Meet the pastry that's as Israeli as Bamba: batzek shekem - shekem dough. The "shekem" part of the name is an acronym. (Hebrew loves acronyms; they're like tribal secret codes.) As is often the case, this one encodes plenty of truthiness and history with a twist of unfounded assumption. Ask an Israeli and they're likely to tell you that "shekem" stands for the army cantina. Actually, it's an acronym of its genius ingredients, remnants of that heady, austere, and therefore ingenuity-requiring state-building period: shamenet/ kemach/ margarina - sour cream/ flour/ margarine.
The recipe is dictated by the standard package sizes of yesteryear, when margarine meant 200-gram blocks of Blue Band brand, flour meant a standard 350-gram bag of the self-rising stuff, and sour cream came in little tubs of 200 ml (a bit under a cup). You need one package of each, and that's that.
The margarine doesn't surprise me--it was midcentury, after all--but the sour cream does. Granted, shamenet is a star ingredient of budding Israeli terroire, but in those days kosher-style was generally the rule, and most cakes and pastries were kept parve (dairy-free). This dough was obviously destined for service with afternoon coffee or a dining-hall dinner.
Margarine behaves somewhat differently in recipes than does butter, so I experimented with using a combo of good-quality shortening and butter to capture the effect. I didn't find there to be a major difference, so I updated to full-on butter in my recipe. This twist is known as "cheshek" dough, chem'ah/ shamenet/ kemach (butter/ sour cream/ flour). My version is also halved, though it retains the same proportions, and is written for the use of all-purpose flour rather than self-rising (that's why my recipe has more than three ingredients).
How to use shekem dough
Along with its vintage patina, shekem dough holds up as a great thing to have in your back pocket (by which I mean freezer). You can stuff it with all manner of thing of the old or new school, from mashed potato and onion to labaneh and za'atar or kabocha and havarti. Shekem dough is also used for dessert purposes and filled with things like nutella or grated apples, but to me shekem dough skews savory and that's its best use.
Shekem rolls make nice, portable additions to lunch boxes and afterschool snacks. You can stick them on a plata and serve them on Shabbat without drying them out. You can also use shekem dough as a quiche crust or to encase goodies for hand pies. You can wrap it around olives to make little bites of Israeli-inflected umami, or roll it into crescent cookies.
Our two favorite fillings are three-cheese with green olives and mushrooms with onion, which I've included below.
How to make shekem dough
My preferred method is to make the dough in a food processor. You can also mix it by hand, just one bowl and one spoon. You put all the ingredients in at once and pulse away until the dough is craggy and moist.
When the dough is ready, it'll hold together when you press it--similarly to shortcrust pastry (pie dough) or biscuit dough, but a lot wetter and better at sticking together.
Then, stick it in the fridge for an hour before rolling it out and filling it.
Freezing and reheating
You can freeze the unbaked dough in a ball in a freezer zip-top bag. To defrost, thaw for several hours at room temperature or overnight in the fridge.
You can also freeze the baked pastry, well wrapped. Reheat for 7-10 minutes at 350°F (180°C).
Shekem Dough (dairy)
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour - 175g
- ½ cup sour cream - 100ml
- 1 stick butter - 110g
- 2 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp kosher salt
For the egg wash:
- 1 egg, beaten with 1 tsp water
Make the dough:
- Place all the ingredients into a food processor and pulse until the dough comes together; it will be moist and craggy. (You can also mix by hand in a large mixing bowl.)
- Wrap up and chill in the refrigerator for an hour.
Fill and baking the pastry:
- Divide the filled dough in half. Roll out the first half on a well-floured surface into a large rectangle, about ¼" (7mm) thick.
- Fill generously with about ¾ cup of filling. Fold over the short edges and carefully roll the pastry closed. Place it seam side down on a lined sheet pan.
- Repeat with the second half of dough, placing the finished roll next to the first. Brush the tops of the rolls with the beaten egg, using a pastry brush.
- Bake the rolls at 350°F (180°C) for about 35 minutes, until golden and risen.
Mushroom Filling for Shekem Dough
- 2 cups mushrooms, any kind or a mix, sliced
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- ½ tsp dried thyme - or 1 tsp fresh
- ¼ tsp black or white pepper, ground
- In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame until shimmering. Add the sliced onion and allow to soften; don't stir too often, to allow it to begin to carmelize.
- Once the onion to softened, add the mushrooms and toss to coat, adding a bit more oil if needed. Leave the mushrooms and onions to soften and cook for 7-10 minutes, stirring infrequently.
- Once the mushrooms begin to shrink and release their juices and the onion is nicely browned, season with salt, pepper, and thyme. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly before filling pastry.
Cheese and Olive Filling for Shekem Dough
- ½ cup ricotta
- ¼ cup crumbled feta
- ¼ cup shredded mozarella
- 1 egg, beaten
- ¼ cup sliced green olives
- In a medium-sized bowl, combine the three cheese and mix well.
- Add the beaten egg to the bowl and combine well.
- Fold in the olives, and the filling is ready to be placed in the (unbaked) pastry.