Halloumi Sliders on Nigella Rolls with Quick Pickled Onions
I wish that I could berate sliders for being bourgeois, particularly as there are some really sub-par options served now at most chain restaurants and hockey parties, but the truth is that I have a soft spot for sliders. Anything that fits perfectly in my hand and gives you an excuse to eat three based purely on size (a rationalization that I choose to live with, folks), especially a snack which is so versatile and ripe for experimentation, is going to be pretty big in my books.
These twee little darlings are, like most other sliders, pretty blessed basic. I mean, when you have some bread, a bit of cheese and some pickled onion, it’s like you’re practically compelled to make a sandwich. It’s almost like being at a pub in England. Except, you know, if England was actually Egypt. And ‘pub’ referred to a souk-like marketplace with sultry women charming you with oversized burlap bags of exotic spices. And instead of ale you’re drinking, well, pilsner. Okay, so maybe these sliders aren’t exactly reminiscent of the flavors of Egypt, but you certainly can’t blame me for the fact that they taste so very good with a pint of icy cold beer.
If I could make a suggestion, in addition to procuring a substantial volume of the aforementioned beer, if you have more than 3 people at your house you will want to consider making a double batch of these little buns. Trust me. In the time it took to pour another pint, Mike was halfway through the platter. By himself. That’s six sliders people, and he was entirely unapologetic for that fact. I don’t blame him though, because these have rapidly become my essential party-time entertainment snack. They’re outside of the mundane with salty halloumi cheese, sweet herbal nigella seeds and bright cilantro and pickled onions, but if you get right down to it, a cheese and onion sandwich is still a cheese and onion sandwich. And thank god for that.
Quick pickling the onions and frying the halloumi is awfully quick work, and the only time (note I said “time” and not “effort”) of this recipe is in waiting for the dough to rise…twice. If you don’t feel like investing an afternoon waiting for dough, you could always use store bought crusty rolls (sniffle), as long as you promise me to sprinkle some nigella seeds on top of the fried cheese before it gets plated. Lie to me if you have to, but at least pretend. One of my favorite cheeses from childhood was a salty milky white Middle Eastern semi-soft cheese laced with nigella seeds, and heavens but those flavors are a perfect match in more than just memory. If you buy halloumi at a specialty Middle Eastern grocery or deli you can often find a similar cheese laced with nigella, and when you see it you should feel compelled to buy. Really. I’m sending what will power I have out into the Universe right now in a last ditch effort for people to taste and savor nigella seeds, one slider at a time.
(You guys, cheese and onion. I shouldn’t have to say that a second time).
Halloumi Sliders on Nigella Rolls with Quick Pickled Onions
Makes 12 mini sliders
Nigella Seed Rolls
- 1 tbsp active dry yeast
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp nigella seeds *
- 3/4 cup warm water
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1.75 + 1/4 cup all purpose four
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 2 tbsp cornmeal
- 1 egg + 2 tbsp water for glaze
- 1/2 medium red onion
- 1 small clove garlic
- 1/4 tsp sugar
- pinch salt (1/8 tsp)
- 3 tbsp red wine vinegar
- small handful cilantro (3 tbsp coarsely chopped)
- 1 block (500 g/18 oz) halloumi cheese **
- 3 tsp vegetable oil
* Nigella seeds are known by various monikers depending on where you’re from (fennel or nutmeg flower, black caraway, black onion or sesame seed – which are both quite different and misleading – and kalonji). I have the best luck finding Nigella in Middle Eastern or South Asian stores, and ‘kalonji’ is the most frequent label.
** Halloumi is a goat or sheep milk cheese (often a blend) which is popular in the Middle East and Greece. The cheese is young, fresh and salty, often packed in a brine which acts as a preservative. The great thing about halloumi is that it keeps it’s shape, for the most part, when grilled or fried. However, it will soften and become a stretchy, gooey mass of dairy deliciousness when exposed to prolonged heat. If you can’t find halloumi, salty medium firm Greek cheeses like kasseri or kefalotyri are an adequate substitute.
Put the yeast, sugar, nigella seeds, warm (not hot!) water and oil into a medium bowl and give a quick stir. Leave this be for 5-10 minutes until the yeast is frothing around merrily. If the yeast doesn’t bloom (read: foam) then it has likely died, the poor dears, so you’ll want to start again with fresh yeast.
Mix together the flour and salt and pour in the liquids, scraping all those nigella seeds into the mix. Blend the mixture together by hand until it forms a scrappy dough and starts to ball together.
Turn the dough onto your work surface. There should be no need for extra flour, but if the dough feels sticky to you than a frosting of flour on the table won’t hurt. Knead for 5-10 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic.
Lightly oil a bowl and turn the dough ball over until it glistens with a thin sheen of oil. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave it to rise in a warm and draft free spot for 1.5 – 2 hours, or until it has doubled in size.
Punch the dough down (in the bowl is fine) until there are no more air pockets. Cover the bowl again and let it rise a second time for roughly 1 hour, or until it has doubled in size.
Roll the dough into a log and cut into 12 pieces of the same size.
Roll each piece of dough into a small, smooth and firm ball. Spread the cornmeal into a shallow dish and press only the bottom of each ball into the cornmeal. If your dough seems a bit dry and the cornmeal won’t adhere, brush the bottom of the ball with a dab of water and try again. The cornmeal isn’t essential, but it provides a lovely nutty crunch to the bottom of the rolls.
Evenly space the rounded dough balls onto a parchment lined baking sheet with at least 1-2 inches of space between each one. Cover the dough with a tea towel and let the buns rise for at least 45 minutes or until they’re puffy and at least 50% fuller.
In the mean time, chop the half onion lengthwise and then slice into thin half moons, roughly 1/8″ thick. Mash the garlic into a paste (or use a garlic press) and add to the onions along with the salt, sugar and vinegar. Give the onions a nice toss, separating out the rings as you go, and set this aside for at least 30 minutes so that the onion can mellow and start to quick pickle.
Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
Whisk the egg and water together thoroughly and brush the top of the risen rolls with the eggwash. Tuck the buns into your oven for 12-15 minutes or until the tops are a luscious golden brown and when you flip one over and rap the bottom with your knuckles it sounds oddly hollow. Let the buns cool.
Place a frying pan over medium high heat. Slice each bun in half horizontally and place them cut side down in the hot pan for 45-60 seconds to toast. Remove the buns as soon as they’re golden and slightly browned in spots.
Slice the halloumi into 12 pieces, each about 1/4″ thick. Pat the cheese as dry as possible with paper towels. You can do this in advance and leave the cheese drying on a paper towel as you toast the buns, because you want to remove as much moisture as possible to get a nice crispy crust.
When the buns are out, turn the heat up slightly and drizzle in 1.5 tsp of the oil. When the oil is shimmering but has not yet reached smoke point, carefully lay down the half of the cheese in a single layer being sure that the pieces don’t touch. Fry the cheese for 1-2 minutes per side, flipping it as soon as the bottom looks golden brown and crispy. Repeat with the remaining oil and second batch of cheese.
Coarsely chop the cilantro and toss it with the onions as the cheese fries and you’re getting ready to plate the sandwiches. Taste an onion, and add more salt or sugar as you see fit.
To plate the sliders, top the bottom of each bun with one piece of halloumi and a generous dollop of the pickled onion on top. Cover with the top bun and secure with a deli style toothpick or small skewer.
Fried halloumi is an absolute joy. The crust is gloriously crispy and caramelized but the cheese inside is soft and warm, gently pliable and just starting to melt. Salty cheese with pickled onions is always a good pair, and when you factor in verdant cilantro and the gently sweet nigella buns, these are a killer appetizer that’s as worthy of watching the Oscars as the Superbowl.
These may be vegetarian, but they’re not the kind of food that any carnivore would eat and feel like they were missing out. Balanced, savory and delicious, this is like an Egyptian version of a grilled cheese and onion sandwich but better and bite sized. After all, anything that can be stolen off a tray and hoovered down in 2-3 bites before anyone notices my greed cannot possibly be a bad thing.