Weekend Project: Lazy Phyllo Pastries
No kneading, rolling, or stretching involved.
Like many other first-generation Americans, I’ve had my fair share of “Which culture do I belong to?” spirals. But the one thing that never fails to reel me back to my parents’ heritage is the food I grew up eating—recipes that have been passed down from great relatives, transferred from index card to memory, and taste like childhood.
For Ariana Tolka, co-founder of Balkan Bites, that recipe was the stuffed phyllo swirl known as burek. Born in New Jersey to a Croatian mother and Albanian father from Kosovo, Tolka spent her summers in the Balkans, feasting on multi-course, family-made meals.
Tolka’s aunt and partner, Alida Malushi, had a background in journalism. When the rumblings of the Kosovo War started to take hold, and her news station shut down, she immigrated to the U.S. Here, she enrolled in culinary school, became a professional pastry chef, and opened up her own bakery. But when her mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimers, she put everything on hold to take care of her.
“After my grandmother passed away, I really wanted to make sure that I retained her recipes. So I started spending time at my aunt’s house, and she would teach me how to make different traditional recipes on the weekends,” Tolka explained to me. “One day we were making burek and just talking about how hard it was to find out in the market, especially frozen burek that you could easily prepare at home.”
So Tolka and Malushi started selling their burek at outdoor markets, debuting at the World's Fare food festival in Queens, and eventually making their way over to Urbanspace in Manhattan. “Our mission was really to bring Balkan food to people who haven’t tried it before,” Tolka says. “At that time, it was great because you could really connect in person and have longer-form conversations with the customers about where they’re from, or what food in their culture is similar to our food.”
By March of 2020, the duo had a promising momentum, attending a foodservice trade show at the Javits Center and connecting with potential customers. But the next week, everything shut down, and Balkan Bites quickly made a pivot. “We knew we could freeze our product because we had been freezing it and then baking it at the markets,” Tolka explains. They started out simply—printing labels at home, advertising on Instagram, delivering for free—and quickly found success, eventually launching a Shopify store and shipping nationwide.
But burek was not the only item sold at the markets. The underrated player was their homemade baklava. “People keep asking us about it, but we haven’t yet figured out a way to freeze it,” Tolka says. Luckily, she shared her family recipe with me, altering it with store-bought phyllo dough for ease.Tolka and Malushi’s favorite already-made phyllo brand is The Fillo Factory, and I was able to find it easily in the frozen aisle of my local market. The other essential ingredients are walnuts, lemon, and golden raisins. “You won’t always see raisins in Baklava recipes, but my family likes to make it this way, because it doesn’t turn out too sweet,” Tolka says.
The technique for this recipe is less like baking, and more like a therapeutic session of arts and crafts. The thawed sheets of phyllo dough take the form of tissue paper, and the assembly is really a matter of laying a few sheets down in a rectangular pan, sprinkling over a walnut and raisin mixture, and then repeating. And it doesn’t have to be perfect. “If the sheets stick up a bit from the sides of the pan, you can just fold them over the top,” Tolka says.
Throughout the process, I mistakenly separated a sheet or two too early from the pile, and they dried out and cracked when I picked them up. To avoid this, you can wrap the pile in a damp kitchen towel to keep them pliable.
Once the layers were done, I poured a cup of melted butter over the finished product (this might seem like a lot of butter, but it’ll permeate through the layers). Tolka’s favorite butter to use is a European style butter called Plugra. “It has a higher butter fat content, so it gets crispy but not as burnt,” she says.
Once the baklava was in the oven, I worked on the syrup, which calls for the boiling of sugar, lemon slices, water, and honey. As someone who prefers not-too-sweet desserts, I skimped a bit on the amount of sugar, but that was a mistake, because the liquid failed to achieve a perfect syrupy consistency. If you’re having this issue, I recommend adding cornstarch to thicken things up.
It took about an hour for the baklava to obtain a golden-brown color, after which I poured over the homemade syrup. Because the baklava contracted a bit in the pan while baking, the syrup spilled over the sides, into the bottom of the pan. The result was a bite that was flaky on top, and a little bit soggy—but in the best way possible—on the bottom.
After cutting the baklava into smaller pieces with a sharp knife, I was so satisfied to see the intricacy of the layers. The tartness of the raisins really did balance out the sugary syrup, but my favorite touch was the sliced lemon, which caramelized on the stovetop.
If you prefer to try your hand at a savory recipe, similar to burek, Tolka and Malushi have also shared a spinach and cheese phyllo pie recipe, which you can find below.
Baklava: Makes 24 pieces
- 1 cup (2 sticks/225 g) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for the pan
- 1 pound (455 g) walnuts
- 3 cups (600 g) plus ¼ cup (50 g) granulated cane sugar
- Zest of ½ lemon
- 1 pound (455 g) phyllo dough (24 phyllo sheets), thawed (when buying store bought phyllo dough look for the one that is #4 thickness and 14x18 inches like this one from the Fillo Factory)
- ½ cup (80 g) golden raisins
- 1 lemon, sliced
- 3 tablespoons honey
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter a deep 9 x 13-inch (23 x 33 cm) baking pan that has sides at least 2 inches (5 cm) deep. (If you use a smaller pan, just cut the phyllo sheets to fit).
- Pulse the walnuts, ¼ cup (50 g) of the sugar, and the lemon zest in a food processor until finely chopped. You should end up with about 4 cups.
- Cut the twenty-four phyllo sheets in half crosswise. You should have forty-eight sheets that measure about 9 x 14 inches.
- Lay fourteen phyllo sheets in the pan, then spread about 2/3 cup (85 g) of the walnut mixture and about 1½ tablespoons of the raisins on the top sheet.
- Place four more phyllo sheets on top, then add the walnuts and raisins as in the previous step. Repeat this step four more times, ending with fourteen phyllo sheets on top.
- Melt the butter and pour over the baklava.
- Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until golden brown.
- Combine the remaining 3 cups (600 g) sugar, the lemon, and 2 cups (480 ml) water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook over medium-low heat until it reaches a syrup consistency, about 15 minutes. Add the honey, stir to combine, and remove from the heat.
- Remove the baklava from the oven, pour the hot syrup over it, and let it rest. Keep uncovered until it cools to room temperature, then refrigerate until serving.
- Before serving, cut with a sharp knife into twenty-four squares (six lengthwise by four widthwise) and serve at room temperature.
Spinach and Cheese Phyllo Pie
- 1 pkg of 1 pound phyllo dough thawed overnight in the refrigerator and the next day at room temperature (when buying store bought phyllo dough look for the one that is #7 thickness and 14x18 in like this one from the Fillo Factory)
- 1 lb fresh spinach, washed, dried, roughly chopped
- 1 lb ricotta cheese
- 1/2 lb feta cheese, crumbled (we prefer to use sheep’s milk feta)
- 1 egg, beaten
- Salt to taste, depends on saltiness of feta
- 1 stick unsalted butter, melted and mixed with 1/4 of a cup of extra virgin olive oil (we like to use a European Style butter like Plugra).
- Prepare the phyllo pastry by opening the package and laying out the sheets to come to room temperature, keep them covered with a wet kitchen towel to prevent them from drying out.
- Prepare the filling by mixing the chopped spinach, ricotta and feta cheese, beaten egg and salt to taste. Because the feta is salty, first add 1/2 tsp salt and check to see if it’s necessary to add more.
- Preheat the oven to 400 F.
- Lightly brush a 13 x 9 - inch pan with melted butter.
- Lay down one sheet of thawed phyllo dough and brush it with melted butter. Continue with 5 more sheets of buttered phyllo. Spread the filling over the base.
- Continue in the same manner, laying down the next 6 sheets on top of the filling, brushing each one with melted butter.
- Brush the last layer liberally with remaining butter, trimming excess edges of phyllo or turning them and folding toward the center.
- Cut the top of the pie, not all the way through, into squares.
- Place in the preheated oven and reduce the temperature to 375 F. Bake about 45 minutes, or until the top is golden.
- Let cool slightly, cut, and enjoy.