Cheese Borek: Balkan Feta Filled Pastry
You’ve tried börek before, or at least something similar to börek, but you just might not know it. If you have eaten something cheesy wrapped in filo, you’ve had a version of börek. If you have eaten something meaty, green with chopped spinach, or beige with potatoes, you have had a version of börek. Think of börek as a little Balkan parcel of love, gift wrapped with flaky filo, and you won’t be too far off. Whether it is a little flaky hand pie or a golden layered casserole, meat filled or vegetarian, the term “börek” is used to describe all manner of comforting filo wrapped comestibles from Eastern Europe, and each one is delicious.
One of my very best girls was born in Sarajevo and moved to Canada in her tweens. When she talks about börek and cevapi (short little Balkan kafta) her eyes mist over and within minutes everyone in the room is dreamy and keening for calories and pastry wrapped goodness. When her father made baklava or perfectly flaky börek we would all start sniffing around, gently nudging forward empty Tupperware containers that just happened to fall out of our bags. What I’ve learned from her is that börek refers to not one recipe, but a whole slew of different dishes that can be prepared differently, might have different fillings or ingredients, but always repeat the same theme of filo wrapped finger food.
I suppose that different types of börek have different titles that just aren’t as frequently used as we turn to easy monikers like “cheese börek”, “meat börek” and “spinach börek”. This is similar to the infamous Greek ‘Pita, which might be referring to anything from tiropita (cheese filled filo) to spanakopita (cheese and spinach filled filo). Bosnian cheese börek is sometimes also called “sarnica”, which is possibly a more accurate title, but frankly I don’t know any better.
Börek also has many faces. Some cooks make börek by layering filo with filling like a flaky little lasagna. Others fold the filo into triangles or large, flat rectangles to be eaten by hand. The börek might appear in a small individual sized spiral, looking for all the world like a delicious cheese filled snail shell, or still serpentine but baked family style and served one golden wedge at a time. Of course this flexibility is something that I find overwhelmingly appealing, because it means that there’s really no *wrong* way of pulling it all together.
The börek pastries are a culinary exploration of how that area’s culture was shaped through habitation, export, and invasion. You can taste Turkish brik, Greek ‘pita and bouréki, Armenian byurek, and the flavor-workings of everywhere from central Europe to the Middle East. This is food that is steeped in history, passed down through generations, tweaked and turned as cultures and tastes changed, and offered up as an edible road map of how the Balkan countries have changed. Now tell me, as if salty feta and flaky pastry weren’t enough to entice you, how can you say no to tracing history on your tongue and eating your way across tumultuous politics and world changes? I certainly can’t.
Cheese Börek: Balkan Feta Filled Pastry
Makes 1 large pan (9×13″)
- 1 package (1 lb/454 g) filo pastry dough
- 1 tub ricotta cheese (~1 lb/400 g) *
- 1 tub cottage cheese (~1 lb/500 g)
- 1.5 tubs feta cheese (~1.5 lb/675 g)
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp finely ground white pepper
- 1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- handful fresh parsley (1/3 cup chopped), optional
- 1 tbsp dill, optional
- 2 tbsp sesame seeds
* Dry packed cottage cheese, which has a similar texture to ricotta (albeit a bit drier), is often used in combination with sour cream. If you would prefer to substitute dry cottage cheese and a tub of sour cream for the ricotta and cottage cheese, feel free to do so.
Preheat your oven to 350°F.
Scoop the ricotta and cottage cheese into a large mixing bowl. Crumble the feta into fairly small little bits and crack in both eggs. If you’re adding herbs to your cheese börek, finely chop the parsley and dill before adding them to the mix. Season graciously with finely ground white pepper.
Mix the cheese filling ingredients together well until the eggs, pepper and herbs are evenly dispersed.
Melt the butter in a small bowl and stir in the olive oil. This will be used to brush the filo pastry. Before we get to that though, brush the bottom and sides of a 9×13″ rectangular baking dish so that it’s nice and lubed up.
Lay one piece of filo flat on your work surface. Keep the rest of your filo tucked safely under a damp tea towel so that it doesn’t dry out, because filo is not particularly forgiving and it goes from soft and supple to withered and crinkly in less time than it takes to say, “Whoops, I shouldn’t have forgotten about that.” Brush the sheet with your butter mixture until it is glistening all over, and top it with a second sheet of filo. Brush this sheet liberally with butter as well. Try not to be too stingy, because if your filo sheets are too dry they won’t get nice and flaky in the oven, nor will they roll up quite so prettily.
Facing the short side of the filo, use a soup spoon to mound the feta filling into a thick log shape going straight across the pastry and stopping a scant 1/2″ from both edges.
Use both hands to tilt the filo over and roll it up. Not to be a pain in the auntie or anything, but be careful of the pressure that you apply as you roll. If you roll the tube too tight the filling will leak out the sides and the filo might tear. If you roll it with ham hands, the extra air will bloat the final dish, leaving you with unattractive holes and a loose burek that doesn’t hold together. Lay the tube with the seam side down into your baking dish, and gently press it against the side of the pan so that it is less round and more of a tall oval shape. When you start to pack the rolls in you want them to be nice and tight.
Continue the process of oiling, layering, rolling and arranging until all of the filling is used up and you have a nicely packed pan. Brush the top of the filo rolls with any remaining butter that you have and sprinkle with the sesame seeds.
Tuck the pan of börek into your oven for 45-50 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and your kitchen smells so good that you’re languidly licking at the air. You’ll start thinking of all the ways you’re going to eat your börek, be it as a mid-morning snack, early lunch, late lunch, second cheese filled lunch, afternoon snack, late night pleasure…….
The sesame seeds toast while the börek bakes, lending an earthy nuttiness to the flaky pastry shell. Each bite is a combination of sharp, salty feta with buttery golden pastry and and rich sesame. I’m telling you, those Balkan folk know what they’re doing.
The pan is like a hot humidor for cheese stuffed cigars wafting up the aroma of freshly baked snacks…which is actually a really good idea for a bar. A REALLY good idea, indeed. New Future Plan: open a night club themed around börek and cevapi, serving plenty of vodka and cheap red wine. Although that’s really just a generous way of saying that maybe I should start charging people to hang out on a Sunday afternoon. Either or, really.
Let the börek cool for 10 minutes before cutting it into whatever sized pieces you like. You can be modest, of course, and cut lengthwise between every 2 long rolls and horizontally into small 2×2 squares. Or you can be true to yourself and cut the burek into 9 large lunch sized pieces, three of which you will eat “as a snack” within the hour. You don’t need to tell me which option you choose. I understand.
This is the snack of Balkan champions, my friends. Light enough for a snack but rich enough for a meal when you pair it with a quick chopped salad, cheese stuffed börek is like a feta laden gift that just keeps on giving. Just don’t give too much, of course, remembering two key iconic quotations:
“Charity begins at home”
“He who steals the last piece of börek will be plagued by pestilence and sucking wounds until the wrath of the chef subsides”
I’m particularly partial to the second one….