I am completely fascinated with phyllo dough. These papery thin sheets of pastry are remarkably delicate when raw and exceptionally flaky when baked. Whoever came up with the idea of rolling out a wheat-based dough into an almost translucent layer was having a good day with a lot of time on his or her hands. It was worth the effort.
Phyllo dough sheets are the primary ingredient in banitsa. Banitsa is a Bulgarian cheese pie that can be either savory or sweet. In addition to the phyllo dough, traditional banitsa has eggs, yogurt, and feta cheese. Being the recipe rebel that I sometimes am, I like to add a drizzle of good local honey to this pie for a slightly sweet breakfast entrée.
If you want to be a little more decadent, skip the honey and top this rich pie with some easy homemade raspberry rose jam, and have some crispy, thick-cut bacon slices on the side. A cup of strong black coffee can complete this breakfast, as Bulgarians do enjoy their coffee that was introduced during Ottoman rule.
While this particular banitsa recipe is a perfect breakfast dish with yogurt and eggs, as well as honey in my version, this could be a savory pie that you could serve for lunch or dinner. A savory banitsa might have spinach, leeks, or pumpkin in the filling.
- 20 sheets phyllo dough thawed if frozen
- 14 ounces plain whole milk or sheep’s milk yogurt
- 5 whole eggs
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 TBS vegetable oil
- 8 TBS butter about 1 stick
- 1 lb feta cheese crumbled
- 3 TBS honey optional
- Assemble your ingredients and make sure you got everything together.
- In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the yogurt, eggs, and baking soda. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Grease a large, rimmed, non-stick baking pan with vegetable oil. Melt the butter.
- Remove the phyllo dough from the box and plastic wrap and gently unroll it.
- Brush the top sheet with a little butter. Spread about 3 tablespoons of the yogurt mixture on the sheet. Sprinkle about 3 tablespoons of the cheese on top of the yogurt.
- Starting with the short edge closest to you, carefully roll the sheet of phyllo toward the top of the sheet with your fingers. It should resemble a jelly roll. Don’t worry if the dough cracks or tears a little.
- Place the first roll onto the greased pan and repeat this step with the remaining phyllo. You can bend and press the sheets to fit your particular pan. Reserve about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the yogurt and eggs for finishing the assembled pie.
- Drizzle the honey over the rolled and filled phyllo. If the honey is solid, melt it in the pan you melted the butter in. Pour the reserved yogurt all over the rolled phyllo.
- Bake the banitsa for approximately 25 minutes, until the pie is golden brown.
- Allow the pie to cool for a few minutes so it sets prior to cutting and serving. Cut into squares and serve while warm.
Notes and Tips
Phyllo dough is temperamental. You need to work with it quickly or the sheets will dry out and crack. I like to place a damp towel on the countertop, lay the stack of phyllo on the towel, then cover the top with another damp towel. Every time you remove a sheet, recover the stack with the damp towel.
This pie bakes nicely in a shallow rimmed baking pan. If you don’t have a suitable baking pan that can hold the rolls of filled phyllo, you can bake this pie in a round cake pan or a pie pan. If doing that, place the rolls in the pan starting at the outside edge. Continue with the next roll, and so on, until you reach the center of the pan and the pie resembles a rolled rope shape. You likely will need 2 pans to fit all the rolls. This makes for an attractive presentation.
If you use up all the yogurt and egg mixture while assembling the pie, just brush the top of the pie with a mixture of egg yolk and butter so the top browns nicely.
Substitutions and Additions
A true Bulgarian banitsa would likely have sirene cheese in the filling. Sirene is similar to feta in taste and texture. It is a brined cheese that is made from either sheep, goat, or cow’s milk. If you can find it, use that instead of the Greek feta for a more authentic Bulgarian cheese pie.
If you want to make this breakfast pie more substantial, try adding thinly sliced or finely diced apples to the filling. Granny smith apples would add some tartness as well as a little sweetness. The texture of the pie will change, but it will still be delicious.
Traditionally, many Bulgarians prepare banitsa on New Year’s Eve, 10 days after the 40 days of fasting. The pie will be filled with messages and good luck wishes. It is a popular custom that promises to bring happiness and to achieve all dreams in the new year.
There is also a charm, often a coin or symbol of longevity, placed in the heart of the banitsa, similar to the one that is placed in a king cake. The charm is called a kusmeti which means fortune or luck.
The banitsa is cut into pieces and placed on a lazy Susan or turntable in the center of the table. The pie is rotated and when it comes to a stop each person takes the piece that is in front of them and finds the wish that will be answered inside the piece of pie.