I am a big fan of small, picky food. The sort of miniature items that have you going back to the buffet table time and again, saying “just one more,” and then another… and then you quietly slip another one in, hoping that no one noticed you are on your 38th miniature delight.
After a long Yom Kippur fast, tables across the Indian-Iraqi community in London are filled with small, delicious pastries and sweet tea. Among them are date babas (pastries filled with dates cooked to a jam-like consistency), kakas (bagel-shaped mini cookies), dal (chickpea) or almond sambusak and, of course, the king of the pastry: cheese sambusak. Meat is far too heavy to break the fast on, and I never saw the appeal of cold fried fish, nor boiled gefilte fish, which has just never quite done it for me. Pastries are the perfect break fast food.
Cheese sambusak are a delicacy amongst the Indian-Iraqi community, and every family has at least one bag hiding in the freezer year-round so that they are accessible at a moment’s notice. But no one has quite rivaled Avraham’s sambusak. I have tried and tried to make them — and I have annoyed nearly every one of my husband’s aunts by trying their recipes — but am reminded that, although my efforts are appreciated, they just aren’t as good as Avraham. Avraham (no idea of his surname; like Madonna, he is simply Avraham the Cheese Sambusak Man) is an institution in our little Northwest London suburb and everyone knows that he is the master.
These flaky pastry morsels filled with pillowy cheesy deliciousness are the perfect item for breaking a long Yom Kippur fast on — but they must first be dunked into sweet tea. Don’t get me wrong, the cheese sambusak are quite exquisite on their own, but the tea is a crucial element to the break-fast rituals: the sugar balances the sambusak’s salty filling, and the heat causes the cheese to slightly melt. The tea must be strong but not stewed, and have enough sugar that it is sweet but not sickly. It needs to be hot, but cool enough that you can dunk your pastry in and drink it without scorching your mouth. These are simply the rules, do not try to resist.
The secret of the sambusak itself is the fluffy, cheesy filling, which puffs up and attaches to the pastry on top. They have enough chew whilst staying light, and are just heaven.
When I asked Avraham about the recipe he told me that the main cheese is Gouda, mixed with other cheeses to create the exact balance of cheesiness and saltiness. I am sure that there is something very scientific about replacing the salts that we have lost during our fast with vast amounts of cheese, but all that aside, they just taste great. I have asked a million times how to get the right amount of puff, and the secret seems to be freezing the cheese blocks before drying them and rolling in the flour and then grating it together along with the exact number of eggs, which binds the mixture without making it runny.
My husband and I plan the exact moment to make the tea and put the sambusak in the oven after Yom Kippur ends so that they are ready when he walks in from synagogue. Together, we devour what has been made before debating how many more we should heat up.
If you’re not lucky enough to source your cheese sambusak directly from Avraham, you can whip up his recipe at home this Yom Kippur. After 25 hours of fasting, with a dry mouth and an empty belly, I promise that the winning combination of these beautiful little cheesy puffs, dipped into hot, sweet tea will bring you back to life in just one mouthful!