■ 225 gr. (8 ounces) feta cheese, crumbled
■ ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
■ 225 gr. (8 ounces) grated sharp cheddar
■ 8 extra-large eggs
■ ½ cup panko bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 205ºC (400ºF). Grease a 23- by 33-cm. (9- x 13-inch) rectangular baking dish with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Wash and dry zucchini and trim ends. Grate zucchini on large-holed side of a box grater into a large mixing bowl.
Add cheeses, eggs and panko bread crumbs. Toss to combine. Prepare for baking in one of two ways:
1) Scoop batter into the prepared baking dish.
2) Even better, heat oiled baking dish in hot oven and then add the batter to the hot pan; this prevents the quajado from sticking and makes the bottom crisp. Drizzle another tablespoon of oil on top of quajado before baking to create a crispy top.
Bake until golden and puffy, about 30 to 35 minutes. Let quajado sit for 5 to 10 minutes before cutting it into squares. Serve warm.