Rediscovering Palestinian Cuisine

Sambousek: Savory Pastries

Sambousek: Savory Pastries

It’s officially this time of year again:

And so, in an effort not to develop a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder, I took up pastry-making last Sunday.  Sambousek are delightful, buttery half shells filled with savoury ingredients, most traditionally stuffed with lamb, onions, spices, and pine nuts– but also easily transition to vegetarian fare with cheese and za’atar, or even Swiss chard and onions. They’re the empanadas of the Middle East. Of course, I’m going to tell you that empanadas are the descendents of sambousek, and not the other way ’round (you saw this coming). The Arabs likely brought sambousek to Spain, where the Spanish developed their own version of the savoury pastry stuffed with local ingredients (pork!), which then made its way to the Americas through Spanish colonialism. However, the real origins of this particular pastry are likely in Central Asia; the Middle East was exposed to this deliciousness via India, sometime in the 13th century.

I did not intend to make a thousand sambousek, pulling tray after tray out of the oven Lucille Ball-style, then piling them into all available airtight containers. From the start, it should have been fairly obvious that the old school recipe in the Sahtein cookbook would make A LOT of dough–after all, it calls for 6 cups of flour. But I’m not an expert baker (and also terrible at math), so I ended up with what I estimate to be at least 3 dozen sambousek. I was not fully pleased with the dough from the original recipe. It’s a bit dense and heavy due to the proportions of egg to butter to flour and is something more like a galette or tart dough than a bread dough–which is what it should be–but the density snuffs out the flavorful fillings. I also used a mixture of white and wheat flour that did not do me any favors. There is nothing worse than expecting the surprise zing of flavor as you bite into a stuffed turnover then chewing a mouthful of flat tasting pastry. The recipe I provide increases the egg and reduces the flour and butter for a lighter dough.

I prefer to bake sambousek rather than fry them. It’s healthier, and there is less chance I will start a fire. If you decide to fry, use an oil with a high smoke point, like grape seed, or use ghee or semnah (clarified butter), as done in the Middle East. If you have a Chinese dumpling mold, FIND IT. It will make your life easier. This is one implement I do not own, so filling and closing these pastries freestyle was an hour of my life I will never get back. I used a fork to crimp the ends of the half shells, and brushed them with an egg wash (just a splash of milk) to give them a golden color.


For the dough (makes 2 dozen):

4 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 eggs
1/2 cup cold water, or more, as needed
1 tablespoon white vinegar

  1. Sift flour and salt together. Blend in the butter with your fingertips until the mixture is course and has some pea size lumps of butter.
  2. Whisk together eggs, water, and vinegar in a separate bowl. Add to the flour mixture, stir with a fork until the dough comes together and looks shaggy. If you need a little more water, now is the time to add it, but not too much: you don’t want a smooth shiny dough.
  3. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface, knead gently with the palm of your hand a few times (again, this dough really doesn’t require much mixing), then roll the dough into a ball, wrap it in plastic, and chill for an hour in the fridge.

For the meat filling:
1 lb ground lamb (or beef)
2 large shallots or one yellow onion
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon chili flakes
1 teaspoon salt, or, to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1. Chop shallots. Saute the shallots (or onion) in a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. After a minute, add the spices to the pan to bloom them, and continue cooking shallots for a few minutes until translucent.
2. Add the ground lamb or beef and brown it, mixing it with the onions and spices. You can add more spices at this stage, to taste. Smelling the mixture will give you an idea of how it will taste. When browned, turn off heat.
3. Saute pine nuts in  some olive oil in a separate pan, stirring frequently until they are lightly browned. Then add to meat mixture.

Cheese and za’atar filling:
1 cup (6 to 8oz package) of feta cheese (halloumi, or any salty, firm white cheese), crumbled
1/2 cup za’atar
1/2 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

  1. Mix crumbled feta, za’atar, and chopped parsley in a bowl. Done.

Now for the slightly more complicated part:
1. Remove chilled dough from fridge; let it stand until it comes to room temperature. Lightly flour a surface and roll out dough with a rolling pin until it is 1/8 inch in thickness. You may need to separate it and roll it out in two batches.

2. Cut circles that are 3-4 inches in diameter with a drinking glass. Set aside dough circles, remove excess dough, gather it together, then roll out again and cut circles until all dough is used.
3. Fill dough rounds with a teaspoon of either the meat or cheese filling.

4. Fold over dough circles to create a half circle, pinching the ends together with your fingers. Use a fork to crimp the ends and seal the pocket. Place on a baking sheet greased with olive oil, or on a silicone baking mat. Brush each half moon with egg wash (1 egg whisked with a teaspoon of milk).

4. Bake at 350F for 15-20 minutes, or until lightly browned on top. Depending on your oven, you may need to increase the heat to 375F, and bake a few less minutes.

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