My first recipe is for banitsa (Bulgarian баница), because it’s a quintessentially Bulgarian dish. Granted, it’s similar to a Turkish burek or a Greek tyropita, but the name and the local interpretation of the dish are both Bulgarian. People make banitsi (plural) at home, they buy them in bakery shops for breakfast, and they even make a special banitsa with fortunes inside (the Bulgarian fortune cookie) for New Year’s Eve. Some proverbs about banitsa include: Не е луд този, който яде баницата, а този, който я дава (‘The one who eats the banitsa is not crazy, but rather, then one who gives it to him’) and Сънуваш ли баница—яж! (‘If you dream of banitsa, eat it!’).
If you are not familiar with banitsa already, it’s usually translated as “cheese pie”—a translation that’s imperfect, yet concise; savory cheese pastry might be a bit closer. (If you watch Game of Thrones in Bulgaria—Игра на тронове, that is— you’ll see that the character Hot Pie’s name is translated (rather clumsily) as Гореща Баница—’Hot Banitsa’.)
Banitsa is made with phyllo dough (fee-lo, not fie-lo, by the way—the word φύλλο is Greek for ‘leaf’; the Bulgarian term корa has a similar meaning of ‘bark’ or ‘crust’).* People who don’t cook with phyllo dough sometimes find it intimidating because it’s so delicate, but it’s actually very easy to use. The secret is, it’s not a problem if the phyllo crinkles or tears. Just relax when you use it, and everything should turn out fine. Most American recipes tell you to cover your stack of phyllo dough sheets with a damp kitchen towel while you’re working to keep them from drying out, but unless you’re working very slowly, I find this unnecessary—just one more thing to make it seem capricious and difficult to work with.
Finally, every домакиня has her own way of making banitsa, so there are countless variations on this recipe. I’ll give a basic recipe, more or less the way I first learned to make banitsa more than 25 years ago, and I’ll tell you some ways to do it differently along the way. It’s not like baking a cake—you can make a lot of changes without messing anything up; what you do is really a matter of preference (and convenience).
I’m guessing it will take you 30-45 minutes to prepare the banitsa, and then you can add another 45 minutes for baking and resting (for the banitsa to rest, that it—you might want to rest a little longer). I’ve written the ingredients in Bulgarian as well, just in case you’re trying to learn the language (a highly worthwhile endeavor, in my experience).
*In this recipe we’ll use store-bought dough; I’ll save homemade dough for another banitsa post, and the banitsa will have a different shape (a spiral).
- one package of phyllo dough (500 grams)* [кори за баница]
- 4 eggs (or more–see instructions) [яйца]
- a cup of yogurt [кисело мляко]
- 1/4 cup sunflower oil [слънчогледово масло]
- half a stick (about 60 grams) of butter [краве масло]**
- 14 oz. white cheese (feta) [бяло сирене]
- 1 cup (250 ml) soda water [газирана вода]
*You may have little-to-no choice for type of phyllo, but if you’re in a Turkish or Middle Eastern store, you’ll sometimes see a type specifically for bureks, which is a little thicker; this is good for banitsa.
**Many people use only oil, but I like the flavor butter adds (and it’s hard to go wrong adding butter to anything, right?). If you want to skip the butter, though, just double the oil; this will also allow you to skip the step of melting the butter.
If your phyllo was bought frozen, thaw it in the refrigerator overnight or at room temperature for a few hours. Put the oil into a dzhezve (джезве) or similar small pot and add the butter. Set it on low heat to melt the butter. You don’t want the mixture to get too hot, so you can take it off the heat before the butter is totally melted as the butter will continue to melt.
Beat the eggs with the yogurt in a large bowl. When they are mixed well, crumble in the cheese, making sure there are no large lumps. The amount of cheese in the ingredients is approximate; you can use a little less or a good bit more, but 14 oz. is a good start. Your mixture will look something like this:
Brush a rectangular baking pan with butter. (A pyrex pan is great because you don’t have to worry about scratching the bottom when you cut the banitsa, but I don’t have one here.) You can also use a large round pan, a Bulgarian tava (тава), but you’ll have to manipulate the dough more to get it to fit if you’re not making a spiral. I myself prefer to save spirals for homemade dough. This is the kind of pan I’m using today:
Preheat your oven to 375ºF / 180ºC. Open you package of dough and lay out the sheets beside your pan. You don’t have to do anything special to take care of the delicate sheets while you’re working, but if you have a cat in the kitchen (which I don’t advise), keep the cat off the stack of dough.
Brush the top sheet with butter, carefully lift it up, and put it in the pan. If the phyllo sheet is twice the size of your pan, fold it in half as you lay in into the pan. If it’s just a little larger, wrinkle it slightly to make it fit. It don’t have to stay perfectly flat–in fact, crevices are desirable. This is what my first sheet of dough in the pan looks like:
Now add some of the cheese-yogurt-egg mixture to the pan and spread it around in a thin layer. It should look something like this:
Add 4 more buttered layers of dough on top of the filling, then more filling, then more dough, and so on. Keep an eye on the number of sheets of dough you have left so you can end with about 4 sheets, and plan your filling accordingly. What if you don’t plan well and some layers have more or less filling than others? No problem–you won’t even notice in the end. One you’re done, cut the banitsa into square pieces. Be sure to slice all the way down, but if your pan is metal, like mine, try not to scratch it.
Depending on the size of your pan, 12 is probably good. I only cut 9 and regretted it. After you’ve finished cutting your pieces, pour the rest of your melted butter/oil (if there is any, that is) into the seams. Now pour the soda water over the whole thing. It will soak in and help your banitsa rise, along with adding more moisture.
Another option is to mix another egg or two with the soda water (hence the addition of “or more” to the quantity of eggs in the list of ingredients), and then pour this entire mixture over it. Many people do it this way, and it’s also tasty, but a little eggier.
Bake for 40 minutes, or until you can really smell the scent of dough wafting from your oven and the top is a golden brown. Here’s my finished banitsa:
Cover the hot banitsa with a kitchen towel for a few minutes as it cools; the steam will keep the top from being too crispy. (The idea of too crispy phyllo might sound lovely, but then the tender crunch dough will shatter as you bite into it, and shards of dough will fall over you.) Slice again and serve.
The banitsa is also great over the next couple of days. Just take a slice from the fridge, heat it gently in the oven on 325ºF till warm, and enjoy.
A Delicious Variation: Banitsa with Leeks
The above banitsa is good for breakfast, lunch, or supper. If you would like a great dinner banitsa, omit the yogurt and add sauteed leeks. Take 3 American leek stalks (or 1 Bulgarian leek stalk if you get them at the market–they’re as tall as small child) and slice them lengthwise and then into half-inch pieces. Wash them well in a colander to get out any embedded dirt, then sauté them in butter on medium-low heat (about 1/4 cup should do) until lightly brown. Cool them slightly and mix them in with the egg and cheese mixture. When I make a leek banitsa, I reduce the amount of oil and increase the amount of melted butter. All other instructions are the same. You can also play with other fillings in this way–spinach and parsley are both good options, and in the Rhodopes, there’s a traditional banitsa that adds cooked rice. Enjoy!