We’re approaching the time of year when you’re expected to bring special little edibles to parties. Here’s one that’s a long, long way from cliché — 13th-century Spanish cheese pies.
They’re made with a unique, very easy sort of puff pastry that comes out pleasantly chewy. Each rustic-looking pie has a little window on top where you can see into the baked cheese filling, topped with anise seeds for an exotic note.
The original recipe, from an Andalusian cookbook known as the “Manuscrito Anónimo,” insists that you have to use three parts of a sheep’s-milk cheese such as Manchego and one part cow’s-milk cheese (Monterey Jack is a Spanish-style cheese, so it would be authentic). This doesn’t seem crucial, though a mixture of cheeses certainly adds to the flavor, as it does in macaroni and cheese.
Known as mujabbana furniyya in 13th-century Moorish Spain, these little pies were a specialty of the city of Toledo (the one in Spain, not the one in Ohio). Face it, you probably can’t name a single culinary specialty of Toledo. So this is a sure-fire bar bet, for starters.
- In a small bowl, mix the flour with the salt and work in enough water that the dough picks up all the flour. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead firmly until smooth and elastic, about eight minutes. If the paste is too slack to knead well, sprinkle with a little flour. If it’s too dry (comes apart ruggedly when you stretch it), moisten one hand with water and work it in.
- When the dough is kneaded, divide it into two equal pieces. Roll one piece into a tortilla shape (a disk about 9 inches in diameter) and smear the surface with melted butter. Don’t skimp with the butter; you should be able to slide your hand smoothly across the surface.
- Roll up the disk into a cylinder, but be sure it is not too tight. If any butter leaks out, wipe it up. Then twist the cylinder into a spiral mat shape about 3½ inches across. Place on a lightly floured work surface and cover with plastic wrap or an overturned soup bowl. Repeat with the other piece of dough. Allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes.
- Heat the oven to 350 F.
- Flatten each mat of dough with the palm of your hand, and roll it out about 9 inches in diameter. Put ½ cup grated cheese in the center of each. Leave the cheese mounded up; it will spread as it bakes.
- To form the pies, fold the edges of the dough over the filling from four sides, making a square, but leave an open space about the size of a quarter in the center. At each of the four seams you have formed, fold one side of the seam over the other to seal and then crimp the seam together. You will end up a rough square about 4 inches on a side. Sprinkle five or six anise seeds onto the cheese in the “window.”
- Place the mujabbanas on a baking dish or cookie sheet, and bake until the pastry is turning golden brown and the cheese filling is bubbling, 30-35 minutes.
- Allow to cool 10 minutes before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature. Can be reheated in a warm oven or on a griddle.
Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.
Photo: Mujabbana Furniyya (Spanish cheese pie).
Credit: Charles Perry