Sambusak (sometimes called sanbusak) are a popular treat throughout the Middle East. They’ve been around since Babylonian times and have been enjoyed by the Jewish for centuries. The savory turnover pastries, similar to hand pies, are stuffed with a variety of fillings. At Purim, cooks usually stick to meatless fillings like seasoned chickpeas, lentils, or cheese. Stuffed foods are traditionally eaten at Purim, as are triangle-shaped foods — these cheese sambusak fit the bill in both regards!
Sambusak are traditionally fried, but I prefer to bake them — it’s healthier and easier.
This recipe for a cheese-filled sambusak is one of my favorites! I like using a mixture of kashkaval and feta cheese for the filling. You can use one cheese or the other, if you prefer, just make sure you use 12 ounces of cheese total. Don’t forget the fresh parsley, it really complements the filling and completes the dish.
First, make your pastry dough. Combine canola oil, 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. Pulse ingredients till a light creamy paste forms. This is your sambusak filling.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. 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 good for Purim because it’s reminiscent of Haman’s hat.
For the half-moon shape, flour your rolling surface. Pull a walnut-sized piece of dough from the dough ball; re-cover 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 ½-5 inches wide. The dough will be quite thin. Place a tablespoon 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, and then roll out five more. This saves time and is more efficient them rolling, stuffing and sealing each individual piece.
For the 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 8-10-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 8-10 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.
Take one of the squares and place 1 tablespoon of filling in the center. Fold one corner of the 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 the sambusak, place them on a lightly greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet. Beat the remaining egg with 1 teaspoon 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 for about 40-45 minutes until golden brown.
If you’re frying the sambusak, do not use an egg wash or coat them with seeds. Heat oil over medium heat 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 the 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. (Photos courtesy of Tori Avey)