Between the Layers: How to Make Burek
Lina Sergie Attar
On a hot August afternoon, I was in the kitchen planning a Ramadan iftar. The act of preparing a dish is as much about memory as tasting it. My personal memories involve making burek. Although this tradition stems from my paternal Turkish great-grandmother, the top burek chef in my family is my mother. Burek, is a pastry made of thin layers of dough that holds any variety of fillings: cheese; spinach; meat; the possibilities are endless. It is often described as a kind of pie, but it is more like a savory baklava.
Making burek is a commitment, a physical commitment, it is opposite of my usual “efficient” process of cooking with three burners and an oven all going at the same time. The process forces you to slow down dramatically, there is no multitasking, everything must be prepared and ready, the filling, the melted butter, the tray, the dough, the brush, all laid out in order. You begin the repetitive movements, slowly lift a paper-thin sheet of pastry, and place it carefully on top of the other, then move a butter-dipped brush across the new layer. Over and over, a rhythmic meditation.
They say musicians over the years, develop memory in their fingers. My fingers have a culinary memory, holding three generations and three countries within them, as my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother guide my motions. But while your movements may slow, your thoughts do not. Your thoughts are racing, rushing across time and geographies, stitching together disparate recollections between the layers.
Ramadan is all about beginnings and ends, from anticipating the birth of a new moon, to watching the silver crescent slowly dissolve. And like the month, Ramadan meals are all about the unforgettable starters and finales. When the sun kisses the horizon, iftar begins with a silent prayer, as parched lips touch the glass of precious water and taste the sweetness of a date. Contrary to popular belief, iftar is not about the quantity of food, for as anyone who fasts will tell you, after a few bites you are full. But those few bites need to to satisfy all cravings, to satiate every taste bud. Combining as many textures and flavors possible is the brilliance of the classic iftar: the delightful Ramadan drinks, tangy tamer hindi and sweet amar din; the soothing creaminess of a hot lentil soup; the crisp, cooling fattoush salad; the spicy, nutty muhammarah dip; and the sheer perfection of the buttery, flaky, cheesy burek. The middles are distractions, everyday variables of rice, a meat, and a vegetable, utterly unimportant fillers that must be tolerated before the best part of the meal: dessert. And, the grand finale, my beloved, bitter, caffeinated coffee.
Ramadan desserts belong to the street not the kitchen. My favorite desserts take you on a culinary tour across the Aleppo from Sallora for kanafeh, to the tiny shop on the corner in al-Jamiliyyeh where the same man has stood for decades in front of a massive caldron of hot oil, frying luqum, literally “bites” of fried dough dipped in syrup. And the ultimate Ramadan exclusive, ghazel el-banat, “girls’ seduction,” the most romantic name for a dessert, fluffy white clouds of spun sugar, that melt in your mouth, only to surprise you with toasted Aleppo pistachios suspended in the nest of sweet threads.
When you have layered half of the dough, it is time to spread the filling evenly and begin to the layer the top half. As I concentrated perfecting this crucial distribution, I remembered last year when I was in Aleppo during the first few days of Ramadan, for the first time in years. The last day I was there, I went to taraweeh prayers at my favorite mosque, al-Radwan, home to my favorite imam, Sheikh Abd al-Hadi Badleh, whose face I have never seen, but whose moving voice is etched into my memory. After the long prayers, people did not linger, the women rushed out in droves, they had families to tend to, shopping to do for tomorrow’s meal, as the city bustles with energy every Ramadan night. But I sat on my prayer rug, under the black, starry sky, waiting. I listened to the post-prayer rituals of the super-devout, the recitation of Surat Tabarak, the passing of masabeh beads between fingers. I waited, for Sheikh Abd al-Hadi’s parting words, a question, Kayfa amsaytom?, How was your evening? I don’t know why those two words always affected me, but I could never leave the mosque before hearing them.
I spread the final layer, taut and smooth, tucking its edges neatly, the way my grandmother taught me how to make a perfect bed. I seal it with the remaining butter, and begin to carefully cut the burek into perfect squares, holding the serrated knife like I used to hold the x-acto knife during my architecture school days, for some finger memories are mine alone. My thoughts drift to the Sheikh’s question. The translation is missing an essential element, in Arabic, amsaytum is a verb, “evening” is an action. We tend to think of Ramadan as a lazy month, to eat and sleep, but it is intended to be a busy month of prayer, of charity, of devotion, of action. This Ramadan in Syria, is the month of action, of struggle, as every night presents another chance to fight for freedom. Our young men, leave the mosques to the streets to chant, to protest, to die. This year, Sheikh Abd al-Hadi’s question is his farewell, as they walk into a night that may be their last.
The word burek, comes from the Turkish root “to twist,” to twist the layers into a shape that will protect the filling. Unbaked, the layers of dough are extremely fragile and brittle, but the heat transforms them, the butter reinforces them, in a magical chemical reaction, into delicate yet resilient, golden sheets. Together, the layers become a strong wall of protection, like the united chants of our brave warriors. I think of them as I place my completed, symmetrical tray into the hot oven. In the last moments of peace before slipping back to the everyday noise of life – it was mid-afternoon here, taraweeh time there – I shut the oven door, and I whisper to them, to Sheikh Abd al-Hadi, to Aleppo: Kayfa amsaytum?
Burek bil Jibneh / Cheese Burek *
1 package (16 ounces) phyllo pastry sheets
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup feta cheese
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon ground mint
1 tablespoon ground red pepper powder
1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Combine melted butter & oil.
3. In a medium bowl, combine filling ingredients. Mixture should be thick with no excess liquid.
4. Lightly coat a 13” x 16” baking sheet with butter/oil mix using a pastry brush.
5. Unfold room temperature phyllo dough on flat, clean surface. NOTE: the dough is very delicate and dries quickly. Keep unused dough covered with a lightly dampened dish cloth or paper towel.
6. Spread first sheet on the tray, folding edges neatly. Brush sheet with butter/oil mix.
7. Repeat step 6 with half the sheets (about 10-12 sheets).
8. Spread filling evenly across the entire tray. It should be about 1/2” thick.
9. Repeat step 6 with remaining phyllo sheets.
- Save a perfect sheet for final layer. Tuck edges under, and brush generously with remaining butter/oil mix.
- Using a very sharp knife, carefully cut the pastry into equal 3” squares.
- Bake for 30 minutes or until top is crisp and golden.
- Serve immediately after baking.
NOTE: For higher efficiency (since I cannot resist shortcuts), you can prepare multiple trays and freeze before baking.
* Recipe adapted from my mother, who adapted it from her mother-in-law who adapted it from her mother. It is published in Ramadan Spreads: a collection of recipes, memories, and traditions.