If you’ve ever visited Bulgaria, you have mostly likely sampled one of the many varieties of banitsa, often translated as “cheese pie”. Typically served for breakfast, banitsa is usually a savory dish, made of layers of phyllo dough stuffed with egg, yoghurt, and Bulgarian white (feta) cheese. It is sold just about everywhere, from bus stations to fine restaurants, but my favorite was always the homemade version.
As I traveled throughout Bulgaria during my years as a Peace Corps Volunteer there, I happened upon many varieties of banitsa, including sweet versions, most notably made with pumpkin and walnuts. Called tikvenik, this sweet pastry’s name comes from the Bulgarian word for “pumpkin,” tikva. Just like traditional banitsa, tikvenik often appears on restaurant menus. However, if you ever find yourself in Bulgaria, do your best to get invited to someone’s house where you can sample the homemade variety. You’ll be glad you did.
The recipe I have put together below includes a few things that I have added and tweaked over the years. In fact, I did not have a concrete recipe for tikvenik prior to writing down the steps and measurements as I made this batch, because I learned how to make it from watching my friends and neighbors. Though there are several steps involved, making tikvenik is relatively easy and a great way to spend a rainy afternoon.
Here’s what you’ll need:
1 package of phyllo dough (sometimes written as “filo” or “fillo”)
1/2 cup butter
3 cups pumpkin puree
3/4 cup packed brown sugar (for a less sweet version, reduce the brown sugar to 2/3 cup)
3/4 cup coarsely ground walnuts
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon dry orange zest (optional)
1 tablespoon grapeseed or canola oil
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 tikvenik, 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, 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. In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the pumpkin puree, brown sugar, walnuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange zest (if using).
3. In a small microwave-safe bowl, melt the butter.
4. Using a pastry brush, grease a large jelly roll pan or cookie sheet with a deep lip with the grapeseed or canola oil. Normally, I would use my large tava, a round, 12-inch cake pan, but alas, it is currently on a container ship somewhere between here and Latvia. So, in true foreign service fashion, I have improvised below, using my large baklava pan.
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 it lies flat. Using a pastry brush, gently brush the edges of the top sheet of phyllo with a light layer of the melted butter, adding a few strokes of butter to the middle of the sheet. Do not saturate the sheet with butter. Next, take about 2 tablespoons of the pumpkin mixture and gently spread it across the sheet, using a spoon or a small spatula. You do not need to cover every square inch of the sheet.
6. Take the phyllo sheet that you just spread filling on, as well as the one below it, and begin to roll the 2 sheets into a log. Be careful, as the phyllo dough may tear. If it does, don’t worry; just try to separate the sheets as best you can.
7. Place the roll in the greased pan. Repeat steps 5 and 6 using the remaining phyllo sheets and filling, placing each roll in the pan, side by side. You want to put them in snugly, but not squeezed in so tightly that they burst and the filling spills out.
8. Using any remaining butter, gently brush the top of your tikvenik, paying close attention to the edges, which may have gotten a bit dry by now. Again, you don’t want to saturate it. If you don’t have any butter remaining for this last step, simply melt about 1 additional tablespoon.
9. Bake the tikvenik for about 45 minutes, until it is golden brown. Remove from the oven and set on a wire cooling rack to cool.
10. Serve your tikvenik warm, even with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Enjoy!
Cover any leftover tikvenik with aluminum foil and store at room temperature for up to two days.
Want to make traditional savory banitsa? Get the recipe!