In Bulgaria we’ve got this thing called banitsa.
If you’ve ever been here, that last sentence just made you exhale like Homer Simpson at Krusty Burger. Banitsa is the ideal savory pastry. It’s similar to Greek spanikopita or Turkish byurek, but dough leaves called kori (a little thicker than phyllo) and the addition of Bulgarian sirene make this arguably one of the world’s best things to wake up to. There are a hundred variations but at its most common, it’s white cheese, eggs, and yogurt mixed together, rolled into kori sheets, made into a coil, then baked. You can add spinach, leeks, red bell pepper, pretty much anything you like. There are sweet banitsas, too, more often made in the colder months, with walnuts, sugar, and pumpkin or apples instead of cheese. Time spent in any Bulgarian city is practically uncountable if you haven’t found the best banitsa stand in town, and if you go to the village – you’ve got to find out which grandma’s oven draws the crowds.
Since I’m not really into publishing any straightforward traditional Bulgarian recipes, my neo-Bulgo twist on banitsa this week is one with sweetened cheese, strawberry jam, and an excuse to use up the last shipment of pecans from back home. (You could also use almonds or walnuts.) Instead of being formed into a coil, it’s layered, which dresses it up a bit and makes it look prettier when cut, but this is still a rather rustic dish. Again, if you aren’t anywhere near a Bulgarian grocery, you can use goat cheese instead of the sirene, and phyllo instead of the kori. Just make sure to do the usual phyllo treatment of brushing the layers with butter so that they don’t get dried out when cooking. You may have to trim the dough to fit your baking pan, which you can do it as you go – lay the whole sheets down in the pan, trim by running a very sharp knife along the edges, then cover with filling.
Strawberry Goat Cheese Banitsa with Pecans
makes about 16-20 squares
500 grams sirene (preferably dunavia) or 1 pound goat cheese
200 grams plain yogurt (about a cup)
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
grated zest of 2 oranges
2 1/4 cups roughly chopped pecans
1 package banitsa or phyllo dough
1 cup strawberry jam
Preheat oven to 400F. Heavily grease a 13″x9″ baking dish and set aside. In a large bowl mix together cheese, 3 eggs, and yogurt, blending until as smooth as possible. Sift in sugar, flour, and baking soda, and stir to combine. Add orange zest and 2 cups pecans, mix, and set aside.
Unroll banitsa dough and put 2-3 layers in the bottom of prepared baking dish. Spread with a quarter of the cheese mixture. Put down another 2 layers of banitsa dough and another quarter of the cheese mixture. Put down 2 more layers of dough, then spread all of the jam on. 2 more layers of dough, another quarter of the cheese, 2 more layers of dough, top off the cheese, 2 final dough layers. Whisk the remaining egg in a bowl and, using fingers or a pastry brush, coat top of banitsa with egg. (You’ll have a lot of egg left over. Mini-omelet?) Sprinkle with a little granulated sugar and remaining 1/2 cup pecans. Bake 30 minutes or until top is golden brown and edges are bubbling. Wait 10 minutes before cutting to serve.