Puff Pastry Pillows: Spicy Shakshuka Tarts

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I love shakshuka and I love puff pastry… so I guess this was bound to happen eventually. I don’t usually cook on this blog, but sometimes we have to rethink things when inspiration takes hold, and this was a recipe that I really wanted to share. I absolutely *adore* savory pastry; in fact, contrary to popular belief based on my insatiable sweet tooth, if I owned a bakery, I would love to specialize in savory pastry, not unlike Breads Bakery in New York City. The combination of flaky pastry with vegetables, egg, and cheese is pretty much my favorite kind of breakfast– I mean, all the good stuff is in there, right?? And P.S., it’s okay if eating the eggs and vegetables makes you feel the *tiniest* bit better about eating the pastry part… 😉

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For those of you saying, “Shaka-what-a?!”, shakshuka (shahk-SHOO-kuh) is a Middle Eastern stew-type dish typically made with tomatoes and bell peppers, with eggs cooked on top in little nests; however, there are so many variations nowadays that almost anything goes. You’ll find this in pretty much every country throughout the Middle East and North Africa, with variations in local spices and ingredients; I am partial to the traditional Israeli version. My mom made it while I was growing up, but I don’t think I actually ate it until I was older, having spent much of my childhood giving it the side-eye because there were too many healthy-looking, non-carb-related ingredients. I honestly don’t remember how it became a fixture in my kitchen, but at some point in my mid-20s I started making my own, working off a recipe in some book, but I eventually customized it to my own recipe, as I think a lot of shakshuka cooks are bound to do. It’s really one of those things that you make your own after a while, with a spice mixture and heat level to your liking, and a ratio of tomatoes to bell peppers that pleases your palate. I personally like it with moderate heat, so I use 4 teaspoons of the hot paprika, but feel free to set your mouth on fire if you like it really spicy (you can even add chile peppers if you wish), or even just 1 teaspoon if you want it mild. I happen to like the combination of red and green bell peppers, but feel free to use yellow or orange all up in there. I also like to throw in some fresh cherry tomatoes for texture since I prefer crushed tomatoes for the smoothness of the sauce. Last time I used fire-roasted crushed ones, which added another yummy layer of flavor, so really feel free to experiment. One more thing… I despise onions– like, I totally find them vile in pretty much every way, so I grind mine down to a fine purée; that way, I don’t have to see ’em. You don’t necessarily have to do this, but I found that since the onions do, admittedly (blech), add depth to the sauce, I could avoid detecting them by blending them into oblivion. 😉

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It brings my heart so much joy to see shakshuka killing it on brunch menus all over the country and gracing several high-profile cookbooks, such as Zahav. What I really want to try making is the Shakshuka Focaccia from Breaking Breads, but that’s for another day. I had bought some puff pastry for another recipe that didn’t materialize, and I had one of those lightbulb moment where I realized I could make these Spicy Shakshuka Tarts using the puff pastry in place of bread dough. I also love this idea because one of my favorite savory pastries in existence is the savory vegetable tart at Neighbor Bakehouse in San Francisco, which is similar in shape and size, though the filling is totally different. I don’t make it up to the bakery nearly often enough, but when I do, my eyes immediately scan the baking racks for those gorgeous puffy rectangles.

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Anyway, I’ve held off on posting puff pastry recipes on here because I wanted to make my own pastry, but now I realize that that is nonsense, and there could be a lot more puff pastry in my life if I accepted that a nice store-bought brand, such as DuFour, is 100% great (and let’s face it, probably a lot better than my meager attempts at teaching myself to work with puff). Also, ready-made puff dough is stupid-easy to use, especially in this case. All I did was unfold the sheet of thawed pastry and cut it into four pieces; that’s it– no rolling, no nothing.

This recipe is very customizable. For example, you can use a green spinach shakshuka recipe, and sprinkle the dough edges with za’atar spice instead of sesame seeds. The only thing I wish I could improve is having a runny egg yolk; it gets baked through, so at least it stays looking nice and perky. I toyed with the idea of putting the eggs on half the tarts ahead of time and the other half halfway through baking, but as I worked with them, it became clear that getting the egg on correctly was delicate business, and it wouldn’t be good to take the tarts out of the oven for more than a few seconds during baking in order to deal with applying the eggs. The nice thing is that the egg whites also cooked all the way through, so there were no runny whites. I suppose one could also make a single giant shakshuka tart, onto which it would be much easier to crack a bunch of eggs, so you could pull it out halfway through baking to quickly do that step. But if you make a large one that needs to be cut up, you wouldn’t get your very own personal tart with four flaky pastry edges, so what fun is that? Either way, I highly recommend these flaky, spicy, savory, scrumptious tarts– it’s a great way to mesh mouth-watering Israeli cooking and French pastry!

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Shakshuka Tarts
Yields 4 individual tarts

These quantities are quite approximate. You can adjust the spices to your liking and use different colors of bell peppers. If you want chunkier chopped onions, there is no need to purée them– that is just my personal preference. (Just sauté them until they start to soften, then add the bell peppers.) Also, if you have a favorite shakshuka recipe, feel free to substitute it, provided that it’s not too watery.

For the shakshuka:

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 small onions or 1 large onion, puréed or finely chopped (see note above)
  • 2-4 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 medium bell peppers (I use 4 red + 2 green), cut in large dice
  • 50 ounces crushed or diced tomatoes (from jars or boxes, or homemade– this can be an approximate quantity, depending on the brand of tomatoes)
  • 10 ounces (about 2 cups) cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
  • 2-6 teaspoons hot paprika
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric

For assembly:

  • 14-ounce sheet all-butter puff pastry, thawed if frozen
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
  • 4 eggs
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a deep 12″ non-stick sauté pan. Add the puréed/chopped onions to the pan and stir them into the olive oil. After a couple of minutes, stir in the garlic. Cook the onions and garlic until the onions release their liquid and absorb the oil, about 5 minutes or so– if using puréed onions, they should look fairly dry at this point.

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Add the diced bell peppers and stir them until they are coated with onion/garlic bits. Cover the pan and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring a few times, or until the bell peppers start to soften and lose their bright color. It’s okay to pick up a little “char” on the bottom.

Meanwhile, stir together the hot paprika, cumin, salt, and turmeric in a small bowl. Once the peppers have started to wilt, stir in the crushed tomatoes. Stir in the cherry tomatoes, then the spices. Give the shakshuka a good stir to blend everything together evenly. Lower the heat to medium-low and cover the pot; cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The mixture should be bubbling happily– if it sputters, lower the heat a touch.

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When the tomatoes have broken down and the shukshuka has thickened and reduced a bit, turn off the heat. Let it cool completely being using for the tarts. I think it’s best to use it the next day, as it will continue to thicken overnight. At the very least, let it cool and thicken for a few hours.

When you’re ready to assemble the tarts, line an unrimmed cookie sheet with parchment paper. Unfold the puff pastry sheet on a cutting board and cut it into 4 rectangles. Transfer them to the baking sheet, arranging them a couple of inches apart. Brush the the entire surface of each rectangle lightly with egg wash. Sprinkle the edges all the way around each one with sesame seeds, leaving the middles [clear]. Place the sheet in the fridge for 30 minutes, and preheat an oven to 375°F with a rack positioned in the center.

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Spoon about ½ cup shakshuka into the center of each rectangle in a line so that you have a border of about ¾” all the way around. Make a well in the center of each shakshuka portion as best you can. Crack one egg into a small bowl and carefully scoop out the egg yolk with your hand. Gently place the yolk on the center of the shakshuka on one of the rectangles. Scoop out a little egg white and carefully dribble it over the shakshuka, being careful not to add too much so that it rolls right off the shakshuka; this is delicate, patience work, so take your time in figuring out just how much to use. Take care not to weigh down the sesame borders with shakshuka or egg white, though it will be fine if a little “bleeds” into the border. Repeat with the remaining 3 eggs and pastry rectangles. Sprinkle the tarts with salt and pepper to taste. Reserve the leftover egg whites for another use, or freeze them for the future.

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Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. The tarts are ready when the four sides on each tart have puffed and browned; you should not see butter bubbling on the dough edges.

Set the pan on a wire cooling rack. Sprinkle the tarts with feta cheese and serve immediately or let them cool to room temperature.

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2017.

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