We’re going Sephardic this week with a tasty baked treat that will give your Purim celebration a definite yum-factor. Sambusak (sometimes called sanbusak) are a popular treat throughout the Middle East; they’ve been around since Persian Babylonian times and have been enjoyed by the Sephardic Jews for centuries. These savory turnover pastries, similar to hand pies, are stuffed with a variety of fillings, from ground lamb or beef to chickpeas to chicken to spinach. Sambusak are the ancient ancestors of similar pastries such as Indian samosas, Latin American empanadas, Italian calzones and Israeli borekas. Iraqi Jews and other Sephardic Jewish groups make them year-round as a portable and tasty light meal. At Purim, Jewish cooks usually stick to meatless fillings like seasoned chickpeas, lentils, or cheese. Today I’m going to share my recipe for cheese-filled sambusak—my favorite!
Sambusak has been enjoyed for over 1,000 years in the Middle East. The following poem was recorded by Mas’udi, one of the first Arab historians, in his historical work Meadows of Gold written in 947 A.D. The poem’s subject? Sambusak.
…And when the burning flames have dried it quite,
Then, as thou wilt, in pastry wrap it round,
And fasten well the edges, firm and sound;
Or, if it please thee better, take some dough,
Conveniently soft, and rubbed just so,
Then with a rolling-pin let it be spread
And with the nails its edges docketed.
Pour in the frying-pan the choicest oil
And in that liquor let it finely broil…
(Mas’udi’s Meadows of Gold – translated to English by Arthur John Arberry, Aspects of Islamic Civilization – 1939)
Sambusak are traditionally fried, but I prefer to bake them—it’s healthier and easier. You can deep-fry them in oil if you prefer, but there is really no need since the dough bakes up quite nice and is full of flavor. I like using a mixture of kashkaval and feta cheese for the filling (so tasty!). You can use one cheese or the other if you prefer, just make sure you use 12 oz. of cheese total. Don’t forget the fresh parsley, it really compliments the filling and completes the dish.
Serves these Cheese Sambusak alongside a meatless dairy Purim meal (or for Shavuot, another meatless holiday). The holiday of Purim is often celebrated with a meatless menu in honor of Queen Esther, who became a vegetarian to keep kosher in the palace of her non-Jewish husband King Ahasuerus. Stuffed foods are traditional for Purim, as are triangle-shaped foods, and these cheese sambusak fit the bill in both regards! They will last several days in a sealed plastic bag or container, and they don’t require refrigeration, making them a great addition to your Mishloach Manot baskets (traditional Purim food gift baskets). Sprinkle them with poppy or sesame seeds for even more Purim symbolism– as a vegetarian, Queen Esther got her protein from seeds, nuts and legumes. The seeds also add a nice crunch to the coating.
Sambusak go great with a hardy vegetarian dish like Jacob’s Lentil Stew or my Mushroom Barley Soup (use a vegetarian broth if you’re keeping kosher). Your guests are guaranteed to come back for seconds, and maybe even thirds. Enjoy!
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- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 1/2 cup melted unsalted butter
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup hot water
- 3 cups flour
- 6 oz crumbled feta cheese
- 6 oz crumbled kashkaval cheese
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
- 3 large eggs, divided
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- Poppy or sesame seeds for topping (optional)
- Nonstick cooking spray (if baking)
- Vegetable oil (if frying - choose oil with a high smoke point)
- First, make your pasty dough. Combine canola oil, melted butter, and salt in a mixing bowl. Mix in the hot (not boiling) water. Gradually stir in the flour, a ½ cupful at a time, till a soft and oily dough forms.When the dough becomes too thick to stir, use your hands to work the last bit of flour into the dough. Don’t over-knead—stop when the ball holds together and the dough is smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and let it sit for a few minutes while you make your filling.
- Don’t let the dough sit for longer than 30 minutes before rolling it out, or it will cool down and become more difficult to work with.In a food processor, combine feta and kashkaval cheeses, parsley, 2 eggs and black pepper in a food processor. Pulse ingredients till a light creamy paste forms. This is your sambusak filling.
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. While oven is heating, assemble your sambusak. There are a couple of ways to do this. The Half-Moon shape is more popular because it’s easiest to do; the Triangle Shape is popular for Purim because it’s reminiscent of Haman’s hat.
- To Make Half Moon Shape: Flour your rolling surface. Pull a walnut-sized piece of dough from the dough ball; recover the dough ball with plastic. Roll the small piece of dough into a ball with your hands.
- Lightly flour your rolling pin. Roll the dough out into a rough circle that is between 4 ½ and 5 inches wide. The dough will be quite thin.
- Place 1 tbsp of filling in the center of the circle. Fold the circle in half over the filling. Seal the edges by pinching gently with your fingers to create a half-moon shape.
- Use a fork to score the edges of the sambusak—this will help seal them and also make them look pretty.Repeat process until all of the dough has been used. I find it’s easiest to roll out five dough pieces at a time, stuff them and seal them, then roll out five more. This saves time and is more efficient them rolling, stuffing and sealing each individual piece.
- To Make Triangle Shape: Flour your rolling surface. Divide your dough into four equal-sized sections.Choose one section to work with, keep the other sections under plastic wrap till you’re ready to use them.Lightly flour your rolling pin. Roll the dough out till it is very thin. You will want to cut a square with 8- to 10-inch sides from the dough, so keep this in mind as you roll it out; I sometimes use a ruler to help gauge the size.
- Once your dough is rolled out, cut a square with equal length sides from the dough. The square should be somewhere between 8 inches and 10 inches wide. Use a ruler or straight edge to cut the sides as straight as possible.Push extra dough trimmings into a small ball and store it under the plastic wrap separate from the rest of the dough.
- Cut the square into equal-sized quarters. Each of these quarters will be used to form a sambusak.Cut the square into equal-sized quarters. Each of these quarters will be used to form a sambusak.
- Place 1 tbsp of filling into the center of each square.
- Fold one corner of a square over to the diagonally opposite corner and pinch to seal the sides.
- Use a fork to score the edges of the sambusak—this will help seal them and also make them look pretty.
- Repeat process for remaining squares. Roll out remaining dough sections in the same way, using the ball of trimmings as a fifth and final section of dough.Once your sambusak have been assembled, they are ready to be cooked. You can either deep fry them or bake them. I prefer to bake them because of the more consistent results (plus it’s healthier)—but frying is more traditional.
- To Bake Sambusak: Place sambusak on a lightly greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet.Beat the remaining egg with 1 tsp of cold water. Brush the sambusak with a thin layer of the egg wash. Sprinkle the sambusak with poppy seeds or sesame seeds, if desired. Bake sambusak at 350 degrees F for about 40-45 minutes until golden brown.
- To Fry Sambusak: Do not use egg wash or coat with seeds. Heat an oil with a high smoke point (like grapeseed) over medium until hot, but not smoking.Fry the sambusak in batches of four till golden, turning halfway through cooking.
- Drain on a paper towel before serving.Serve sambusak warm or at room temperature. They’re best straight from the oven, but the baked ones also keep quite well, and can be reheated in the microwave if desired.