DEC 11, 2012
Unlike in the neighboring Croatia where burek stands for the whole class of phyllo dough pastry burek in Bosnia refers only to the meat pies while the rest of the pies are called pita. Traditional pitas in Bosnia are conveniently called by the “staring” ingredient in the filling: hence sirnica comes stuffed with cottage cheese (mladi sir),zeljanica combines spinach and cheese, krompiruša features potatoes and tikvenica is stuffed with zucchini. Bosnian pitas are shaped as huge snails fitting into a round tray or as smaller ovals with a few coils. Either way making these pitas call for Olympic dough rolling skills as the phyllo dough sheets are over two meters in diameter. From the moment I have seen the pitas in Bosnia I have been dreaming about sneaking into a kitchen where the pitas are made to watch the miraculous phyllo dough rolling.
Having followed my nose I found myself at the kitchen of a family-run motel in Smajkici in Herzegovina. Smajkici is a little village in Podvelezje, a platou between the towering peaks of the Velez mountains, some 30 minute drive from Mostar in Herzegovina. The village was totally destroyed during the war, rebuilt anew and makes an attractive mountain getaway from the oven-like Mostar in summer. Sunce (translated as “sun”) is a guest house by the main road in Smajkici that has been luring in the travelers with farm holiday experience, mountain walking, herb picking and homemade meals featuring simple tasty countryside treats and house wine. Mevlida, the wife of Ismet the man behind the guest house, is the woman behind the kitchen. As she is cooking the evening meal for the guests I am watching her and making a small talk using the mix of Bosnian, Ukrainian and Russian. Through the conversation I am learning about her son studying in Mostar to become a veterinarian and she finds out that I do have parents back home who are comfortable with me traveling on my own. I am excited by how we can actually could have a conversation using a mixed bag of Slavic words and once we start talking about cooking it becomes even easier to understand each other. At first Mevlida is puzzled as she finds out my vegetarian preferences but relaxes when I say that her soup and sirnica, the cheese pie, would make just a perfect dinner for me.
As she is working I am observing her no-fuss kitchen pantry: a large table for making pies stands right in the centre of the kitchen, stalls with bowls and baking trays with each one of them having its specific role and purpose – no sign of extravaganza, gas stove, an old oven, sink and refrigerator; large paper bags of flour, bottles of sunflower oil, cassette of eggs are the essentials I spot around as Mevlida uses them for the home made bread and pitas that she makes every day. Food items are not stored if they can easily be picked up – for instance, we walk together to the kitchen garden just to pick up a few leaves of fresh parsley for the soup that Mevlida is making for dinner. She also has a few jars with spices and as earlier we went for herb picking with Ismet I am intrigued to find out whether she uses any mountain herbs for her cooking. Yet as many women in Bosnia and Croatia Mevlida swears by Vegeta, a mixture of spices used to season virtually any dish, which gives Bosnian dishes such a familiar flavor of the homemade food. Interestingly, there is no Vegeta in sirnica, Bosnian cheese pie, but the unbeatable flavour of the homemade food is there – miracle, no?!
Ingredients (6 servings):
Once you get about 3-5 mm thick sheet place the rolling pin on the edge of the phyllo dough closer to you, hold it in the middle and start coiling the dough rotating the stick outwards. The idea is to hold the rolling pin in the middle, coil one layer of the dough and then then smoothen the dough on the rolling pin by gliding your fingers apart, place them back in the middle and repeat until the whole sheet of the phyllo dough is coiled on the rolling pin. Now roll the pin with an effort, unroll the dough and repeat the procedure a few times. Sprinkle the flour now and then on the working surface so the dough does not stick. Another trick to master will be to coil half of the dough on the rolling pin, lift the pin holding it by one of the edges and while keeping it horizontal wave it as a flag for the dough to get even thinner under the own weight. The ultimate step is to spread the paper-thin dough on the towels and gently pull the edges to make them as thin as the rest of the dough sheet. It is not a major problem if the dough tears at the edges as it is so elastic and stretchable that during the pie-making you’ll be able to “mend” it.
4. Make sirnica: Now we start making the pie. Drizzle the phyllo dough sheets with some oil and grounded corn. Plan your sirnica in such a way that the roll for one pie will be about 60 sm long. Sprinkle about 3-4 tbsp of the filling along one of the edges leaving about 5-6 sm on the outer side. Now fold the dough to cover the sprinkled filling with the remaining 5-6 sm of the dough; then slightly lift the edges of the tablecloth from the side of the dough sheet closer to you – the move will push your roll forward: let it make make 2-2.5 complete circles, cut it from the sheet and form a mega-sized oval snail. Place on a greased tray and continue with the rest of the dough. Bake at 200 C for about 30-40 minutes – use a toothpick to check if your sirnica is ready.