Mmmmm, banitsa. Throughout Bulgaria, this cheese pastry can be found in homes, at restaurants, in bakeries, and at bus stations (though I wouldn’t recommend buying it there). In all of its flaky, savory, buttery goodness, banitsa is a Bulgarian staple.
Made traditionally with layers of phyllo dough, eggs, sirene (Bulgarian feta cheese), yoghurt, and sunflower oil, banitsa can be eaten as a main dish or a side, warm or cold, for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It really is that versatile. It is also one of the primary contributors to my 35-pound weight gain during my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria. If you decide to make it, you will see why.
I learned how to make banitsa from several different people while I lived in Bulgaria, and each had her own way of making it. It’s really hard to get it wrong, actually. Over the years, I have developed my own method, which works well for me. The key is having high quality ingredients. Most Bulgarian women do not have a recipe for making banitsa, and as such, I typically don’t measure anything, either. I have done my best below to provide some proportions, though don’t worry if your measurements aren’t exact.
Here’s what you’ll need:
1 package of phyllo dough (sometimes written as “filo” or “fillo”)
5 large eggs
1 cup plain yoghurt (Bulgarian yoghurt is the best, if you can find it! Greek will also work well. Full fat or low fat yoghurt works best; avoid nonfat if you can.)
3/4 lb Bulgarian feta cheese, rinsed*
1/2 cup sunflower oil (canola or grapeseed oil will work, too)
1/4 cup water
1/4 stick butter (about 2 Tbsp)
*Bulgarian feta cheese can be hard to find. If you are in the Washington, DC area, the Mediterranean Bakery and Deli on South Pickett Street in Alexandria, VA has it. I have also found it at Whole Foods, and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern markets often carry it. Greek feta cheese will work in a pinch if you are unable to find the Bulgarian variety… but Bulgarian feta cheese really is the best!
A few words on working with phyllo dough: Many people feel intimidated by phyllo dough. If you’ve never worked with phyllo dough before, do not fret. There are few tricks to working with it to make it easier. You can find phyllo dough at most grocery stores in the freezer section, typically alongside the frozen pies and desserts. Packages vary by brand. Some offer one large roll of phyllo sheets, while others contain two smaller rolls, each wrapped separately. For banitsa, it doesn’t matter how the sheets come.
Before you begin the recipe, you will need to let the phyllo dough thaw. This can be done overnight in the refrigerator or by leaving it out at room temperature for a couple of hours. It it very important that you allow time for the phyllo to thaw gradually. Do not try to speed up the process by putting it in the microwave, even on the defrost setting. This will result in dry, brittle phyllo sheets that are impossible to work with.
Once your dough is thawed and you open the package, you will need to work quickly but carefully, as phyllo dough dries out quickly and is very delicate. If you have purchased a brand that comes as two individual rolls like in the photo above, open only one roll at a time to prevent the other one from drying out. It is best to wait until you are ready to begin working with the phyllo sheets before you remove it from its plastic wrapper.
I recommend clearing a large space on your countertop so that you can spread the phyllo sheets out comfortably and work with them more quickly.
Let’s get started!
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 degrees Celsius).
2. Using about 1-2 teaspoons of oil, grease the bottom and sides of a deep-lipped large pan. Normally, I would use my large tava, a round, 12-inch cake pan (this is ideal), but alas, it is packed away en route to Latvia. So, in true foreign service fashion, I have improvised below, using a 9-in pie pan and a 13 x 9 inch casserole dish.
3. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs. Use your (clean) fingers to crumble the feta cheese over the eggs.
4. Add the yoghurt, oil, and water and whisk together until everything is blended. The batter will be lumpy because of the cheese.
5. Open the package of phyllo dough, and remove the first roll (if there are two) from its plastic wrapper. Carefully unroll it on your countertop so that all of the sheets lie flat. Using a soup spoon, spread about two spoonfuls of the egg and cheese mixture across the top sheet. You do not need to cover every square inch of the sheet; in fact, it is better if you spread it haphazardly. Be careful not to saturate the sheet or it will become soggy.
6. From bottom to top, carefully roll the sheet of phyllo dough upwards with your fingers. Try not to tear the sheet, but don’t worry if you do. Just keep rolling it until you have something that resembles a log.
7. Transfer the rolled-up phyllo sheet to your greased pan. Follow the shape of the pan.
8. Repeat steps 5-7 with the remaining sheets of phyllo (using the second package as applicable) and egg and cheese mixture. If you are using a round pan, your rolls will look like the photo below. The idea is to cover every inch of the pan and to have the rolls of dough fit snugly with one another.
9. Once your pans are full and you have used up any excess mixture, cut tiny pats from the 1/4 stick of butter and sprinkle them haphazardly on top of your bantisa. This will give your banitsa a beautiful golden look and buttery flavor as it bakes.
10. Once you’ve got the pats of butter on, you are ready to bake your banitsa! Bake for about 45 minutes or until golden brown.
11. Allow to cool for at least 20 minutes. Cut into squares (or any shape) and serve! Banitsa can be eaten warm, cold, or anywhere in between. For some added flavor, serve it with a dollop of plain yoghurt. Store leftovers in an airtight container on the countertop. It will keep this way for 2-3 days. Refrigeration may cause the banitsa to become soggy.
For a sweet version of banitsa made with pumpkin and walnuts, check out my recipe for tikvenik!