By Joan Nathan, The New York Times
For the members of New York’s Aleppan Jewish community, the tinier the meat- or cheese-filled pastry, the better the cook.
At Hanukkah, which this year begins Thursday evening, they take as much pride in their distinctive tradition of using two candles rather than one to light the menorah — representing both the miracle of light and the welcome they received from Syrians after fleeing the Inquisition — as they do in those small meat- or cheese-filled pastries.
Rachel Harary Gindi, 92, who was born into this close-knit community, based in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, remembers her mother gathering with her friends to make sambousek, served at holidays. Gindi especially adored the ones filled with cheese, reserved for Sunday evenings when her family traditionally ate a dairy meal.
“You couldn’t order them from anywhere,” she said at a recent sambousek-making session at her apartment, which overlooks the Century City neighborhood of Los Angeles. So the only way to get them was to make them yourself.
In 1941, Gindi’s family moved to New Orleans. “It was pure culture shock for me,” she said. “Until then, I ate everything at home. I didn’t even know what French fries were.”
But still, they maintained their a connection to the past, traveling to Bradley Beach, New Jersey, every summer where the community gathered. It was there, at age 16, where she met her husband, Jack. They married and moved to Los Angeles the next year.
Because she was so young when she married, Gindi really learned to cook from watching her mother-in-law, who was born in Aleppo, Syria.
“She was an old-fashioned cook,” Gindi said. “I was just a kid when I got married and helped my mother but really didn’t learn.”
The dishes her mother-in-law passed on included kibbe hamdeh, a sour salt soup with potatoes, carrots and tiny meatballs, and edja patate, a potato pancake flavored with allspice. (If they didn’t learn from their mothers, many Syrian Jewish cooks in the mid-20th century followed recipes from Grace Sasson, another member of the Brooklyn Aleppan Jewish community. She gave her address in her self-published book so that people could write to her with questions.)
Sambousek, which means “triangle” in Persian, were popular from Spanish Andalusia to India during the Middle Ages.
Food historian Nawal Nasrallah believes sambousek was one of the dishes that traveled eastward to India from the 10th century. Four recipes even appear in a 13th-century Aleppan cookbook, “Al-Wusla Ila al-Habib fi Wasf al-Tayyibat wa al-Teeb,” according to Poopa Dweck’s magnificent “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews.”
All these years later, cheese sambousek has remained a staple of Gindi’s dairy meals, even during Hanukkah, though she’s made some changes: Miller’s Muenster cheese (the only kosher one available, other than processed American) gave way to shredded mozzarella and kashkaval once they came on the kosher market. About 50 years ago, her dough came to include only flour, first out of necessity (she couldn’t find the traditional semolina), then preference.
Although there are more modern ways to make these flaky pastries, Gindi still uses a memorial Yahrzeit glass to cut the dough, which she pinches closed with her thumb and second finger, fluting the edge like scallop shells. And they are tiny, just a couple of bites apiece.
Cheese sambousek was naturally one of the first recipes Gindi taught Mercedes Borda, her housekeeper of 39 years, ready in the freezer or just baked for the eager appetites of the Gindi children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In her kitchen, Gindi watched as Borda pinched the dough, but when she veered from custom, pressing the tines of a fork into the dough, the way she learned to make empanadas in her native Bolivia, Gindi got out of her chair and took over.
Traditions in the Syrian community die hard.
Recipe from Rachel Harary Gindi
Adapted by Joan Nathan
These crescent-shaped pocket pastries from Rachel Harary Gindi, a home cook living in Los Angeles are popular in one form or another throughout the Middle East and India. Cooks will find, of course, many variations from all over. This Syrian Jewish version from Aleppo creates the dough using flour and smeed, a fine semolina often also used in Middle Eastern cookies, which is not essential but adds a pleasing texture to the tongue. Some Syrian Jews add several kinds of cheese including feta to the cheese mix. Make this dish your own, as this recipe does with the use of nigella seeds. Topping the sambousek with sesame seeds or (nontraditional) nigella seeds adds a slight complexity to the taste of this mild, homey snack. Though you could certainly brush the tops of the sambousek with water and sprinkle with the seeds, for efficiency you can do as Poopa Dweck, author of “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews” (Ecco, 2007), instructed: “Dip the dough ball or formed sambousek into sesame seeds before baking. The seeds will stick onto the dough.”
Yield: About 48 pastries
Total time: 1 1/2 hours
- 2 cups/256 grams unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
- 1 cup/180 grams fine semolina
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)
- 1 cup/227 grams unsalted butter (2 sticks), diced then brought to room temperature
- 1 large egg
- 8 ounces/227 grams Muenster, mozzarella or kashkaval cheese, grated
- 6 tablespoons/57 grams sesame or nigella seeds, or both
1. To make the dough, in a large bowl, use your hands to mix together the flour, semolina and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Add the diced butter, toss to coat in the dry ingredients, then mix it in with your fingertips until thoroughly combined. Add 1/4 cup lukewarm water and mix to make a soft but not sticky dough, adding another 1 to 4 tablespoons of water if needed (or enough that the dough cleans the bowl). Cover the dough with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let it rest while you prepare the filling.
2. To prepare the filling, beat the egg in a medium bowl, then mix in the cheese and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt.
3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees and divide the dough into 4 pieces, then leave 3 of the pieces covered in the damp towel or wrapped in plastic.
4. Sprinkle the rolling surface lightly with flour and roll out one piece of dough until about 1/8-inch thick, rubbing the rolling pin with flour if needed to prevent sticking. Using a 2 1/2-inch-wide cookie cutter or glass, cut out about 9 rounds of dough. Reroll the scraps to make as many rounds as possible, ideally about 3 more rounds (12 rounds total from the one piece of dough).
5. Cover the cut rounds with a damp towel. Working with one round at a time, put 1 packed teaspoon of cheese filling gingerly in the center of each round, gently pressing the cheese into the dough then folding the dough into a half-moon shape. Then use your finger and thumb to seal the rounded edge. (You can also flute it, folding to seal as you would fold an empanada.) Place the filled sambousek about 1/2 inch apart on 2 parchment paper-lined sheet pans and cover with a damp towel.
6. Repeat with the remaining 3 pieces of dough, forming about 48 sambousek, making sure the dough and sambousek stay covered so they don’t dry out.
7. Once you’ve formed all your sambousek, set the seeds in a small bowl and set each sambousek in the seeds, pressing to coat one side. Return them to the baking sheet, seed side up, and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly golden brown.
8. Serve immediately. (You can also form and freeze the sambousek before baking, then bake them directly from frozen, increasing the cook time by 5 or so minutes.)
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.