Believe it or not, I was a picky eater when I was younger. It wasn’t always duck hearts and fried cauliflower for me; white bread and American cheese was more like it.
There were a few exceptions, most notably borekas, the savory pastries of Ottoman descent that were popularized in Israel by immigrants from the Balkans.
One of those immigrants was my grandmother, Savta Mati.
Last week was Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, and I was thinking about my grandmother. So much of what we cook at Zahav are interpretations of Israeli dishes that are, in turn, a reflection of all of the cultures that came together to build the country.
Borekas were an object of obsession in my house when I was growing up in Pittsburgh. They were painstakingly made by my grandmother or my mom and eaten by all. In school, nobody knew what they were, so at lunch, I didn’t have to share. And more importantly, because I lived so far from my grandmother and my Hebrew consisted of “How are you?” and “Happy birthday,” it was a natural way for me to connect to her and part of my ancestry.
When I first started cooking professionally, at a coffee shop and bakery outside of Tel Aviv, borekas were one of the first things I learned to make (and “sheet pan” was the third Hebrew phrase I learned).
Borekas are ubiquitous in Israel. They sell them at gas stations (note to Wawa: you’re welcome), and they come with a ton of different fillings, from potato to mushrooms to tuna to eggplant to cheese. Usually the shape or the type of seeds sprinkled on top indicates the type of filling that’s inside.
One option is peas. Since spring is finally here, I’ve been thinking a lot about English peas, which were a staple in our freezer when I was a child. They sort of terrified me, but when mixed with steamed Uncle Ben’s rice and a ton of salted butter, they tasted pretty good.
Now, I like to use fresh English peas at the restaurant the moment they are in season because we are so fired up for spring. We blanch them until just past “al dente” and mash them with boiled potatoes, Bulgarian feta and a raw egg. We spoon the filling onto buttery squares of flaky dough and then fold them over to form sealed triangles.
When they’re on the menu at Zahav, we make our own boreka dough by hand, but frozen puff pastry is a great substitute and you can even make them with phyllo dough. To finish, we glaze the borekas with egg wash and sprinkle them with a generous handful of sesame seeds. Then we bake them in a hot oven and try not to eat them all before our guests arrive.
I don’t think they are as good as Savta’s, but they’re still delicious.
English Pea and Feta Borekas
1 package frozen puff pastry
1 lb. baking potatoes
8 oz. Feta cheese, preferably Bulgarian
1 cup English peas (fresh or frozen)
2 eggs, plus 1 egg yolk
2 Tbsps. sesame seeds
Preheat the oven to 350˚. Bake the potatoes until fully cooked. When cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh into a mixing bowl and discard the skin. Crumble the feta and add it to the potato.
Using a fork, mix together the feta and potato until well-combined. If using frozen peas, add them to the potato and feta mixture. If using fresh peas, blanch in salted boiling water until tender, about 2 minutes. Drain and add to the mixing bowl, stirring to incorporate. Season to taste with kosher salt.
Beat the eggs with a fork in a separate bowl and then add to the filling mixture, making sure to stir until the egg is fully incorporated.
On a lightly-floured work surface, unfold a sheet of puff pastry and roll it out using a rolling pin until you have a rectangle approximately 1⁄8-inch thick.
Cut the rectangle into four-inch squares.
Place a scant tablespoon of filling in the center of each square and then fold over to form triangles. Crimp the edges to seal and place on a baking sheet. Beat the egg yolk with a teaspoon of cold water. Brush the borekas with the egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Bake for approximately 30 minutes until the exterior is golden brown and the puff pastry is cooked through.
Makes approximately 20 borekas.
Steven Cook, co-creator of Citron and Rose, Zahav and other local restaurants, writes a monthly column for the Exponent.