How to Make Bourekas, Israel's Favorite Festive Pastry, Without the Hard Work

High-end bourekas are made from hand-stretched phyllo dough. Here's a trick that will give you something nearly as good without all the labor.

Israeli burekas.
Israeli burekas. Vered Guttman

Bourekas are the Israeli equivalent of Jewish-American bagel and cream cheese: They’re served, and are expected to be served, at each and every occasion, from a kiddush to an army-base office meeting. Bourekas show up on the table with a variety of fillings, such as cheese, potato and mushrooms. They are not always the best bourekas, but they’re still there and they’re still so comforting. No wonder no one passes them up.

But you can also aim for the higher-end bourekas. Visit one of the bourekas specialty bakeries and stalls in the outdoor markets, where dough is still stretched by hand and baked fresh. The baker is likely to cut open the steaming hot bourekas in front of you, fill it with hard-boiled egg, and serve alongside spicy pickles. There’s nothing better in this world.

Bourekas were brought to Israel from the Ottoman Empire by Sephardi Jews who lived in Turkey and the Balkan countries. The Sephardi were likely responsible for adding a final “s” to the Turkish borek to make it into a plural in Ladino, thus creating the word used today in modern Hebrew.  

The original Turkish borek is made with phyllo or yufka dough - hand-made phyllo, soft and layered, and stretched until the dough is transparent and folded with oil. Comparing this homemade delicacy to the frozen, paper-tasting phyllo you’ll find in the supermarket freezer is like comparing a fresh Brooklyn bagel spread generously with cream cheese to the piece of paper that wraps it. It’s just not the same.

True, the Israeli inventive mind did come up with the idea of using puff pastry as a quick substitute to labor-intense handmade phyllo, but even a good puff pastry will not yield the flaky yet soft result you get with the real phyllo.

In the recipe below I tried to combine the easy use of ready-made puff pastry with the original thin phyllo by rolling the puff pastry until it is very thin, brushing with oil, folding, and stretching again. The results were more than pleasing for a family that misses its homeland pastries.

Bourekas

Bourekas are best served with pickles, tahini sauce, haminados (overnight hard-boiled eggs), Israeli chopped salad and a cold yogurt drink.

Buy the best butter-based puff pastry you can find; it will make a big difference in the final result.

Let the dough thaw overnight in the fridge and work only with cold dough.

Yields about 15 bourekas.

Ingredients

1 quantity cheese or eggplant-feta filling (recipes below)
Flour for dusting
14 oz. defrosted puff pastry (see note above)
1 tablespoon vegetable or corn oil
1 egg yolk

Directions

Prepare the filling according to the recipes below.

Lightly dust the work surface and a rolling pin with flour. Take puff pastry out the fridge, divide into two, and return one half to the fridge.

Roll half the dough into a 20-by-10-inch (50-by-25 centimeter) rectangle (see photo #1). Using your hand, spread half with a little oil and fold into a 10-by-10 inch (25-by-25 centimeter) square (photo #2). Now roll the dough again into a 15-by-10 (40-by 25 centimeter) inch rectangle, the narrow side closer to you.

Roll half the dough into a 20-by-10-inch rectangle.
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Using your hand, spread half with a little oil and fold into a 10-by-10 inch square.
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Spread half the filling on the bottom half of the dough and roll (photo #3) into a 10-inch-long (25 centimeter) roulade. Wrap with plastic wrap and put in the freezer. Repeat with the second half of the dough. Let roulades cool in the freezer for 1-2 hours.

Spread half the filling on the bottom half of the dough.
Vered Guttman

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit (220 degrees Celsius). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. In a small cup, beat egg yolk with a teaspoon of water. Set aside.

Using a sharp knife, slice the roulade into 1½ inch sections.
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When oven is hot, take roulades out the freezer. Using a sharp knife slice into 1 1/2 inch sections (photo #4) and arrange on a baking sheet (photo #5). Brush sides and top of bourekas with egg yolk.

Arrange the cut roulades on a baking sheet.
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Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes, then lower temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius) and continue to bake for another 10 minutes, or until bourekas are golden brown and cooked through. Let cool for 5 minutes and serve.

Israeli burekas out of the oven.
Vered Guttman

Cheese filling for bourekas

Ingredients

8 oz. feta
½ cup cottage cheese
1 egg

Directions

Put all ingredients in a bowl of a food processor and mix until almost smooth. Keep refrigerated until use.

Eggplant-feta filling for bourekas

Ingredients

2 medium eggplants
6 oz. feta

Directions

Roast eggplants either in the oven at 450 degrees for half an hour or over open flame until they’re soft and show no resistance when you press them with your finger. Scoop out the flesh, removing dark seeds, chop with a knife.

Transfer to a bowl.

Crumble feta into the eggplant bowl and mix well. Keep refrigerated until use.