From the glorious days of Renaissance Spain to the expulsion of the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, our ancestors, originally from Zaragoza, Spain, fled to Greece and Turkey, essentially leaving everything behind except for Jewish traditions and memories. At the end of WW II and the Holocaust, the Saragoussi family again immigrated in the 1950s, this time, to the US seeking a better quality of life. With cherished family possessions lost or stolen during the war, my family arrived in New York City by way of the Italian ocean liner, Andrea Doria, with only clothes-filled suitcases, traditions, and memories. One of those saved traditions is the rich, unchanged recipes of delicious Sephardi cuisine. Borekas, a Sephardic delight and staple whose unwritten recipe has passed through the many hands of the Saragoussi family, are still lovingly prepared and savored in our family’s homes today.
I remember watching my Turkish-born grandmother, Nona, who journeyed with our family to America and lived with us during her twilight years, preparing all the ingredients to make the tasty borekas. With nothing more than a fork, knife, bowl, a smooth glass cup (used to cut and roll the dough), and her strong, skillful hands, Nona would swiftly prepare the dough, then mix chopped beef OR feta or kashkaval (a robust Greek yellow cheese), or even merenjena (eggplant) with eggs, scallions, and a dash of pepper into a bowl. Then, one by one, she would flatten the small rounds of dough, fill and form the half-moon shaped borekas. Depending on the filling, Nona sealed the edges of the dough differently to identify its contents – cheese edged with fork marks, meat finished with the edge tightly twisted. Finally, once the borekas were arranged on the baking sheet, Nona would dip her fingers into the egg wash and carefully “brush” the top of each boreka. A half-hour later, with the house filled with the familiar scent of freshly baked pastries, my sisters and I would congregate in the kitchen, eagerly waiting for Nona to serve us fresh, hot borekas.
What makes these unique and delicious Sephardic pastelles so meaningful and so part of our family’s Jewish identity is, unlike the foods of Eastern European Jews, the Sephardi incorporated ingredients available in the Mediterranean region – feta cheese or eggplant. More importantly, my Nona, and now my mother, aunts, and my sisters and I, all prepare borekas for Shabbat meals, Jewish holiday gatherings, and as a special treat for company – a way in which our family shares our rich Sephardi tradition with guests.
Borekas were and are still such an important family food, that we bring them on trips, picnics, school and work lunches. We have even sent them through the mail to our children in college! As our latest family’s generation is further removed from the original Zaragoza family, all of my living relatives continue to bake with our youngest family members passing on the tradition of making delicious borekas – using the same ingredients and skillful hands!