Last Saturday, I stepped up to the counter of my corner store with a package of philo dough, a can of Coke and a stick of butter, and the cashier guessed immediately what I was up to: “Are you going to make banitza?”
In fact, I was. A cursory internet search for Bulgarian cuisine will probably lead to banitza first and foremost. It’s invariably described as a delightful pastry filled with a mixture of egg and feta cheese, which can be either sweet or savory. Sounds great, right?
Except that most of the time, it’s not that great. Chewy, store-bought philo dough is layered with cheap cheese and drowned in grease, and the fat of choice here is vegetable oil. Not olive oil, not butter, not even lard. Vegetable oil. Rather than a decadent salty-sugary treat, banitza usually tastes like it would’ve been decent if only you’d gotten to it about forty-five minutes ago, before it cooled to room temperature, but as it is, almost every time I eat it I end up thinking to myself, “I could’ve made this way better.”
What am I trying to say? That Bulgarians don’t know how to make their own national dish? Not at all. I’m sure that as I write this, somewhere in Bulgaria, someone is rolling out home-made dough, gently spooning a delicate cheesy filling into it, rolling it up and watching with bated breath as it browns and puffs in a perfectly warmed oven. But most of the time, banitza is prepared with cheapness and expedience held above every other value, particularly taste.
What I craved on Saturday was something easy and junky, but with a home-baked attention to detail. I started with my former host mom’s recipe, which includes prepared philo dough, a small, greased baking pan, and a mixture of one egg and about 100 grams of feta. I added about an eighth of a cup of sugar to the filling mixture because I wanted it sweet. Of course, vegetable oil would be dispensed with in favor of butter. I’m no baker, but one thing I learned at my former workplace was that if you’re not baking with butter, then you’re not baking.
The pan greased, I took individual sheets of philo and smeared a little butter on them before folding them in half, butter-side-in. I spooned a couple tablespoons of the filling in each one and rolled it into a little log, with the end of the philo down so they wouldn’t pop open. Having already preheated the oven to “pretty hot,” I popped my little banitzas in and baked them for about 15 minutes.
Nora, my former host mom, splashes her banitza with seltzer water every five minutes or so as it’s cooking. I think the idea is that the carbonation acts like baking soda and helps the banitza puff up. I’ve also seen people use lemon soda instead. That one of the ingredients of this national delicacy is soda-pop is only fitting. Outside of the big cities, I often think of Bulgaria as the Trailer Park of the European Union, and I say that in the best possible sense. I don’t mean anything disparaging by the analogy, rather, that Bulgarians tend to be warm, hospitable, unpretentious, and heavily armed. And nothing says “pastry of the masses” to me quite like The Real Thing, which the corner store happens to sell in adorable little 150mL cans.
Despite the cashier’s trepidation, I think the Coke was an inspired choice. It played off the salty feta for an unmistakably MSG-like flavor, followed by the characteristic extreme thirst and intense desire to eat a whole bunch more of whatever you just ate.
Trailer Park Banitza is best served warm, alongside a cup of Nescafe and a good book on the sunny balcony of your bloc apartment.