It was still dark outside, but instead of hearing birds chirping, I awoke that morning to the click and clack of pans. I didn't mind. It meant that my grandma was busy in the kitchen, cooking banitsa for when everyone got up. And got up we did, because not even coffee beats the smell of banitsa in the morning.
A Bulgarian national tradition, banitsa is usually found on the breakfast menu but is often eaten all day. The ingredients are simple: phyllo dough, eggs and feta cheese. Even if you can't cook, banitsa will give the false impression that you can. That's fortunate, because in the old days, it is said that mothers would choose a bride for their son based on the girl's banitsa skills.
This pastry carries centuries of traditions, much like Bulgaria itself, a small country founded in 681 A.D. and wedged between Greece and the Black Sea. There are many variations of banitsa, depending the region, but one constant is that it always celebrates life's highlights: baptisms, weddings, traditional festivals, New Year's Eve.
On the 31st of December, the "queen" of the table is the banitsa. It is prepared a bit differently in order to predict the events of the coming year. On small pieces of paper, celebrants write a fortune, one for each person who will eat a piece. Favorites include "you will get married in the next year," "there will be a baby in the family," "you take out the trash" and "you will be traveling to exotic destinations in the next year." The fortunes are wrapped in foil and placed inside the banitsa mixture. After it is baked, everyone picks a piece and finds his or her fortune.
At weddings, banitsa is used to determine whether the bride or groom will be the head of the family. Standing back to back, the newlyweds hold the round pastry above their heads. They break it off, and whoever gets the bigger half will lead the family.
Banitsa is often eaten with yogurt. Bulgarians are big on yogurt because the micro-organism it is made with, lactobacillus bulgaricus, produces some of the highest quality yogurt in the world.
Clang the pots and pans and fix yourself a batch based on this traditional—and easy—recipe.
8 oz. frozen phyllo dough
1 stick of butter, plus enough to butter a pan
1 cup crumbled Bulgarian or Greek feta cheese
7–8 tbsp unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 91/2-inch or larger oven-safe pan, depending on how big you want to make the banitsa. Melt stick of butter in microwave or in a small saucepan on the stovetop.
Put eggs in a medium-sized bowl and scramble until they are mostly liquid. Add the crumbled feta cheese and mix well.
Place two sheets of phyllo dough—one on top of the other—on a large cutting board. Spread 2–3 tablespoons of melted butter between the sheets of dough. Repeat the same process with 4–5 tablespoons of the egg and cheese mixture. Leave some empty space around the edges so that the mixture doesn't spill out when rolling the sheet. Roll the sheet of dough and place it on the outer edge of the pan.
Repeat with the remaining sheets, placing each rolled one next to the previous one until you reach the center and the pan is full. The dough sheets should be snuggled against one other.
When finished, brush the top of all the sheets with the rest of the butter.
Put pan in oven and bake at 375 for about 30–40 minutes. The top should be golden-brown and a little crusty.
NOTES: You can find phyllo dough in the frozen puff pastry section of grocery stores. Make sure the dough is completely thawed before starting to work with it. Do not remove from its plastic package until ready to use.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Beloved Banitsa."