As days are getting warmer — some places already headed full-throttle into scorching summer heat — meal preparation is dwindling down to a few quick and easy basics. I don’t blame you people, I mean, who wants to spend the entire evening after a stressful work day cooking when it’s so nice outside (well, that excludes me, of course)? Birds are chirping, grass is soft and green, light breezes are still around (soon, soon they will disappear, yielding to the scorching heat aggravated by insane humidity); they are calling you outside with a glassful of your favorite whatever, so forget the cooking!
But one can’t live by green grass and bird chirping alone, even with the glassful of whatever in hand. Let’s see, what would make a good candidate for a perfect-weather meal? Something that takes short prep time and longer hands-off cooking time, so that after spending 15 minutes or so in the kitchen, we’d set our meal on the stove top or in the oven and come outside with the blessed cupful of [insert yours here]. Yep, sounds like a good idea. Also, as few as possible ingredients would be nice, so that we don’t have to make that last minute grocery store run. Also, cool if we can eat it by hand, saving on dish washing in the end. Also, it can’t be junk food (to make health-conscious moms happy). And not a pizza, because we are sick of pizzas and a real pizza takes time to make (the dough at least). And, hopefully, all done in an hour or less. There!
Well, the good news is, I have it. I have it all — the 15 minute prep, the hands-off cooking time, the simple ingredient list, the utensil-free eating, the healthy food, and all the heavenly smells that come with it — all the while you are sipping your mojito on the deck, inhaling the gentle breezes. Meet Koubiteh (coo-bee-TEH) — a medieval meat and onion stuffed pocket of flaky pie dough. Sprinkled with just a few of the basic spices, it’s so simple and so elegant at the same time, you’d slap yourself for not inventing it. Most every culture probably has something similar if you look closely. The reason I chose Koubiteh is its origins.
Koubiteh comes to us from Crimea. One of the oldest living ethnic and cultural groups populating that land was Karaim (Karaite) — a Jewish sect originated around 9th century. The history of the Karaite is fascinating, as is their culture. There are communities of Karaites living pretty much all over the world, but they claim to have originated in Crimea. Their cookery (as is their language) resembles much that of Turkish or Tatar, but it’s noted for its simplicity. Curiously, many of the Karaite last names derived from the foods they were eating. Mainstay of their meals was meat in various forms, predominantly lamb.
So what is Koubiteh exactly? It’s a humble meat and onion stuffed flaky pie with a round hole in the middle. The meat is cooked gently inside the dough, producing delicious broth. Special care is taken to make the filling in such a way, so that meat doesn’t release all the juices right away, allowing the crust to cook nicely. When the pie is cut open, you can consume the broth with a spoon, or if you make the top crust thick enough, you could break pieces of it and scoop the meat with the broth out of the bottom crust using those pieces. Now that alone sounds good enough to try it out!
I see, I see those hungry eyes of yours. But before you scurry into the kitchen armed with a knife and a rolling pin, allow me a few final words of wisdom. Do take your extra 5 minutes and chop the meat using the knife instead of slothing it off to a processor. Same applies to onion chopping. The reason it’s done this way is to delay the release of the precious juices until after the dough bakes through. If you make the filling very wet and pasty as it would happen if you use a processor, the dough will stay mushy and you will end up with a sad soggy pie. The dough recipe calls for lamb’s fat, but I realize that not everyone has access to this delicacy. Unsalted butter, tallow or lard will do just as well, just make sure they are solid and well chilled before using.
Koubiteh — Lamb Stuffed Karaim Pie
For the filling:
- 1-1/2 lbs lamb, some fat is good, cut into thin strips and then into small cubes with the knife
- 1/2 lbs onions, finely chopped (no processors!)
- 1/2 to 1 tsp coarse salt
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp each cumin and coriander (if using seeds, they need to be crushed in a mortar)
For the dough:
- 3 cups all-purpose flour (I used sifted whole-wheat flour, hence the darker dough color)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 sticks (1/2 lbs) of butter or an equivalent amount of lard, tallow, or lamb fat. The best lamb fat is the tail fat – people in the know can testify to that
- 3-4 tbsp sour cream
- 1 small egg for glazing the pie
- Preheat the oven to 360F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
- Prepare the filling first. Cut lamb into thin slices, cut each slice into strips and then chop the strips, ending up with small cubes. This shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes.
- Chop the onions.
- Mix onions and lamb on a chopping board, add seasoning and spices. Mix well
- Using a cleaver or a heavy knife, chop the filling on a board for 1-2 minutes to incorporate everything well and create uniform texture. Put the filling into a bowl and let it rest while you prepare the dough.
- Cut butter, salt and 2 cups of flour together until small crumbs form throughout.
- Add sour cream and mix just enough to distribute evenly.
- Little by little add remaining flour, until dough turns into a cohesive mass. It will be shaggy and not very uniform and that’s OK. Don’t knead the dough much, just combine everything until it resembles a dough.
- Cut the dough into two parts at about 40/60 ratio.
- Dust the board with a bit of flour and gently roll the larger piece of dough out into a circle, about the size of a large plate plus 1 inch around it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but as close to a circle as you can. The thickness of the dough should be about 1/2 inch or slightly thinner.
- Transfer the dough from the board onto a parchment lined baking sheet. The best way to do so is to wrap the dough around a rolling pin and then unwrap it over the parchment.
- Put the filling on top of the dough and spread it out evenly, leaving about 1 inch of dough uncovered around the edges. Flatten the filling, it shouldn’t heap in the middle, but rather form a thick pancake.
- Roll out the other piece of dough into a circle that is slightly smaller than the bottom one. It should be large enough to cover all the filling though.
- Transfer the crust the same way as the bottom one and unwrap over the filling, taking care to cover the filling completely.
- Using your fingers, fold the edge of the bottom crust over the edge of the top crust and lightly press down to seal.
- Whisk the egg nicely and brush it onto the entire visible surface of the pie, paying special attention to the crimped edges.
- Using a small knife, cut out a round opening in the middle of the pie, about 1 inch in diameter.
- Set the pie into the oven and let if bake for 40 minutes. (See? I promised you some drinking time!)
- Open the oven and gradually and slowly pour about 8 oz (1 cup) of water into the opening. Make sure all water settles into the pie before pouring more.
- Bake for another 10 minutes.
- Remove the pie from the oven, cover with a kitchen towel and let rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.
- Enjoy your pie either sliced like pizza or by breaking the top crust by hand and scooping the filling out along with the broth.