If you ever been to Bulgaria, the chances are you already know what banitsa is. This savoury pastry with filling is an absolute classic in Bulgaria and to Bulgarians banitsa is what quiche is to French. Generally served for breakfast, countless fillings such as eggs and sirene cheese, spinach and cheese, rice and spices, cabbage or leeks, among the many others, are used.
These variations reflect the change of seasons or region but no matter what type you’ve tried, if you were lucky enough to taste a homemade one, you probably still remember it.
It could be made from readymade phyllo pastry or from homemade pastry sheets, prepared from a baker’s hard dough including flour, eggs, and water and both methods deliver very similar results, with the only difference being that making pastry sheets at home will take you much longer.
Quite a different story is the pale imitation sold at street kiosks and if you’ve tried one of those, we feel sorry for you, and our only suggestion is you give it another try (this time with homemade).
Usually banitsa is served for breakfast with plain yogurt (a classic Bulgarian breakfast), but it could be served at any other meal. There is even a popular Bulgarian saying “roll up a banitsa” meaning you are preparing to meet dear guests.
And all of the above relates to the regular banitsa but then there is a festive banitsa, prepared on either Christmas or New Year’s Eve. It’s an old tradition to put lucky charms (more recently substituted by happy wishes) inside the Christmas banitsa. When the whole family is around the table, the oldest member spins the banitsa pan and everyone picks up a piece. The happy wishes inside include happiness, health, success, travel, etc.
The recipe below is of the most popular type – called Banitsa sas sirene (banitsa with cheese):
Serves: makes 6 medium pieces
Preparation time: 30-35 minutes
200g Phyllo (filo/fillo/phylo) dough, (that’s half a pack where we live) 3 medium size eggs 150g sirene cheese (substitute with any white brine cheese, such as feta), mashed with a fork 50g butter
50ml sparkling water
Method (the easiest):
As I made banitsa just for two, I reduced the quantities of all ingredients in half, and used a small pan (25x15cm).
Preheat the oven to 200C/390F/Gas 6.
Melt the butter in a small sauce pan on low heat.
In a bowl whisk together the eggs and the crushed cheese. If the cheese is not salty enough, add some salt.
Grease the bottom and sides of the dish with some of the melted butter. Cover the bottom with 3 phyllo sheets (you can brush them with some melted butter, but it’s not necessary). With a spoon spread evenly part of the eggs-cheese filling, cover with 3 sheets of phyllo, and continue layering filling and phyllo sheets.
Remember – once you open the pack of phyllo dough, the sheets should be handled gently, and kept from drying out, otherwise they’ll become crispy. To prevent sheets from drying out while working, cover the unfolded phyllo dough with a damp dishtowel.
Finish with 3 phyllo sheets. Cut carefully in rectangle pieces with a sharp knife.
Using a spoon pour the rest of the melted butter into the cuts. Pour evenly over the banitsa the sparkling water, and leave it to soak for 5 minutes. Bake for about 20-25 minutes or till it’s become golden.
Once baked, leave it in the pan for few minutes to cool, if you prefer it crispy, or cover with a dishtowel, to have it soft and tender.
That’s the easiest banitsa recipe, and the one anyone can make. It was also the first ever thing in my life I cooked myself (without mentioning some occasional instant soups).
If you prefer cooking banitsa from scratch, I’m sure you’ll find it even tastier. In some villages you can still see old women (with white flour stains) rolling out phyllo dough by hand on large round tables (as I remember my grandma doing it). After rolling it out, the phyllo circles have to be slightly baked (just for few seconds) over the wood stove and covered up with cloth to soften.
Tikvenik is one of the most popular sweet variations of the phyllo dough, filled with pumpkin and walnuts, and Zelnik has the basic recipe filling, with some green additions – spinach, nettle, patients dock or sorrel or a combination of all these. There is Mlechna banitza (Milk banitza), Trakyiska banitsa (Thracian banitsa – with rice in the filling), Luchnik (with leeks filling).
Whatever the filling is, you can make it plain or opt for a bit more elaborated Vita banitsa (Rolled up banitza). You make it first slightly oiling every phyllo sheet, and then rolling them up into a roll with the filling inside the roll. The long roll is then placed in a round baking tray and rolled up in a circle.