Breads & Savory Bakes

Turkish Spinach Pie or Cheese Pie (Borek)

Turkish Spinach Pie or Cheese Pie (Borek)

Turkish Spinach Pie (Ispanakli Borek)

One of my favorite categories of dishes in the amazing Turkish cuisine is the borek category. Borek (börek) is a savory pie. There are tons of  borek recipes across Turkey – the regional varieties come in all sizes and shapes – small and big rolls, spirals, bundles, envelopes – differing in the fillings used. Albeit their differences, one thing that unites them all is their foundation –  yufka (it is called yukha in Azerbaijan), a paper thin flatbread baked from a simple dough made from water, flour and salt. The yufka encases savory fillings made with meat, spinach, cheese, zucchini, mushrooms, potato and other ingredients. Phyllo dough that sells in the US makes a great substitute for yufka but because phyllo is much thinner than yufka, more layers of the former go into a single borek.

This recipe for layered spinach borek made with yufka comes from my mother-in-law’s recipe collection. She is the best borek maker I have known and made us all addicted to them.

You can use the same recipe to make borek with cheese filling (variation given), ground meat filling or any other filling you fancy as well. Look for Turkish yufka in the freezer section of most Turkish/Middle Eastern markets and even in online Turkish stores. Bring the flatbreads to room temperature before using.

Enjoy!

Turkish Spinach Pie (Ispanakli Borek)

Ingredients

yufka flatbreads about 20 inches in diameter, or 2 larges ones – cut one into half to obtain 3 pieces total.

For the Spinach Filling: *
4 tablespoons olive oil or butter
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 pound fresh spinach
1/2 cup coarsely crumbled feta cheese (or any other white cheese)
Salt (if cheese is not salted) and ground black pepper, to taste

For the Milky Wash:
1 cup milk
2 eggs (reserve 1 egg yolk for the top)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder (optional – but is said to give the layers a nice “lift”)
1/3 cup olive oil

For the Glaze:
1 reserved egg yolk + a few tablespoons milk or plain yogurt
Sesame seeds or Nigella sativa seeds

Directions

Prepare the filling: Heat the oil or butter in a medium frying pan. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is light golden. Remove from the heat and set aside. Meanwhile, cut the spinach coarsely and place in a large bowl. Sprinkle about 2 tablespoon water and a generous few pinches of salt on top. Rub the spinach with your hands until it is well wilted. Taking a handful at a time, squeeze the spinach to remove all the moisture (discard the released juices), until the spinach is dry. In a bowl, combine the onion, spinach, and cheese. If using unsalted cheese, season the filling with salt. Season with black pepper to taste (sometimes, crushed red pepper is added too, to taste, but it is optional). Set aside.

Prepare the wash to moisten the layers: In a bowl, combine all the ingredients for the wash. Whisk gently to blend. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 380F.

Steps 1-4

Assemble the borek: Lightly grease a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish (I used a Pyrex dish). Layer the first yufka in the pan so that the sides are overhanging (best is one side is overhangling more than the other, so that it covers the top completely later). Evenly drizzle 1/3 of the milky wash on top of this layer. Arrange the second yufka by ruffling it so that it fits the pan without overhanging. Drizzle half of the remaining wash on top. Spread the filling evenly over this layer. Cover the filling with another “ruffled” yufka:  moisten with the remaining wash. Bring the overhanging yufka to the top and cover the top completely.

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Meat Stuffed Flatbread (Et Gutabi)

Cooking the Gutabs, Filled Flatbreads, on a Saj

It has been more than a year since my last trip to Azerbaijan. Memories are still hovering fresh above my head and it feel like I was there yesterday. I do miss many things about that trip. I miss our trip to Balaken and Zagatala in particular. It was a bittersweet trip, however, as I was no longer to see my dear grandmother who passed away a year before and to whom I did not have a chance to say good bye. But life had to go on and I was happy to see the familiar places again, my relatives who live there and who made our trip particularly memorable with their warmth and unparalleled hospitality, very much characteristic of the region.

Knowing that I was ever hungry for pictures of local delicacies and for sampling them too, they made sure they satisfied my unceasing cravings. One day, it was a makhara day (makhara is the local crepe, but different and original), another day it was surhullu (pasta dish prepared with dried meat), then one day we gathered for a gutab feast. Gutab is the general name given to half-moon shaped stuffed flatbreads, popular all over the country. The stuffing can be made with fresh herbs, butternut squash, ground lamb of beef, or farmer cheese – you name it. The process goes like this – you make the dough, roll it,  stuff it, fold it and cook it (typically on a saj) then butter its top while still hot. Meat stuffed flatbreads can be cooked on a saj, a dome shaped pan that is heated underneath, or they can be fried in oil in a frying pan. The latter method, however is frowned upon in the northwest and is never used. If you ask me, I personally like saj-cooked flatbreads and that’s how my family has been making gutabs of all sorts.

Gutabs that you see in these pictures are rather big because we were too many to feed, so we thought that making our flatbreads big could save us a lot of time and could sate our appetites faster.

The recipe  that I am suggesting below yields medium-size flatbreads, that are more typical in the country, and they should fit in your medium size pan easily. Also, I am offering two ways to cook the flatbreads, on a saj or a gridde without butter and in a pan, with butter. As I mentioned above, saj is the way to go in the northwest and in my kitchen too.  But it’s your choice. Without much ado, here it comes – the making of gutabs, step by step. Enjoy!

Make the dough, divide it into balls and begin rolling each ball like this…

Rolling out the dough for Azerbaijani filled flatbread

Roll more, until you obtain a thin circle.

Stuffing the flatbread with meat

Spread some meat mixture on one half of a circle.

Filled flatbread ready to cook

Fold the other half of the circle over the filling and press the edges to seal.

Buttering the Filled Flatbreads

Cook the flatbreads on a heated saj, then stack them on top of one another, buttering their tops while they are still hot. (Note that the flatbread on the left of the tray is somewhat overcooked – black blisters is a signal that the heat needs to be moderated! It is still edible though). Nush olsun!

Oh, wait, I forgot to mention something. There was also samovar tea party after the gutab party! Tea from samovar in the countryside is something everyone should try at least once in a lifetime. Seriously. Samovar tea rocks.

Samovar

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