SNEAKING INTO A BOSNIAN KITCHEN: BOSNIAN SIRNICA PIE RECIPE AND MAKING PERFECT PHYLLO DOUGH?

DEC 11, 2012 

 Burek, or a phyllo dough pastry, has got such a vital importance for the national diet in Bosnia and Herzegovina that its making and eating is institutionalized through the specialty joints called buregdzinicaBuregdzinicas are the shrines that keep the traditions of making the treat according to the recipes dating back in years and make them available to the hungry crowds.

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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. 

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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?!

Sirnica, Balkan Cheese Pie, Recipe

Ingredients (6 servings):

For the phyllo dough:
1 cup water 
1/2 tsp salt
4-5 tbsp sunflower oil
350 g flour
 
For the filling:
500 g cottage cheese
3 eggs
salt to taste
cornmeal
 
Method:
1. Make the dough: In a medium size bowl with high sides pour in water, add salt, sunflower oil and some flour. Stir energetically with a wooden spatula into a pancake dough. Continue adding flour and stirring until you get soft dough. You may need to add more water or flour as you go.  Now put the spatula aside, put some flour on your palms and start kneading the dough with your hands rather energetically – you are going to make a very well-knead dough. The phyllo dough has to be very elastic to be rolled into paper-thin sheets: the longer and more energetically you knead the more elastic dough y ou will get. For better kneading try to knead pressing the dough with your right palm against the left palm, occasionally throw the dough against the kneading surface with an effort and shake the bowl with the dough so the dough hits the sides of the bowl now and then. Grease a stainless container with sunflower oil, oil the dough ball and place in the container. Close the container, shake horizontally for the dough to take shape of the container. Put in the refrigerator for a few hours – best overnight – this will make the dough more elastic.
 
2. Prepare the filling: whisk the eggs, add salt and cottage cheese and whisk together – the filling will naturally be crumbly. Set aside.
 
3. Roll the dough: Preheat the oven to 200 C. Since the sheets of dough are traditionally made huge – about 2 meter in diameter – you need some creativity to get it done at a regular kitchen. Originally Bosnian women use a large table covered by clean cotton towels or sheets and a meter long wooden rolling pin. You may try your dining table or… I heard that some women in Bosnia spread a tablecloth on the floor. You may still divide the dough into smaller parts and go one by one if there is no way for you to go bigger – that way you will come up with smaller portion pies instead of a large one. This is how to go about the rolling. Sprinkle some flour on a tablecloth, place the dough from the fridge in the middle of the table cloth, flatten it with your palm slightly and start rolling into a very thin sheet.

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.

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5. Let it Cool Down and Serve: Incline the tray to remove the excessive amount of grease, sprinkle some water over the sirnitca, use a brush to oil the top with the sunflower oil, cover with a towel and leave to rest and cool down for some time. Be patient: I remember my grandma doing the same with her yeast-based pies and we tried to sneak in, secretly uncover them to admire the mouth-watering toasted beauties and would get scolded for this as we were interrupting a really important process of the pie resting. So, don’t be a kid and find a better thing to do while waiting for a pie to settle, cool down and come together – technically the cooking process is not over until the steam is inside the pastry. Once the pie is cooled you are good to go – traditionally sirnica is served with sour cream on top or a glass of yogurt.

In need of a Vocation

Neretva River, Mostar

 

 

Reconstructed Old Bridge spanning the Neretva River with reconstructed buildings and mosques of the Ottoman/Turkish quarter in background.

  • Patrick Horton
  • Lonely Planet Photographer

Introducing Bosnia & Hercegovina

Once known for tragic reasons, Bosnia and Hercegovina now features in travel plans as people realise what this country has to offer: age-old cultures, stunning mountain landscapes, access to the great outdoors and a sense of adventure. This most easterly point of the West and the most westerly point of the East bears the imprint of two great empires. Five hundred years of domination, first by the Turks and then briefly by the Austria-Hungarians, have inexorably influenced the culture and architecture of this land.

In Sarajevo, minarets, onion-shaped domes and campaniles jostle for the sky in a town where Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians and Catholics once lived in harmony. Alluring Baščaršija is a jumble of cobbled laneways spanning centuries of activity. Here workshops for ancient crafts are mixed in with cafés, souvenir shops, and trendy bars. There’s also plenty to lure visitors away from the capital. Mostar’s Old Bridge has been rebuilt and daring young men now plunge from its heights to amuse the tourists. Small Jajce delights with its medieval citadel and waterfall while Međugorjeattracts thousands to its Virgin Mary apparition site.

Most likely it’ll be in adventure sports where Bosnia and Hercegovina will make its name. Already its major rivers are rafted and kayaked and its mountains are skied, climbed and hiked over, and as more out-of-the-way areas are made safe this country could easily become the year-round adventure centre of Eastern Europe.

Last updated: Dec 11 2012