“Pita” is a staple of any Balkan home and is a broad term for the Balkan family “leaf pastry” layered or rolled with any number of savoury or sweet fillings, or sometimes simply layered without any filling. It can be made by rolling, stretching, stacking or “petalling” the pastry (katmer). It is not the same as the Middle Eastern “pita bread”. At the risk of oversimplifying what is a very complicated family of pastry here is my attempt at summarising what I know so far of the Balkan pita landscape.
Pita can be made with hand rolled paper thin pastry (almost like filo pastry, but not quite the same), which is then either rolled around a filling (a sort of pastry tube) and then swirled around itself (in circles or ovals), or is layered.
This paper thin pastry is not quite the same as “filo” pastry (or “phyllo” or “yulfka” dough) which originates from the Ottoman Empire, though filo pastry can also be used to make “pita”.
Depending on the type of filling, “pita” can be called any number of things. For example, if the filling is spinach based and layered, it is called “zelnik” (in North Macedonia) or “zeljanica” (in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia) or, of course, “spanakopita” (in Greece and Cyprus) – the name an adaptation/derivation of the word for whatever filling you are using.
Another wonderful example of this is “tikvanik” which is a sweet pita filled with pumpkin (and walnuts and cinnamon), which is called that because “tikva” is the word for pumpkin.
Then you also have pita without any filling which is called “maslenica” and is simply pastry layered with only “maslo” (lard, or butter or margarine).
Traditionally, only pastry filled with sauteed meat and onion is called “burek” or “borek” in the Balkans, through these days you can have it filled with anything and it is still called burek. Burek tends to be made with a little more oil overall than pita. Though once again, you can also have “pita” with a meat filling in which case it is simply called “meat pita”.
Then there is “banitsa” which is again either rolled or layered filo pastry, usually with an egg and cheese filling (with yoghurt added sometimes).
This North Macedonian version of “pita” using my mother’s recipe is a stacked version of pita and is easier to prepare than the rolled or stretched versions. The dough is very forgiving and the technique is a very clever way of creating what is essentially self-laminating pastry without the stress of rolling or stretching out kori (dough sheets) paper thin. The layering is created by dividing the dough into six to eight small dough balls, rolling each out into small circles, covering each with butter or oil, stacking them, then rolling them out together into one dough sheet which can then be used to layer or roll with filling. When baked, the heat separates the stacked layers, puffing up the dough and creating a laminated flaky texture.
Pita fillings can really be anything. Savoury fillings include spinach and white cheese (sometimes with egg), just cheese, or any combination of onion, leek, sauerkraut, rice, any vegetable, meat. Sweet fillings will be any seasonal fruit: cherries, apples, pumpkin, walnuts and cinnamon.
A leek and sauerkraut filling (sometimes with rice added) is a very typical filling for pita prepared for Christmas Eve (celebrated on 6 January) because this is the last day of the Nativity fast and therefore all food eaten on this day must be egg, dairy and meat free. I absolutely love this filling and happily eat it the rest of the year also.
I made this particular leek and sauerkraut pita to mark Orthodox Old New Year on 13 January. Old New Year is celebrated across the Balkans (and of course many other parts of the world including Russia) who still adhere to the Julian calendar for holidays. My father’s family is from a minority in North Macedonia known as “Vlach” or “Cincari” – one legend is the name is a derivative of Cinci Armi or the Fifth Roman Legion stationed in Macedonia, Moesia and Dacia, an interesting theory as the language is very similar to Latin. In addition to Old New Year, the Vlachs (and others across the region) celebrate “Vasilica” or St. Basil’s Day. Those celebrating Vasilica also have a tradition of preparing pita for this day (sometimes also called “maznik”) and hiding a coin in the pita/maznik (usually a coin is hidden in the Christmas Eve (Badnik) bread). Again, similar to the Badnik bread coin tradition, good fortune awaits the pita coin finder for the year ahead.
I’ve spent a lifetime watching my mother make pita, eagerly waiting while the delicious smells emanating from the oven taunted me, impatiently poking it with a finger once out of the oven to check whether it was cool enough to eat, eating most of it freshly out of the oven with yoghurt and copious amounts of white cheese, Balkan preserves and salads. This is my absolute definition of comfort baking and I hope you try it and enjoy it!
- PITA DOUGH
5g dry (quick-acting) yeast
5g sugar or honey
c.150ml lukewarm water
250g strong white flour (plus extra for dusting/rolling)
75g margarine (or butter or olive oil, or a mix of any)
1/2 tsp olive oil (optional)
- FILLING (Sauerkraut + Leek)
150 g sour cabbage (finely chopped) or sauerkraut
1 medium sized leek, finely chopped
2 tbsp sunflower or olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp fresh chopped parsley
Sesame or nigella seeds (optional)
- FILLING (Cheese + Egg)
200g white cheese or feta
2 medium eggs
- Re-activate your dry yeast. In a small bowl mix your dry yeast, the sugar (or honey) with a little of the measured lukewarm water until the yeast dissolves. The water needs to be lukewarm (or blood temperature, not warmer). Leave it to stand in a warm place until the yeast bubbles/froths.
- Meanwhile, sift your flour and your salt in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle and add your re-activated yeast. Start adding the lukewarm water little by little. You may not need all of it or you may need a little more, it depends on your flour and the weather etc. The dough just needs to come together and it is fine if it is a little wet/sticky.
- Dust a clean surface with a little flour and transfer your dough out of the mixing bowl. Sprinkle with a little more flour. Start to knead. The dough needs to be able to move easily – it needs to be soft but not stick to your hands or the kneading surface. If your dough is sticking too much, it helps to wash your hands and then continue kneading instead of adding flour or you will end up with very dry dough. Knead for about 10 minutes until it as soft as a baby’s bottom (a direct quote from my mother) – there needs to be a gentle spring back if you press gently with a finger, and the dough needs to be elastic and not tear. Place the dough into a clean bowl (sometimes I coat my bowl in a little olive oil to stop to dough sticking but this is optional) and cover with a damp tea towel and let it rest in a warm place until at least doubled in size (1-2 hours in a warm place).
- Meanwhile, make your filling. In a shallow frying pan, sweat your leek in the sunflower/olive oil until soft. Add the sauerkraut and continue to sweat to ensure the mixture is not to wet. Add salt and pepper, and any spices/herbs of your choice.
If you are using the cheese filling, simply crumble the white cheese or feta and combine with the two eggs beaten. You can add any herbs or spices you like.
- Melt your margarine/butter and let it cool. You can use half margarine/butter half oil of your choice. Sunflower or olive oil work nicely.
- When the dough has doubled in size, tip out on a surface dusted with flour. Divide the dough into 6-8 roughly equal parts. Roll each ball out into a circle. Then over each circle drizzle/spread the cooled melted margarine/butter. Leave one without any margarine/butter over it – this will go on top. Stack the dough circles on top of each other, ending with the one without margarine. Then roll out into a rectangle, as thinly as you can. Cut the rectangle into four long lines (lengthwise). Add filling along each line, then close over so you have a “seam” over the filling.
- How you shape them is up to you. You can either swirl them around in individual rolls (as pictured), or make long lines (see picture below). Be careful to place the rolles filled dough sections seam side down into your prepared buttered/oiled baking dish or baking tray.
When all rolls have been placed in your baking dish, drizzle/brush some more margerine/butter on top. Bake at 200C (electric) for 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown, then reduce the temperature to 170C and bake for a further 10 minutes. The pita should sound hollow to the tap and be nicely golden brown underneath.
- You can sprinkle with some sesame or nigella seeds if you’d like, and enjoy!