Thursday, June 13, 2013

Börek or Burek (with spinach and cheese)

So, I'm not an expert on Burek, nor do I know enough about its cultural background and history to be able to give an accurate account of how it originated. I'm thinking Wikipedia should be fairly reliable, and therefore I quote a few sections from it which provide some insight into this delicious filled pastry.

"Börek (also burek and other variants) is a family of baked or fried filled pastries made of a thin flaky dough known as phyllo (or yufka). It can be filled with cheese, minced meat, or vegetables. Most probably invented in what is now Modern Turkey, in the Anatolian Provinces of the Ottoman Empire in its early era, to become a popular element of Ottoman cuisine.

Börek is also very popular in the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire, especially in North Africa and throughout the Balkans. The Northern Slavic cuisines, historically developed by people living in close contact with the Turkic peoples of Asia and Europe, also feature derivatives of the börek. Börek is also part of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish traditions. They have been enthusiastically adopted by the Ottoman Jewish communities, and have been described, along with boyos de pan and bulemas, as forming "the trio of preeminent Ottoman Jewish pastries".

Börek has its origins in the Turkish cuisine (cf. Baklava) and is one of its most significant and, in fact, ancient elements of the Turkish cuisine, having been developed by the Turks of Central Asia before their westward migration to Anatolia.

Börek in Turkish language refers to any dish made with yufka. The name comes from the Turkic root bur- 'to twist', (similar to Serbian word savijača (from savijati - to twist) which also describes a layered dough dish)."

Alright! Now that we've gotten our history lesson out of the way, it's time to make some Burek. Whenever I discover a new favourite food, my first instinct is to look for the recipe and attempt it at home. I love a good challenge. Some may think it's strange, but I used to look forward to exams when I was in school. It bore different consequences of course, but was a challenge nonetheless.

Anyway, I first made this interesting discovery while I was browsing for new dining options. The review on Balkan Oven Burek Bakery Café (what a mouthful!) on Grab Your Fork grabbed my attention. Apparently, burek is the speciality there. Unfortunately, when I made the trip down to Rockdale, the shop was closed for renovations, until the following week! Imagine my dismay! Well, anyway, there was a signboard outside the shop, pointing to restaurant Korzo up the street, and read "We sell Burek" (or something to that effect). It was either that or we head home defeated and empty-stomached. So, we made our way there, and passed by a few people carrying what looked like stacks of pizza boxes. I later found out that they contained whole bureks that they bought from Korzo. We went there and settled for some coffee and a slice of spinach and cheese burek. I was pretty excited trying it for the first time. It's sort of like a flaky layered pie, round in shape and filled with spinach and cheese. It was tasty, with crisp layers outside and soft billowy layers in between the fillings. I would have preferred the pastry to be thinner though, as I found it a little "hard and crunchy". Maybe I could have had the perfect burek if Balkan Oven was open! Oh well, another time perhaps.

Here's a round burek that I made

As I embarked on my quest for the perfect burek recipe, I learnt that the burek (or other name it's known by) comes in different forms and versions depending on which country or region it's from. In Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia, burek is made by alternating layers of dough with other fillings in a circular baking pan. Traditionally it may be baked with no filling (prazan), with stewed minced meat and onions, or with cheese. Based on my sources (Wikipedia), the recipe for "round" burek was developed in the Serbian town of Niš. In 1498, it was introduced by a famous Turkish baker, Mehmed Oğlu from Istanbul. Eventually burek spread from the southeast (southern Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia) to the rest of Yugoslavia. Most bakers who offer burek in Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia originate from the Niš area of southern Serbia, Kosovo or Macedonia.

Preparing the pastry is similar to making Malaysian roti canai, where dough soaked in oil is stretched until it's silky thin, then folded to form layers. I've included a link below to a video which shows how the pastry is made. It's not as difficult as it looks. What you really need is patience, gentle hands and a large stone countertop to stretch the dough on.

Börek or Burek
(makes one 10-inch Burek)
Source: Various
250g plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
150ml water (approx.)
3/4 cup vegetable/canola oil
1/2 cup feta
1 cup cooked and chopped spinach, drained
1/2 egg, beaten
1. Place the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Attach the dough hook, start the mixer and gradually add the water and until the dough comes together. Let it knead for about 7 minutes until the dough is soft and elastic. Divide into five and flatten slightly into a disc. Take a bowl/saucepan big enough to hold all five pieces of dough. Pour a little vegetable oil into the bowl, place one piece of dough into it, pour a little more oil over the it and repeat until all five are in the bowl. Pour enough vegetable oil over the top to virtually cover the stack of dough. Set aside for half an hour while you make the filling.
2. Place cheese and spinach into a bowl and stir through the egg.

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F).

3. Grease your marble/stone workbench with a thin layer of vegetable oil all. Take one disc of pastry from the oil, scrape off the oil, then place it onto your oiled work bench. Flatten the disc from the inside to outside, then place your fingers under the edge, gently lift, pull and stretch the dough outwards until it's thin, about 2 feet diameter. Fold in the edges (like an envelope) to form a pentagon (or circle) about 10 inch in diameter. Set aside.

4. Start with another disc of pastry from the pot of oil. Stretch it again to form a thin round sheet. Place the first layer (from step 3) in the middle. Sprinkle the cheese filling in the middle, sprinkle some oil over the pastry, and fold in the edges again. Repeat until you have 5 layers of pastry enclosing each one.

At this stage, it's probably easier to refer to this video to get a better idea how it's made: Click on the link here Balkan Burek Party.

5. Place the prepared pastry on a baking pan and pour some of the oil over the top of the burek. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown and crispy. Remove and drain off excess oil, or blot with a paper towel. Slice or cut into wedges and serve hot.

Stretching out the dough as thin as possible - be careful with those sharp nails!

Rectangular "burek" with spinach and feta

A bastardised version of the "burek" made with minced lamb and potato curry