I just got to check puff pastry off my bucket list.
Craving a good bourekas (also spelled burekas)—a nostalgic food for me—I decided to tackle my personal puff pastry challenge, just in time for Shavuot, too. Homemade bourekas is a food you go home to; you learn to make it at your grandma’s knees. If you did not have that kind of grandma, you learn to make it from the recipe of someone else’s grandma.
That’s because it’s everything a comfort food should be: warm and delicious. It is the kind of food you make for people to whom you want to say, “I love you”—it’s too labor intensive for anyone else.
From bourekas to sambusak, spring rolls to empanadas, almost every cuisine has its stuffed pastry. Borek, the ancestor of bourekas, draws its origins from the Turks of Central Asia who brought it to Anatolia. It spread with the Ottoman Empire to Europe, North Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Others say it comes from a Byzantine dish of baked layers of dough and cheese. Sephardic Jews adopted borek when they settled in Turkey and pluralized it as borekas.
In Israel, not only did borekas turn into bourekas, but the plural also received the Hebrew suffix for plurals (-im), becoming bourekasim, an amusing double plural for those who are familiar with the Turkish original. Unlike falafel, the king of street food, in Israel bourekas reigns not only in the street, but also at many homes, whether homemade or store bought. The dairy version, especially filled with cheese, is also part of the Israeli Shavuot buffet.
Borek, which means to twist, comes in many shapes and flavors, depending on its region of adoption. It is mostly made of thin flaky dough—phyllo in Turkey, puff pastry in other places—filled with savory fillings, including cheese, meat, potatoes or spinach, and shaped into a pie or individual triangle, rectangle or spiral pockets.
What’s in a shape? It turns out a lot, at least in Israel. In 2013, laws were put into place regarding the shape of bourekasim to ensure that there was no confusion between the dairy and pareve varieties: puff pastry bourekasim must be triangle (dairy) or rectangle (pareve), while the phyllo ones must be triangle or spiral (pareve) or circular or “finger-shaped” (dairy). Bakeries that do not abide by the shape designations can lose their kosher certification.
I met my challenge. The flavor and texture of my puff pastry were far superior to store-bought, and it puffed as it baked into a nice golden-brown hue. The sesame seeds sprinkled on top added delicate crunchiness, and the cheese was visibly nestled in a cozy little pastry cavern. And it was just as buttery, flaky and salty as I hoped. I felt like I had gone home. And naturally, I shared it with the people I love: my family.