Last week I booked a flight to Europe. I mentioned in my last post that I will be visiting France for the first time in five years, but I will actually be spending most of my vacation abroad in Serbia, staying at my parents’ home in a village just outside of Novi Sad. I have a lot of family that I’m looking forward to seeing again. Five years is a long time to be without people you care about. But me being me, I’m also mentally rubbing my hands together over the food. The cuisine of the Balkans is among my favourite in the world: the succulent roasted meats, goulashes, and all manner of sweets and savouries baked with phyllo pastry.
Like this here burek.
You might have heard of burek–sometimes called börek, as it has its roots in the cuisines of the former Ottoman empire and variations of this dish can be found in countries as diverse as Armenia and Israel, as well as in North Africa. You might have seen it, but didn’t know exactly what it was. Burek is basically a hand held pastry made from phyllo dough and usually filled with cheese, spinach, or minced meat, although sweet burek containing ingredients like sour cherries have become popular. In North America, you can find hamburgers on every corner; in the Balkans, it’s burek. In fact, Lonely Planet voted Bosnian burek as some of the World’s Best Street Food.
Traditionally, the dough contains only flour and water and is stretched so thin that it is almost transparent. Most good bakeries still make it this way, but the average housewife uses the same packaged stuff you can get in any American grocery story. The difference between the two is akin to the difference between a croissant at Au Levain du Marais and one made from Pillsbury dough. It’s this industrial dough you will get when you order spanokopita in your local Greek taverna, or a variation on burek from a Mediterranean deli. I confess that I use it myself, as I’m usually short on time. But my main issue with the stuff is the texture. For my tastes, it’s often to dry and papery to be enjoyable. Which is why in my burek recipe I use a lot of egg wash to coat it, and make the filling downright runny. This leaves it crisp on the outside but moist and tender on the inside, just how burek should be.
I use a combination of feta and cottage cheese, as the type of cheese used in the Balkans is not available here–though ricotta would also be a good substitute. I also like to top the burek with poppy or sesame seeds, more for visual appeal than anything.
When working with the phyllo, be sure to keep the leaves covered with a towel as they dry out very quickly.
500 grams cottage cheese
250 grams feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon salt
scant 1/4 cup club soda
1/4 cup melted butter
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon milk
454 g (1 package) phyllo pastry dough
poppy seeds (optional)
1) Line a round pizza pan with parchment paper (or grease it with a bit of olive oil). In a large mixing bowl combine the cheeses, 2 eggs, salt, and club soda. Take three sheets of phyllo and lay them down on your work surface; brush with some of the melted butter.
2) Drop a few teaspoons of the cheese mixture along the edge of the pastry closest to you, leaving 1/2-inch on each side. Slowly roll into a sausage shape, tucking in the sides as you go. Place the pastry in the middle of the pan and roll the sausage into a spiral.
3) Mix the egg yolk with the milk and brush spiral liberally. Repeat instructions to make another sausage and form it around the previous spiral; repeat until phyllo is used up. Brush with the rest of the egg wash and sprinkle with poppy seeds.
4) Bake at 375F for 20-25 minutes, or until burek is golden brown.