I am so excited that the next generation is taking an interest and learning to make these centuries-old recipes
Becky Sheff has Bendichas Manos, blessed hands in Ladino. In the world of Judeo-Spanish speakers, this is the ultimate compliment to bestow on a cook. Becky, Rachel’s mother in law, is part of a Rhodesli sisterhood that faithfully bakes burekas, boyos, biscochos and other beloved Sephardic delicacies of the former Ottoman Empire. Incredibly, she only started baking at the age of 50, so there’s hope for all of us.
Becky’s parents met and married in Seattle in 1920: Nissim Pascal Elie was from a Bulgarian family and had studied agriculture in Palestine before he came to America; Victoria Benatar was born in Rhodes and emigrated to the United States with a sister in law. (When Italy surrendered to the Allies in World War II, the Nazis invaded the picturesque island of Rhodes and deported the ancient Sephardic community to Auschwitz, where the majority perished. Victoria’s sister, brother in law and niece were among the martyrs. Becky, their only child, was born in San Francisco and grew up in the close-knit Rhodesli community of Los Angeles. She met and married Sam Sheff in 1959. Sam built them a beautiful home in the Brentwood Hills, where they survived the notorious Bel-Air fire of 1961. But in 1962, tragedy struck when Sam suffered a heart attack, leaving Becky a young widow with 8 month old baby Neil. Becky was forced to return to her old job with the Army Corps of Engineers in the Los Angeles Federal Building.
While Becky‘s mother was an expert baker, Becky never had the time to learn because she worked such long hours. When she retired, she made up for lost time and mastered the art of making boyos, burekas, biscochos and roskas with great flair.
Rachel’s Turn: When I married Neil, I learned about the Sephardic desayuno, the Shabbat breakfast that is eaten in the communities of the former Ottoman Empire. The menu includes boyos, burekas, feta cheese, kashkeval cheese, kalamata olives, watermelon, roskas, a sweet challah bread and reshas, homemade crackers. It wouldn’t be Shabbat without huevos haminados, literally eggs from the hamin (Shabbat stew) but usually boiled or baked overnight with onion skins, oil and pepper to achieve a golden brown color and wonderfully smoky flavor.
But I never learned to bake burekas or boyos, leaving that to my talented mother in law. Every couple of weeks she would give me bags of burekas or boyos to put in the freezer. They were the stars of our Shabbat lunches and my kids could never get enough.
Years of typing at her IBM Selectric typewriter for her job left Becky with arthritic fingers, making it more and more difficult for her to finesse the dough. So about ten years ago, I started baking burekas. When my daughter Rebekah was 12 years old, Becky gave her a lesson in making burekas. I still have the detailed notes Rebekah wrote in my little cooking journal.
BOYOS ARE SAVORY TREATS MADE FROM THIN, FLAKY COILED DOUGH STUFFED WITH SPINACH AND CHEESE, THEN SPRINKLED WITH FINELY GRATED ROMANO CHEESE.
But that left boyos off the table. Boyos are savory treats made from thin, flaky coiled dough stuffed with spinach and cheese, then sprinkled with finely grated Romano cheese. Sometimes they are filled with potato, eggplant or meat. They are delicious.
Four years ago, I went to Becky’s home and she patiently taught me how to make her delicious boyos. My cousin through marriage, the beautiful Patricia, taught me to add feta cheese to up the flavor.
I always thought it amusing that whenever Becky’s friends would bake, they would announce the quantity of burekas and boyos that they had produced. But once I started, I understood. It’s super hard, labor intensive work, so every gorgeous boyo and bureka is precious.
My husband Neil is very fond of boyos (and very particular about how they taste) so now he helps me by washing and chopping the spinach. After the boyos are formed, he brushes them with the egg wash and sprinkles the cheese on top.
Recently, my son Sam and my daughter in law Estrella stood with me in the kitchen and we made over 200 boyos.
I am so excited that the next generation is taking an interest and learning to make these centuries-old recipes.
2 1/2 pounds spinach, finely chopped
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup finely grated Romano or parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons flour
Combine all the ingredients.
1 cup warm water
1 teaspoon yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable or avocado oil
1 teaspoon salt
All purpose flour
1 egg beaten for egg wash
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- In a large bowl, combine the water, yeast and sugar and let proof for 10 minutes.
- Combine the oil with the salt and add to the yeast mixture.
- Using a standing mixer with a dough hook or by hand, start incorporating the flour, one cup at a time. Dough should come together and be just a bit sticky.
- Pour oil into a baking sheet until it reaches half way up the sides.
- Roll the dough into golf ball-sized pieces, then place on the baking sheet and leave covered with towel for an hour.
- Using a small rolling pin, roll out the dough as thinly as possible, then sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
- Add a little of the filling and roll the dough like a jelly roll.
- Coil the roll into a snail and place on a baking sheet. Repeat to make all the boys.
- Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with grated cheese.
- Place in the oven and bake until the boyos are a golden brown, about 15 minutes.Recipe Note: Triple the recipe and freeze in tightly sealed containers.
Rachel Sheff and Sharon Gomperts have been friends since high school. They love cooking and sharing recipes. They have collaborated on Sephardic Educational Center projects and community cooking classes. Find recipe video clips and recipes on Instagram SEPHARDIC SPICE GIRLS and Facebook SEPHARDIC SPICE SEC FOOD.