Burek: stories from Croatia, Turkey, and my English kitchen

I’ve always loved burek. It was my favourite lunch treat at school. I used to have cheese burek with plain, and my best friend with strawberry yoghurt. We’d sit in the parks near our school and look at the sea. Surprised that a kid from Croatia lunches on what is by all accounts a Middle Eastern treat? Don’t be. Burek is firmly part of the eating tradition in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, a legacy of the Ottoman Empire. DSC_6413

DSC_6408   If you are yet to be introduced to this deliciousness, burek is layers of thin thin pastry, filo-like but somewhat thicker, stuffed with a variety of fillings. Cheese, meat, spinach, potatoes – these are just some of the examples. In our parts, there is even a sweet version stuffed with grated apples, probably a playful offspring of the Ottoman burek and the Central European apple strudel. To a Croatian, a burek is any of the afore-mentioned; to a Bosnian, burek is only the one made with meat, all others are simply pies (pite, or pita singular). Here bureks normally come in coils, or layered in trays (tepsije – probably from the Turkish tepsi). In Turkey, burek or börek comes in all shapes (cigars, triangles, coils, envelopes, layered larger pies, etc.), and is both baked and boiled. It is made with the thin yufka dough, or even with puff pastry.DSC_6414

The crispy beauty you can see above contained a simple but very tasty filling of fresh melting cheese, and made a great dinner (with some plain yoghurt, of course) sitting by the sea in Zadar with my brother one late summer afternoon a few years ago.

One of the (many) highlights of the Turkey workshop this autumn was certainly making several types of burek and Turkish pastries. In the photos below, Zeliha Hanim, one of our hosts, is using a thin Turkish rolling pin called oklava to roll the dough for a tahini roll super thin. This was a pleasure to watch and photograph.

Flouring

Rolling dough

I’ve always thought burek was Turkish , so you can imagine my surprise when I learnt that one of the types of burek we were going to make was called by our hosts – the Bosnian burek! Apparently it is the technique that makes it Bosnian: the dough for the burek was stretched thin thin, almost see-through, by hand. Indeed this is how the women of Bosnia and Northern Croatia make the dough at home. A Canadian Foodie has some amazing photos of making burek in Bosnia here and here, with the dough covering the table just like a thin tablecloth. Very impressive.

In Turkey, we stuffed our Bosnian burek with a mixture of herbs and cheese, and brushed it with butter before it went into the oven.

Brush with butter

The finished result was gloriously tasty. You can see below what it looked like.

Burek straight out of the oven

The burek recipe I’m posting today is inspired by Turkish traditions, and shaped by my tastes. While I like the thin and crispy cigar bureks, I actually prefer the slightly moister tray-layered versions. I find they work better with yufka than with filo, but do use filo if that’s all you can get. Or make your own, of course! I like the cheese milder (probably due to all those years of eating mild cheese burek in Croatia), so I used a combination of feta and Cypriot ricotta. I loved the herby Turkish number you can see in the photos above, but I also love spinach, so I combined them. I sometimes cook the spinach first, and sometimes not. Not cooking the spinach first produces a moister burek (from all the moisture in spinach). I don’t think the Turks would use nutmeg (do correct me if that’s wrong), but it goes great with spinach, so I did. I also adore the Turkish pul biber or red pepper flakes, so I added a good quantity here. The method of layering the burek and using the mixture of egg, milk and oil is from Ghillie Bassan’s Classic Turkish Cooking. So this is the burek I’ve been making in my English kitchen since the September trip to Turkey. Hope you enjoy it. With plain yoghurt on the side, naturally. Strawberry if you really have to, as my dear friend would.

Burek!

 

Turkish-style burek with spinach, herbs and cheese

 

SOURCE: inspired by Turkish burek flavours and my tastes; method of layering the burek is from Ghillie Bassan’s Classic Turkish Cooking

PREPARATION TIME: 30 min

COOKING TIME: 40 min

CUISINE: Turkish

SERVES: makes 8 large slices

 

400 g yufka (filo-like dough, but a little thicker)

Filling:

1 medium to large bunch of dill

3 tbsp parsley

200 g spinach

200 g feta cheese

200 g Cypriot ricotta

a few spring onions (optional)

1 tsp dried mint (or 1 – 2 tbsp of fresh mint)

2 tsp Urfa pepper (isot)

2 tsp medium heat Turkish red pepper flakes (pul biber)

1 tsp hot Turkish red pepper flakes (pul biber)

1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (optional)

1 tsp sea salt

freshly ground pepper, about 1/2 tsp

‘Sauce’:

2 large eggs

150 ml vegetable oil

300 ml milk

Topping:

About 20 g diced butter (plus some more for buttering the baking dish)

2 tsp sesame seeds

2 tsp nigella seeds

 

Prepare the filling. Chop the herbs and the spring onions if using finely, and the spinach a little bit more roughly. Crumble the cheeses. Combine together and add the mint, spices and seasonings.

Prepare the ‘sauce’ (for want of a better word). Whisk the eggs in a jug, and then whisk in the oil and the milk.

Build the burek. Butter a baking dish. Place a sheet of yufka around the bottom, letting the edges drape over the dish. Put in a bit of the egg and milk mixture, and then fold another sheet and add to the bottom.

Now add half the filling and spread evenly on the bottom. Pour over some more egg and milk mixture. The aim is to layer the yufka and the filling, moistening the layers with the egg and milk mixture. I had six sheets of yufka, so I divided these up between the layers.

Now fold two more sheets on top of them, spreading a bit of milk and egg mixture in between.

Add the remaining filling, and some more egg and milk mixture, and then another sheet of filo and some egg and milk mixture. Now fold over the draped sheet, spreading with some more egg and milk. Finally, place the remaining sheet on top, and brush with the remaining egg and milk mixture. Cut into 8, sprinkle with sesame and nigella seeds, and put the cubes of butter on top of each piece.

Bake at 200 C until golden, about 40 minutes.

Enjoy warm or cold. Great with yoghurt.

 

Notes

Cheese

I like milder cheese, so have used a mixture of feta and ricotta. You can experiment with what you’ve got and like. Just remember to use less salt if your feta is salty.

Greens and herbs

There’s a fair bit of space for variation here. Dill is frequently used in Turkish cooking, and great in cheesy bureks, combined with parsley if you like. The mint I added contributes a touch of fresh minty flavour, not overpowering, but totally contributing to the overall symphony of flavours.

If you cook the spinach and drain it, the burek will be less moist. Try that if you prefer a drier pastry. I like it moist, so I’ve not cooked the spinach for the recipe above. Use other greens, too, experiment.

Spices

I think a bit of chilli heat is nice, and I think the chilli pepper flavour ‘lifts’ up the flavours of the spinach and cheese nicely. Add the chilli flakes you’ve got if you can’t get the Turkish peppers, or even add a bit of chopped red chillies or peppers for the peppery flavour.

Nutmeg is entirely optional, and probably not at all traditional, but I like it with the spinach, so here it is.

Semlor – Swedish sweet buns

Semla

For the last 6 years I’ve been hearing about semlor, cardamom-scented, almond-stuffed Swedish sweet buns. Semlor is plural, and semla singular. My husband goes to Sweden regularly, and usually in March. This normally involves a lot of semlor! I’ve been wanting to try them myself so much. When I visited Stockholm in autumn, they were not available, and I was gutted. There really is no other way – I shall have to make them myself, I realised. So when semlor came up as the topic of this month’s kuVarijacije, I simply had to take part!

Stockholm

Stockholm – beautiful in autumn, but sadly without semlor

KuVarijacije is a monthly game for the food bloggers from former Yugoslavia, or those who speak/understand Serbo-Croatian. The bloggers vote for a recipe and then all make the same, blogging about their experiences.

We were to use Milica’s recipe. She lives in Sweden, so knows her semlor. Her recipe was very detailed and well written. I felt I knew exactly what I was doing at various stages. I made some small changes. I replaced the fresh yeast with instant yeast, as it’s quite hard to find fresh yeast here in the UK. The conversions between different types of yeast are: 1 g fresh = 0.5 g active dry = 0.4 g instant. Also, since I keep cardamom seeds rather than powder (black seeds that are inside the green pods), I ground them finely in my pestle mortar before using them. That yielded about 1 1/2 cardamom powder, which is more than suggested by Milica, but I really love cardamom, and could have even taken a little more of it.I made the second filling, i.e. I made my own almond paste, and added a touch of cardamom to it. It was delicious!filling, i.e. I made my own almond paste, and added a touch of cardamom to it. It was delicious! SemlaSemla b&w

I was running out of daylight to photograph them, so I simply grabbed one and ran to the lightest room in the house to grab a few snaps before the night falls. Hence the photographs have only one semla in them.

Inadvertedly, my styling turns out to echo the colours of the Swedish flag: blue and yellow! I only just noticed it. The yellow polka dot plate comes from a 60-year-old bone china tea set filling, i.e. I made my own almond paste, and added a touch of cardamom to it. It was delicious!filling, i.e. I made my own almond paste, and added a touch of cardamom to it. It was delicious!that belonged to my husband’s grandmother. I love how bright and beautiful they are.

DSC_9412

Semlor

SOURCE: Adapted from Na tanjiru

PREPARATION TIME: 1 h 50 min

COOKING TIME: 20 min

CUISINE: Swedish

SERVES: makes 12 – 14 semlor

 

Sweet buns

75 g butter

300 ml whole milk

10 g instant yeast (OR 25 g fresh OR 12.5 g active dry yeast)

540 g plain flour (+ 60 g more for kneading)

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp green cardamom seeds (i.e. the black seeds inside the green pod), finely ground

70 g sugar

1 large egg, beaten

Filling – option 1

200 g marzipan

crumbs from the buns

150 ml hot milk

Filling – option 2

200 g ground almonds

120 g icing sugar

1 – 2 tsp of water

a couple of drops of almond essence

crumbs from the buns

120 g hot milk

To finish

4 dl double or whipping cream

1 tsp vanilla essence

Icing sugar for dusting

Sweet buns

  • Heat the butter in a small pan. When nearly melted, add the milk i stir. Heat till body temperature (37 C, warm to touch).
  • Place the four, salt, cardamom, yeast and sugar in a bowl and stir together. Add the egg and the milk and butter mixture to the bowl, and mix to combine. The mixture will be sticky at this point, but that’s what it’s supposed to be.
  • Flour your work surface lightly and put the dough onto it. Knead the dough until smooth. Try not to add to much flour, as it’s important that the dough remains soft. It will continue being slightly sticky while you work it. Alternatively, use a mixer, which is what I did. I used my Kenwood chef to knead the dough; it took 1 minute on minimum speed, and 3 minutes on speed 1 to get it to be nice and smooth and slightly elastic. That worked a treat, and I did not need to add any more flour.
  • Return the dough to a bowl, cover with a cloth and leave to proof for 20 – 30 min.
  • After that, knead the dough lightly and divide into equally sized balls. To make large semlor, make 12 – 14 balls (approx. 75 g each for 14 balls, if you wish to weigh them), or around 25 for smaller buns.
  • Place the buns on a baking tray covered with baking paper, slightly away from each other so that they have the time to rise. Cover with a cloth and leave to proof again for 30 – 40 min, or until doubled in size.
  • In the meanwhile, heat the oven to 200 – 220 °C.
  • Bake the larger buns for about 20 minutes until nicely browned, turning the tray around after the first 10 minutes, if your oven bakes unevenly (which many do). Check the buns after 15 min, in case they’re done already. (Bake the smaller buns for 7 – 10 minutes on 225 °C.)
  • When the buns are done, cover them with a cloth and leave to cool.
  • Semlor are best eaten on the same day, or straight away after filling. It’s best to leave the buns in a well-sealed container until you’re ready to use them, to keep them from drying out. The buns can also be frozen, and then filled later.
  • When the buns have cooled, cut off the too of each bun to make a lid. Hollow the centre of the bun, and keep the crumbs for the filling, grinding them finely. You’ll need to fit about 2 tsp of the filling into the hole.
  • There are several ways to make the lids. The simplest is to just cut of the top straight. The more decorative way is to cut the top in the shape of a triangle using scissors.

Filling – option one

  • Grate the marzipan finely, and add the crumbs from the buns; stir together with a fork. Add the hot milk, and combine till smooth.

Filling – option two

  • Stir the ground almonds with icing sugar, and add a few drops of water to help bind the mixture. Add a couple of drops of the almond essence and stir. Be careful with the almond essence, as some are stronger than others. Best to put a little, and then try what it’s like. It’s easy to add more if you want to.
  • Add the bun crumbs, and the hot milk, and make a smooth mixture.

Putting the buns together

  • Fill the hollow buns with the almond mixture, making them nearly level. You’ll need about 2 tsp of the filling.
  • Whip the cream with vanilla extract, and pipe or stir on top of the buns.
  • Place the lid on top of the buns, and press on top of the cream. Dust with icing sugar and serve on the same day while the buns are at the best, soft and tasty.

Verdict

I made 14 larger semlor, and the second filling, and used double cream. I will make them again! The semlor were delicious and almondy, yum! I may increase the cardamom next time, as we love it. They do freeze well, as Milica suggested. I froze a few buns and saved some fillings for later, for my husband, the afore-mentioned semlor expert! Or more likely glutton. :) He came back from his latest Sweden trip having just knocked down the previous record of 13 semlor in one 2-week trip, to 15 semlor in one two-week trip! So what did the expert say? He enjoyed them a lot! He said my semlor were a little smaller than the ones he buys in Sweden, but that was no bad thing, given how many he eats. :) I had used double cream, while he thinks the ones he had in Sweden had whipping cream, as the cream filling was much lighter than mine. We’ll try whipping cream next time. He agreed with my suggestion to add more cardamom next time, to perhaps 2 tsps of freshly ground cardamom seeds.

Semla

Semla

Honey-roasted parsnips with red onion, panch phoron, chilli, garlic and parsley

Hot, sweet, garlicky and bright with parsley and lemon – the good old parsnip is far more interesting in this company. A real revelation, in fact. The whole winter I’ve been roasting it with honey, red onions and panch phoron. I add the chillies and garlic when the parsnips and onions are nearly done (so that they don’t burn). Sometimes I roast the chillies and garlic only briefly, and sometimes a little longer, depending on how strong I want these flavours to be. I finish off with a sprinkling of parsley, and a squeeze of lemon. Life is always brighter with lemon.

Early March is a funny time when it comes to seasonal produce. It sits in between the end of winter, and the start of spring, there just isn’t that much around. It helps to have a few interesting things to make with the omnipresent staples such as parsnips. Though good enough to eat on its own as a warm salad, this dish also makes a perfect accompaniment to roast beef. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Panch phoron is a Bengali mixture of spices which consists of equal quantities of fenugreek, nigella, mustard, cumin and fennel seeds. The notes of cumin and fennel are most important here, so you can swap a mixture of these two spices if you don’t have panch phoron.

 

Honey-roasted parsnips with red onion, panch phoron, chilli, garlic and parsley

 

SOURCE: Own recipe

PREPARATION TIME: 5 – 10 min

COOKING TIME: 35 min

SERVES: 2 as a side dish, or 1 for lunch

 

2 medium parsnips, peeled, sliced and hard centre removed

2 small red onions, peeled and cut into 1/8

1 – 2 tbsp olive oil

2 tsp panch phoron

2 tsp honey

salt and pepper

2 large long red chillies, sliced (deseeded if you prefer)

4 m cloves of garlic, sliced

2 tbsp of chopped fresh parsley

a squeeze of lemon

  • Pre-heat the oven to 220 C.
  • Mix together the parsnips, onions, oil, panch phoron, honey, salt and pepper, and roast for 25 min.

Parsnips

  • Add the sliced chillies and garlic and stir together. Roast for another 5 – 10 min. 5 for a stronger garlic flavour, 10 for a more mellow one.
  • Stir through some chopped parsley and squeeze over some lemon. Serve as a side dish, or a warm salad main course. Enjoy!

 

Green lentils

Green lentils b&w

 

Green lentils are wonderful in Punjabi green lentil dhal. That is one of my most popular recipe, and  I wrote here about starting to cook Indian food, learning from a friend and getting to know the spices. I thought it was about time to update it with some photos and make the dhal again. And yes, the dhal is still wonderful. So wonderful that I – erm… – ate the dhal before taking photos of the final dish…! I’m such a rubbish blogger. Will have to have another go soon at finishing updating that post. Smile

 

Green lentils

Kitchen Notes: Building flavour and a warm salad

Rosemary

I think of flavours in terms of tones, going from earthy and sweet to sour and light, and various grades in between. And I like my food to have a range of tones of flavours, be multidimensional. I know it may seem strange to talk of food in such terms, but somehow it makes sense. A garnish of certain fresh herbs on a meaty stew or curry.  A squeeze of lemon or lime or a drizzle of brightly-flavoured extra virgin oil on pasta or salad lift that dish to more interesting heights. I also often use fresh chillies to give that uplift. I mix raw and cooked, grains and brightly flavoured vegetables, add the afore mentioned flourishes in order to achieve these tastes. They rock my boat, they just do it for me.

I’m inspired by South East Asian soups and noodle dishes, and by Ottolenghi salads, and think of them in the above terms. Or perhaps I like them so much in the first place because they fit my bill.

Tonight, I set to building a warm salad and finishing off bits and pieces from my fridge and pantry. Some new potatoes, and yellow and orange carrots are on my counter. I remember how much I like rosemary with anchovy on pizza, and think I can approach those flavours with a combination of rosemary and tuna.

5 small new potatoes washed and cut up into chunks, 2 yellow and 2 orange carrots washed and peeled, cut up into chunks, 5 small shallots peeled and quartered – all drizzled with some olive oil, chilli flakes, pepper and salt, roasted for 20 min. They’re coked, but can take some more caramelisation. Then I deseed 2 long chillies, chop them into pieces and add them to the roasting tray in the oven. After a few minutes, they’re joined by two sliced cloves of garlic and 2 small sprigs of rosemary, chopped. I roast them for a few more minutes. (I like flavours of garlic and chilli with roasted or sautéed veg, and add them towards the end, as they burn quickly.) Then I take the dish out of the oven and mix in a can of butter beans and tinned tuna. I taste the dish, but something is missing. I need to go a little higher in tone. Parsley would be great but I have none left. Instead, a little more rosemary and a drizzle of brightly green flavoured extra virgin olive oil complete the dish. Now I’m happy. I have a great dinner, and an interesting lunch for work.