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.
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.
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.
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.
The finished result was gloriously tasty. You can see below what it looked like.
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.
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
SERVES: makes 8 large slices
400 g yufka (filo-like dough, but a little thicker)
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
2 large eggs
150 ml vegetable oil
300 ml milk
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.
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.
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.