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When I first came across Bulgarian banitsa I immediately thought it sounded like our Egyptian goulash bil gibna — a filo dough pastry stuffed with a mixture of cheeses including feta. Our goulash (no resemblance to Hungarian goulash, not sure how we gave it that name) is either rolled up in cigars or baked in sheets and cut up into squares. Banitsa is rolled up as well but in a coil shape and baked in a round pan. For yet another example of a cross-cultural culinary commonality, Bulgarian feta cheese is very popular among Egyptians and the diaspora. Banitsa also reminded me of feteer meshaltet — an Egyptian puff pastry of sorts which is stretched thin, smothered in clarified butter and topped or filled with either savory or sweet ingredients such as feta cheese, sausage or just powdered sugar. Strudel also fits in this family of stretched and laminated doughs. Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering about the culinary history of different bakes and marveling how bread and pastry connect cultures more than any other type of food. I mean, seriously, there are so many claims regarding the creation of croissants as a response to an Ottoman invasion. Or Rigo Jancsi– a chocolate mousse torte named after a rascal of a Hungarian who seduced a married Belgian princess. Or Paris-Brest named after a bicycle race. Can the same be said for roasted chicken?

I digress. So I decided that instead of using filo dough I would make the unleavened pastry dough used for filo or feteer meshaltet. For this recipe you will use a lot of clarified butter before, during and after the rolling process so –unlike strudel– it is much more supple when you stretch it. If you have made strudel before you know that you flour the backs of your arms and go underneath the dough to stretch it out. This method will not work as well with banitsa or feteer meshaltet. Instead, you will lift up and stretch it out much like spreading a picnic blanket (see video). Also, when you first begin to stretch the dough it is helpful to treat it like pizza dough where you roll it around the backs of your hands like a steering wheel.

It is important to use either bread flour or even hi-gluten flour and I would strongly recommend using King Arthur brand as the protein content is reliable and consistent. The addition of a small amount of vinegar helps to tenderize the dough and makes it even easier with which to work.

Bulgarian Banitsa

Bulgarian Cheese Pastry
Servings: 10 servings

Equipment

  • 12 in cake pan

Ingredients

Dough

  • 565 g Bread flour
  • 400 g water lukewarm
  • 3 g vinegar about ½ tsp
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 200 g clarified butter or ghee melted

Filling

  • 4 large eggs
  • 450 g whole milk Bulgarian or Greek yogurt or thick, strained homemade yogurt
  • 340 g Bulgarian feta cheese
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt optional, if your feta is not very salty

Instructions

Dough

  • Combine flour and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook and mix briefly. Combine water and vinegar in a measuring cup and add slowly to the flour while mixing at low speed. Continue to add water until all the dry bits are incorporated — you might not need all the water.
  • Turn up the mixer to medium and mix for another 2-3 minutes or until dough is smooth and elastic. You might need to do the final kneading by hand.
  • Scale the dough into 8 pieces about 110 g each. Roll tightly into a ball (like shaping a boule) and place seam side down in a pan or casserole dish greased with clarified butter. Brush the tops of the dough pieces with more clarifed butter and cover loosely with plastic. Let rest for one hour at room temp.

Filling

  • In a large bowl, beat together the eggs and yogurt until smooth. Crumble in the feta cheese and add the baking soda and optional salt and then mix until combined. Set aside.

Assembly

  • Preheat oven to 375°F convection. Grease a 12in cake pan.
  • Brush clarified butter over your work surface. Place on dough piece in the middle and brush the top with more butter.
  • Spread the dough slightly with your hands then stretch over the backs of your hands like a pizza (see video).
  • Place on your work surface and begin stretching it out by lifting one edge and pulling out gently at the same time (kind of like stretching out a picnic blanket on a windy day). You can also use the backs of your hands to stretch out from the middle. Continue stretching until it is thin enough to see through and you are just starting to get small tears around the edges. Drizzle more clarified butter over surface of dough.
  • Cut off the thick ropy edge. Leaving a one inch margin spread a one inch thick strip of filling at one of the long edges. Flip the naked edge over the filling to enrobe it and continue rolling up the dough. Trim unfilled ends and tuck under. Place it seam side down along the edge of the cake pan.
  • Repeat for remaining dough pieces, creating a coil in the cake pan.
  • Drizzle or brush the remaining clarified butter over the whole pastry. Bake for one hour at 375°F convection or until top is deep golden brown.
  • Cool in pan for 5 min then flip onto a cooling rack and then invert so that it is top side up again. Cool for about 15 or until just warm to the touch before serving.
  • Refrigerate any remaining pieces. Reheat for 10 minutes at 300°F.

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