A few years ago, before a gourmet food truck lurked on every New York street corner, a friend and I had an idea. We would sell dumplings and turnovers from around the world—pierogi and gyoza and empanadas and then some—all side by side in a multicultural celebration of "stuff wrapped in other stuff." We would sell them from a cart, of course (these are, after all, real street food), which we'd call Uncle Dumpling.
Then we realized we had no capital or experience or desire to work 37-hour days and the dream died. But our love of turnovers didn't.
The way the Serious Eats crew feels about sandwiches, I do about turnovers: most things can be improved, in some way, by getting wrapped in dough and then baked, steamed, or fried.
On my shortlist of turnover favorites, which would have been a mainstay on the Uncle Dumpling menu, is borek. And the looks of your recipe requests from my profile of Astoria's Djerdan, I'm not alone.
Boreks and their cousins hail from all over the Middle East and Southeast Europe. They can be stuffed with potato, cheese, eggplant, meat, spinach—really whatever you like that isn't too moist. I'm especially partial to Turkish sigara borek, little "cigars" of filling wrapped in flatbread.
They require a little work in the way of finding ingredients and getting the technique down, but don't take long to figure out. And once you have your setup, you can make as many borek as you like. Freeze them on a sheet pan, then bag them for baking on a rainy day. Or invite all your friends over for a borek-a-thon.
The only mystifying part of borek is the dough. Many Turkish borek are made with yufka, a thin flatbread more hearty than phyllo but more delicate than flour tortillas. Yufka gives the finished borek a weighty bite that's still plenty flaky. And when brushed with some butter before baking, yufka crisps up beautifully. You can make it by hand, but the commercial stuff is actually pretty good, and it's increasingly easy to find yufka in specialty import shops or online (look for triangular sheets for this recipe). If you can't find yufka, don't give up hope. Three sheets of phyllo with melted butter in between makes a decent substitute. The skins will be more flaky and less substantial, but that's hardly a terrible thing.
The borek in the slideshow above are made with potato and young kasseri cheese, a sheep's milk cheese commonly used in Turkey for pastries and sandwiches. Younger kasseri has a texture and taste not unlike emmentaler: slightly nutty, but with a distinct sheep-y funk. It melts easily, and in another life, makes a great grilled cheese. Aged kasseri is more akin to parmesan, and can be sprinkled on the top of borek before baking.
Once you get the hang of the basics, it's easy to get addicted to borek. If you're looking to experiment, consider eggplant, which is commonly used in southern Turkey. Check out one of these Turkish-ish recipes for some inspiration.
If you get really skilled—and you know how to drive—let's talk. Uncle Dumpling can live again. For reals this time.