November 13, 2019

Bourekas: A Love Story

I believe that Jewish cooking is a key to bringing and keeping Jews together.

I married a Sephardic man and my bridge to becoming Sephardic was through food, and bourekas were one of the first Sephardic foods I fell in love with. And as my son Jed says, “Bourekas: Now that’s something we can all get behind.”

The essential ingredient in a great boureka is love — the love a cook puts into making the little pies. But more than that, it’s the time and care that someone takes to teach another person how to make them.

Passed down on recipe cards loaded with notes, corrections and maybe a smudge of flour or oil, our culinary traditions thrive. Traditional Jewish recipes are part of our mesorah, our oral tradition, and our heritage because long before there were recipe cards, there were cooks and bakers who had the skills and the tools to prepare these dishes, consistently and beautifully. 

Watching my friend, mentor and food hero, Kaye Israel, make bourekas is the real deal — that’s how I learned that there are bourekas, and then there are bourekas. There is the skill of making a boureka, and then there is the art of crafting a boureka. Israel’s bourekas are artisanal. 

Her recipes are based on the classic cookbook “The Sephardic Cooks: Comé Con Gana” from Congregation Or VeShalom Sisterhood in Atlanta. There are a few personal touches here and there, but her recipes are in the tradition of the Island of Rhodes, made consistently with skill, patience and love. 

But why make bourekas? Because making and sharing food is just plain Jewish, going back to Abraham and Sarah. Bourekas are a Jewish love story.

I realize some people don’t want to make dough, and not everyone has the time to bake these days. But if you’re looking for a boureka with some love in it, take the easy route: Buy some ready-made puff pastry or pie crust dough, use one of these traditional fillings, and make your own bourekas.

Comé con gana! Eat with pleasure.

Chese Bourekas
These are best served warm.

Cheese filling*:
1 1/2 pounds baking (russet) potatoes,peeled, boiled, drained and mashed
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup cottage cheese, mashed
1/2 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup crumbled Feta cheese, or more to taste
Combine all filling ingredients in a medium-size mixing bowl. Adjust cheeses and salt to taste. Reserve.

*Filling for 36-40 bourekas.

Classic boureka dough:
1/2 cup vegetable (or canola) oil
1 dry-measuring cup of crushed ice, plus cold water to total 1 1/4 cup ice water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon (for pumpkin or other sweet bourekas only)
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
Egg wash (1 egg yolk mixed with 2 teaspoons of water)
Sesame seeds for a garnish
Preheat conventional oven to 400 F or convection oven to 370 F.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all dough ingredients and wait until the ice is partially melted. Gently mix the dough until blended, but don’t overmix.

Divide the dough evenly into 36-40 small round balls. Roll each piece of dough into 4-inch-long ovals that are 1/8-inch thick.

Place a scant tablespoon scoop of filling in the center of the circle, moisten the edge of oval, and then fold oval in half and seal moistened edge. Crimp sealed edge with fingers or a fork.

Brush the top of each boureka with egg wash. If desired, sprinkle each boureka generously with sesame seeds.

Place the bourekas on a cookie sheet coated with nonstick cooking spray, about 1/4-inch apart.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden. Cool on a rack. Can be double-wrapped in foil and frozen for up to a month.

Bourekas de Calabaza
Inspired by “Sephardic Holiday Cooking” by Gilda Angel

Pumpkin filling:
1 16-ounce can cooked pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg, beaten (reserve 2 tablespoons for the egg wash)

Pumpkin boureka dough:
1 cup vegetable (or canola) oil
2/3 cup cold water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1/2 cup more if needed
Egg wash (2 tablespoons beaten egg mixed with 2 teaspoons of water)
Cinnamon sugar, pumpkin seeds or turbinado sugar for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a small mixing bowl, combine all filling ingredients. Reserve.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all dough ingredients to form a workable dough, adding more flour if necessary.

Divide dough evenly into 36-40 small round balls. Roll each piece of dough into a 4-inch-long oval that is 1/8-inch thick.

Place a scant tablespoon of filling in center of oval, and then fold in half. Crimp edges with your fingers or a fork to seal.

Brush the top of each boureka with the egg wash. If desired, sprinkle each boureka with cinnamon sugar or pumpkin seeds.

Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 20-25 minutes or until golden. Cool on a rack. Can be frozen.

Makes 36-40 bourekas.

Spinach Filling or Frittata
About one third of this recipe can be used as filling for 36-40 bourekas, using the Classic Boureka Dough, and the rest to make a 9×13-inch frittata.

Olive oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped and sautéed until translucent
3 eggs
3 egg whites
1 15-ounce container fat-free cottage cheese
1 teaspoon dried oregano (optional)
1 teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (optional)
1/4 teaspoon white pepper (optional)
Kosher salt to taste (about a teaspoon)
3 16-ounce bags frozen chopped spinach, thawed
4 ounces feta cheese, finely crumbled
8 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
8 ounces grated Muenster cheese
Matzo meal (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Grease an 8×10 casserole dish with olive oil and dust with matzo meal if desired. In a large mixing bowl, combine the onion, eggs, cottage cheese, spices, pepper and salt, to taste, mixing until smooth.

Fold in the thawed spinach, feta and three quarters of the mozzarella cheese. Pour half spinach mixture into prepared dish and smooth top.

Sprinkle most of grated mozzarella and Muenster cheeses (reserving a tablespoon or two of each) on top of spinach layer. Spoon an even layer of the remaining spinach mixture on top of the grated cheeses and then smooth the spinach.

Sprinkle with tablespoon or two of matzo meal (optional) and drizzle with about  tablespoon of olive oil.

Bake for 45 to 55 minutes or until the center of frittata is “set.”

Remove frittata from the oven and cool at least 30 minutes before serving.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Frittata can be double wrapped tightly with foil and frozen, but must be thawed before reheating. Reheat, covered, at 350 for 15 minutes. After reheating, sprinkle more cheese on top and allow it to melt.

Makes 2 frittatas, each serving 6-8.

Bourekas for a Crowd
Preheat conventional oven to 380 F or convection oven to 350 F. 

Buy one package of two rolls of frozen puff pastry ready to bake sheets (10×16 inches long, 26 ounces). Defrost in the refrigerator overnight. Unroll carefully. The center may need more time, so be patient.

Place a rack in the center of oven. Roll first defrosted puff pastry to form a 12×18 rectangle. Place the dough on a cookie sheet that has baking parchment that has been coated with nonstick cooking spray.

Spoon 1/2 of any boureka filling recipe down the length of the rectangle, leaving a 1/2-inch border on all four sides.

Moisten entire edge with a bit of water. Fold overlapping long edges toward center of boureka to form a log. Seal tightly with fingertips.

Fold 1/2-inch ends of boureka and seal tightly with fingertips.

Using a pastry brush, brush the top of the boureka with egg wash (1 egg yolk and 2 teaspoons of water), and sprinkle with a topping if desired.

Cut 3 or 4 1-inch diagonal slits on the top of pastry to vent steam. Repeat, using the second piece of dough. 

Bake for 35-40 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a rack before cutting into 1-inch diagonal slices.

Serves 12-16. 


Debby Segura lives in Los Angeles. She designs dinnerware and teaches cooking classes.