Although originally from Lebanon, different countries make similar versions of these open-faced meat pies we in Brazil call esfirras (sfihas in Lebanon). Growing up, I could get it almost everywhere, as it was available as street food or bar food in every Brazilian city to which I have ever been.
You can then probably imagine the struggle as I tried to re-create my childhood memory of this beautiful pastry. It seems there are thousands of recipes for just the Brazilian version of esfirras, not counting all the Lebanese versions I ran into, that it was overwhelming! So I naturally reached out to my sister Karen, who lives in Sweden. Wouldn’t you know it, she had a completely different recipe as well! Ugh!
So, what did I do? I practiced 3 or 4 times and come up with a mish-mash of all of them that I think comes the closest to the flavor profile I was seeking for my memory of esfirras.
Let me tell you, I was sincere and committed in my practice attempts, too. For example, my first try was using a Lebanese recipe calling for ground lamb. Oh, and did I mention I really DO NOT like mutton of any kind? Yeah… Other than tasting it, Sam and I would not eat them. Steve thought it was pretty good. Matt thought it was really good. But then again, my Matt has one of the most receptive and informed palates of anyone I know. So, that was not a surprising reaction from him
The recipe I’m sharing with you is mostly Brazilian, with a hint of Lebanese, and I am told by my guys that it is the best version so far. Luckily, it is the one that tastes the closest to my childhood memory. So, I’m calling it quits and sticking with this one.
let’s see what goes into making esfirras
What’s up with the thingy that’s optional for the filling? It’s called Arabic 7 spice. In Brazil, we call it pimenta síria. I made my own because I was not sure that I would find it at the grocery store, and I happen to have all the ingredients. This is the recipe I used.
Yeah, it takes a lot of spices…hence the name. So, if you want to exclude it, many Brazilian esfirra recipes do. As it is, I use only one pinch or so because, as you can see from the recipe, it can be pretty potent.
Tahini, however, you can find anywhere.
Let’s look at how to prepare the esfirras
Start with the filling because it has to cool before making the esfirras.
First, brown the ground beef in the olive oil. But don’t use a high flame. You don’t want to cook the juices away.
As soon as the beef is cooked through and crumbly but there are still juices left in the pan, add the onion and tomato.
Cook just until the onions are a little tender but still hold their shape. You will bake the pies in the oven, so they will basically be cooked down quite a bit at the end.
Add the tahini, stir to distribute.
Next, add the parsley, mint, and lime juice. Stir to distribute, then salt and pepper to taste. This is also where I add the 7 spice. Because the mixture is still warm, if you stir well, the seasonings will all blend into the mixture.
While the filling is cooling, start the dough.
By now you know that I let my bread machine do all the work. This is a beautiful dough. Just throw all the ingredients in, turn on your bread machine to the dough setting, and let it go to town. As I’ve mentioned before, if you don’t have a bread machine with a dough setting, you can use an upright mixer with a paddle or dough hook, or you can mix the dough by hand.
I let it proof in the bread machine. Mixing, kneading to proofing: 1 1/2 hours.
When the dough is done, turn it onto a lightly floured surface, form a rectangle, and cut into 15 equal pieces.
And now, for the truth. We all know that you can’t cut a batch of dough into 15 equal pieces. Dough is sneaky. It likes to change shape AFTER you shape it. Don’t worry. No perfection needed. Some of the smaller corner pieces can be combined. You just need to end up with one dozen esfirras.
Roll each piece into a circle. Then top it with a good heaping tablespoon of cooled filling.
Next, fold the sides up to partially cover the filling and pinch the corners together to hold the shape. The goal is to make little square or rectangular shapes. Again, no perfection needed. Remember, this is street food! Rustic is good!
Finally, arrange them onto a parchment paper-covered baking sheet and brush with the egg wash. Then into the pre-heated oven it goes so that it can come out looking like this…
Aroma, aroma, aroma, I love you… (to the tune of Tomorrow from Annie, the musical) …
Apparently, I’m a nerd. Give me a break. I went decades without eating these.
And I think I’m in love all over again!
Please serve warm with a drizzle of olive oil and a dash of lime juice. Because that’s how it’s done. And THAT’s why esfirras are AMAZING!
- FOR THE FILLING:
- 1 pound lean ground beef (at least 93% lean)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup chopped onion
- ½ cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1 medium tomato, chopped, with skin but without seeds
- 1 tablespoon tahini
- 3-4 teaspoons fresh lime juice, one lime
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh mint
- 1 pinch 7 spice (optional)
- 1 egg yolk and 2 tablespoons of water for an egg wash
- FOR THE DOUGH
- 2½ cups flour
- 1 cup warm milk
- 1 teaspoon dry, active yeast
- 5 teaspoons sugar
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Start with the filling so it has time to cool before shaping the esfirras.
- First, heat a skillet to medium-low and brown the ground beef with the olive oil.
- When the beef is browned and crumbly but there are still juices in the pan, add the onions and tomato.
- Stir and cook just until the onions are somewhat softened but still retain their shape.
- Next, stir in the tahini.
- Turn off the flame, remove the skillet from the burner, and allow to cool for about 5 minutes.
- Then stir in the parsley, mint, and lime juice.
- Add the 7 spice (optional), the salt and pepper to taste.
- Stir to distribute.
- Then set aside to cool.
- Add the dough ingredients to the bowl of a bread machine programmed for the dough setting (or use an upright mixer with a paddle or dough hook, or mix the dough by hand).
- Mix, knead, and proof for about 1½ hours.
- Preheat oven to 425°F.
- Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a rectangle.
- Next, cut the dough into 15 equal pieces. The corner pieces may shrink after cutting, and can be added to other pieces to form 12 dough pieces.
- Roll each piece into a round, spoon a heaping tablespoon of the cooled filling into the center, fold the sides of the dough up to partially cover the filling.
- Pinch the corner to form a square or rectangle.
- Transfer to a parchment-covered baking sheet.
- Repeat until all dough and filling have been used up.
- Then brush with the egg wash.
- Bake for 20 minutes or until the dough is a dark golden brown.
- Remove from oven and let cool for about 10 minutes.
- Serve warm with a slight drizzle of olive oil and a small pinch of fresh lime.