National Cookbook Month: North African Filo Pastries

by Joyce Goldstein, author of The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home

October is National Cookbook Month! Come back for a new recipe from The New Mediterranean Jewish Table each Wednesday, and click here to save 30% on some of our award-winning cookbooks.

New Mediterranean Jewish Table Joyce Goldstein

North African Filo Pastries (Bestels)

Bestels resemble borekas: thin layers of dough wrapped around a savory filling. But instead of a shortcrust or flaky pastry, Moroccan bestels are traditionally made with ouarka, which means “leaf” in Arabic. The same pastry is known as malsouka in Tunisia and as feuilles (leaves) de brik in France. The pastry is made from a rather springy semolina dough that is pressed in an overlapping circular pattern onto a hot flat pan called a tobsil and then peeled off when the paper-thin film of dough has set. Because the process is so time- consuming, most North African home cooks buy ouarka from those who specialize in making it. Feuilles de brik can be purchased from restaurant-food wholesalers, but first you must find a source and then the minimum order is typically quite large, usually about 250 sheets, which are difficult to store. (Some online sources have more reasonably-sized packages, but the pastry ends up costing about a dollar a sheet, which is insane, and it is likely not to arrive in the best condition because of the rigors of transit.) The good news is that you can make these pastries with filo, which is widely available.

Traditionally served during Rosh Hashanah and at special dinners, bestels come in two shapes, triangular and cylindrical; the latter are also called cigares or briouats. As evidence of the Spanish roots of these pastries, both Maguy Kakon in La cuisine juive du Maroc de mère en fille and Viviane and Nina Moryoussef in Moroccan Jewish Cookery call the meat filling migas, a Spanish term for bread crumbs enriched with meat juices. To ensure moisture, some cooks add a little tomato juice or some chopped tomatoes to the filling. Every family seasons the meat mixture in a different way. Some use quite a lot of garlic, others add onion, and still others favor ginger and turmeric along with, or in place of, the cinnamon. In Marrakech la Rouge, Hélène Gans Perez includes the juice of a lemon, and I have followed her lead. In 150 recettes et mille et un souvenirs d’une juive d’Algérie, Léone Jaffin offers an Algerian bestel filling that calls for a trio of large onions and nutmeg instead of cinnamon.

Makes about 24 small pastries

Meat Filling

8 ounces ground beef or lamb

4 to 6 cloves garlic, chopped

1 small yellow onion, grated (optional)

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground turmeric (optional)

½ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

4 tablespoons olive oil, or as needed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Juice of 1 lemon (optional)

1 egg, lightly beaten

Potato Filling

2 russet potatoes, peeled and cubed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 yellow onion, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely minced

2 teaspoons ground toasted cumin

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

¼ cup chopped fresh mint or cilantro

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 or 2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and coarsely chopped (optional)

12 feuilles de brik, or 8 to 12 filo sheets

1 egg lightly beaten with a bit of water, if using feuilles de brik

½ cup unsalted butter or margarine, melted, if using filo

Canola, safflower, or olive oil, if deep- frying

First, prepare both fillings. To make the meat filling, in a bowl, combine the meat, garlic, onion, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cayenne, and 2 tablespoons of the oil and mix well. Season with salt and pepper.

Warm the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the seasoned meat and cook, breaking up any lumps with a wooden spoon and stirring occasionally, until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Add a little more oil if needed and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the cilantro, and season with salt and pepper. Taste and add the lemon juice if you like. Stir in the egg to bind the mixture. Let cool completely.

To make the potato filling, combine the potatoes with salted water to cover in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn down the heat to medium and simmer until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain well, transfer to a bowl, and mash with a potato masher until smooth. Set aside.

Warm the oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and tender, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic, cumin, salt, and pepper and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the parsley and mint and remove from the heat. Add the onion mixture to the potatoes, mix well, then taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Add the raw egg, stirring well to bind the mixture, and then stir in the hard-boiled eggs. Let cool completely.

To assemble the pastries, if using feuilles de brik, cut the circles in half. Place a generous tablespoon of the filling in the center of the lower half of each semicircle, moisten the edges of the pastry with the egg wash, and then fold over to cover the filling and create a triangle with a rounded bottom. Lightly pat the pastry down and press the edges to seal.

Filo usually comes in sheets that measure about 12 by 18 inches. If that is the size of your sheets, you will need only 8 sheets, which you will cut into rectangles that measure 12 by 6 inches. If your filo sheets are smaller, cut them in half. You want 24 rectangles total. Keep the filo you are not immediately using covered with a damp kitchen towel to prevent drying. T

To make cigar-shaped pastries, brush a filo rectangle with butter (or margarine if you are using the meat filling). Put a strip of the filling on a short edge of the rectangle, placing it about 1 inch in from the edge and the sides. Fold the bottom edge over the filling, fold in the sides, and then roll up the pastry until you reach the far end. The finished pastry will be about 1½ inches in diameter and 4 inches long. (If you want a crunchier pastry, you can stack 2 strips of filo for each pastry, brushing each one with butter.) Brush with butter to seal.

To make triangular filo pastries, cut the 6-by-12-inch strips in half so you have 3-by- 12-inch strips. Place a strip on the work surface, with a short edge facing you. Brush the strip with butter and then top with a second strip and brush it with butter. Place 1 tablespoon of the filling about 1½ inches from the short edge nearest you. Fold the filo over the filling on the diagonal so the corner meets the opposite edge, and then fold the triangle up, so the long side is flush with the straight edge of the strip. Continue to fold in this manner—as if folding a flag—until you reach the far end of the strip.

The pastries can be arranged in a single layer on a sheet pan, covered loosely with a foil tent, and refrigerated for up to 24 hours before cooking. Do not press the foil (or plastic wrap) directly onto pastries made with filo, as dough can tear easily.

To deep-fry the pastries, pour the oil to a depth of 3 inches into a deep, heavy saucepan or a deep fryer and heat to 365°F. In batches, add the pastries and fry, turning once, until golden, 3 to 4 minutes total. Using a slotted spoon or wire skimmer, transfer the pastries to paper towels to drain. Serve hot.

Alternatively, to bake the pastries, preheat the oven to 400°F and line sheet pans with parchment paper. Brush the pastries with melted butter and arrange them on the prepared pans, spacing them about 1 inch apart. Bake until golden, about 25 minutes. Serve hot.


Joyce Goldstein image New Mediterranean Jewish TableJoyce Goldstein was chef and owner of the groundbreaking Mediterranean restaurant Square One in San Francisco. Prior to opening Square One, she was chef at the Chez Panisse Café and visiting executive chef at the Wine Spectator Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa. Today she is a cooking teacher, consultant to the restaurant and food industries, and prolific cookbook author. Her most recent book is Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years that Changed Our Culinary Consciousness (UC Press, 2013).