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Recipe: Cheesy Balkan treat merges phyllo, cheese and heaven

  • TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
                                A slice of Balkan cheese pie made by Monica Obradovic.

    TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

    A slice of Balkan cheese pie made by Monica Obradovic.

For many Balkan women, making this dish is like a reflex. Its technique gets passed down from generation to generation.

For my baba, gibanica is a cheese and phyllo- dough creation she lovingly feeds (overfeeds?) her family. For Loryn Nalic of Balkan Treat Box in St. Louis, the same dish is called sirnica, one of the first Balkan recipes she learned. For me, it’s the cheese-filled wonder I’d always hoped to learn to make, partly as a way of carrying on my family’s heritage, partly because it’s so delicious.

My dad’s family came to the U.S. when he was 8. He later married my Italian mother. Unfortunately, not many of my dad’s Serbian traditions were handed down to my two brothers and me. We don’t speak Serbian (except for curse words — thanks, Uncle Dennis), we don’t go to Serbian church, and we definitely don’t roast a whole pig on a spit in our front yard.

But what we do have is gibanica.

Gibanica is to Serbs what pizza is to Americans. It’s a simple dish consisting mostly of eggs, cheese and oil sandwiched between layers of phyllo dough. People eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, a snack, even to fix hangovers.

Every time my family goes to visit my Serbian grandmother, or baba, we joke how the whole neighborhood smells like Serbian food. No matter how much my father stresses that “we’re just stopping by,” Baba will make enough food to feed a small village. There’s never enough gibanica, though.

It’s the first food my family eats at gatherings, and it’s the first food to disappear.

Everything about it evokes nostalgia in me: the gooey, cheesy texture; the crunch of the outside layers. If you can ignore the calories, you can’t go wrong with gibanica.

There’s no one way to make gibanica, the same way there isn’t a single way to make a hamburger. Almost every Balkan or Slavic country has a version or a similar dish. Many countries make burek, a phyllo dough-based pie stuffed with beef and sometimes cheese. Greeks have their spinach pie, spanakopita.

When I asked Balkan Treat Box’s owner and chef, Loryn Nalic, about the dish, she knew it as “sirnica.”

“It’s one of my kids’ favorite dishes,” Nalic says. “It was the first thing I learned to make when Edo and I were together because he loves it so much.”

Loryn and her husband, Edo, turned their food truck into a brick-and-mortar restaurant last year to national acclaim. They invited me into their restaurant on a Monday afternoon, when the day was dim but the wood fire in their oven burned bright.

Nalic makes her sirnica with fresh dough and cheese she makes herself. I use store-bought phyllo dough and cottage cheese. Loryn lines dollops of cheese and rolls the filling with the dough into one big coil. I sprinkle oil and cheese on layer after layer of dough.

“It’s a pretty universally loved dish,” Nalic says.

It’s a very simple dish once you get the technique down. There’s a certain way to handle the dough, whether you’re making it yourself or buying it from a store.

Homemade phyllo, on the other hand, is complex. Nalic says the first time she watched someone make phyllo dough from scratch, it brought tears to her eyes. “It is an art form,” she says.

When I saw Nalic and her mother-in-law, Zeta, make and stretch the phyllo dough, I was near tears, too. The way she expertly expanded the dough on a table brought to my mind the countless generations of Balkan women teaching their daughters how to make it and how that knowledge spread to my grandmother through a great-grandmother I never met, and now me.

Each time I ask Baba for a recipe (there have been many times), she’ll recite the ingredients and say, “Just make it.” I asked her to teach me how to make it again for this article, with pen and paper in hand.

Now, I’m the one making the neighborhood smell like Serbian food.

GIBANICA

  • 7 eggs
  • 1 -1/2 pounds cottage cheese
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 pound farmers’ cheese or feta, crumbled
  • 3 tablespoons soda water
  • 2 pounds phyllo dough, preferably the thickest, “country-style” type, thawed if frozen
  • 2/3 cup corn oil, divided

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Grease bottom of an extra-large baking pan, preferably 11-by-16-inches (or use the deepest metal baking pan you have, at least 2-1/2 inches deep).

Whisk eggs in a large bowl, then stir in cottage cheese, salt, baking powder and farmers’ cheese. Stir in soda water. Set aside.

Cover bottom of pan with a single layer of phyllo dough; dough should hang over the sides. Evenly sprinkle 1 tablespoon oil over dough.

Take another piece of phyllo dough and wrinkle it into the dish with as many bumps as possible so it doesn’t lie flat. Depending on the size of your pan, use 2 to 3 pieces of dough to fill pan. Evenly sprinkle 1 tablespoon oil over dough, including sides and corners. Do not let oil pool.

Sprinkle 1/2 to 3/4 cup egg-and-cheese mixture over dough, including sides, enough to make sure edges and crevices are covered. Do not allow the mixture to pool.

Repeat laying down 2 to 3 pieces of wrinkled dough and sprinkling them with oil and egg-and-cheese mixture until you have 1 layer of dough left. Cover dish with that last layer, folding in any excess on the sides. Cover top with a final layer of egg-and-cheese mixture and oil.

Bake 40 minutes or until top turns golden brown and sides separate from pan. Serves 10.

Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 568 calories, 30 g total fat, 9 g saturated fat, 43 mg cholesterol, 21 g protein, 53 g carbohydrate, 4 g sugar, 2 g fiber, 1,139 mg sodium, 260 mg calcium.

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