My neighbor and I constantly exchange food. When I bake a batch of brownies or try out a new recipe, I bring her some.
She brings up soups, desserts (her best being tiramisu) and sometimes jams. The other day she brought me up what she told me was börek. It didn’t look like any börek that I’d seen in the börek shops -- lovely flakey layered dough baked with various ingredients in the middle such as potatoes, spinach or ground beef -- but of course I tried it and it was amazing!
One bite into her börek told me that I was onto something great here. It was incredible. Suddenly I felt like I had been cut short. Much like içli köfte, I am just now discovering that the homemade version tops the commercial style regardless of where you get it and no matter how great the commercial place is.
So of course I asked her for the recipe. She volunteered to make it with me the first time and so we worked together in my tiny kitchen to reproduce her spinach and leek börek.
The dough used for homemade börek is called yufka. It’s thin but pliable -- think of it as a thick phyllo dough. You can get it packaged in the supermarket or you can get it fresh from the yufka stores sprinkled around İstanbul. To make börek, three pieces of yufka are enough. You have to handle it gently, though, because it rips very easily.
Working alongside a Turkish woman in the kitchen is interesting. She told stories about how her mother had taught her to make this same dish and told me that my carelessness with the olive oil would have incurred her mother’s wrath. “My mother would kill you if you handled olive oil like that. Do you know what goes into making it? If you knew, you would treat it much more preciously.”
I had to grease the baking dish with my hand and not a paper towel (“Are you crazy? You waste so much that way! My mother would kill you.”)
After mixing the ingredients and putting the börek in the oven, we sat down and chatted until it was done (about 30 or 40 minutes). She told me about the place that she grew up near an olive orchard and how her mother would work long and hard to extract oil from the olives. This drummed into her at an early age that olive oil should be handled like a precious commodity; she did her best to impart that feeling to me, too, in our brief cooking session.
Spinach and leek börek (makes eight large pieces):
Grease a large, rectangular baking dish (48cm x 28cm) with olive oil and set it aside.
Preheat your oven to 170 degrees Celsius / 360 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wash and chop one-half kilo of spinach and mix it with two finely chopped leeks and one cup of grated kaşar cheese (you can use any cheese you want -- including white cheese).
In a separate bowl blend two eggs, two cups of milk and one-half cup of olive oil.
Open one of the three yufkas and place it so that it is exactly in the center of the baking dish (the dough will hang over all of the edges) and spread one-third of the spinach mixture in the middle. Fold the extra dough over the top of the filling and wet it down with the milk, oil and egg mixture -- it’s helpful to use a large serving spoon for this part.
Open the second yufka for the next layer exactly in the middle like you did with the first one. This time, you will wet it down with some of the liquid mixture before adding the spinach filling. (My neighbor said that if you put liquid on the bottom layer, the börek will stick). Add the filling and a little more liquid and fold over the edges like before.
Repeat the second step one more time, and then use the rest of the liquid over the top. Be sure to moisten every part of the exposed dough at this point so that you don’t end up with a dry finished product. Bake uncovered for 30-40 minutes until you have a lovely brown crust on top. Cut it while it’s still hot and then let it sit for 20 minutes before serving.
Much like its commercial counterpart, I realized that even homemade börek still seemed a little on the greasy side of the food chain. So I decided to experiment and came up with what I am calling börek lasagna.
First I made a basic tomato sauce by stir-frying two garlic cloves (crushed and chopped), a couple of non-spicy green peppers and an onion (chopped) in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil for a couple of minutes. I added some cumin, isot pepper (smoked, crushed red pepper), salt, black pepper, basil and thyme. Next, I added to that five peeled and chopped tomatoes and a one-half cup of vegetable stock (you can use water) and let that cook for about five minutes. I then added two teaspoons of tomato paste, a chopped zucchini and one-half of a peeled and julienned celery root. I let this simmer until the celery root was completely cooked and then I pureed it into a thick, smooth sauce.
I kept with the spinach and leek mixture, but this time I used three-quarters cup of Emmental cheese and one-quarter cup of parmesan.
In a separate bowl I made the same börek “sauce” of milk, egg and oil, but reduced it by half -- one cup of milk, one egg and one-quarter cup of olive oil.
To put it together, layer the börek much like with the original recipe (including no sauce or liquids for the first layer to prevent sticking -- just the spinach, leek and cheese mixture). Because you have the tomato sauce, there is less need for the milk, egg and oil mixture. Use it sparingly as you put your three layers together, but use it generously over the top layer so that everything on the surface is damp.
Bake for 30-40 minutes until it is browned on the top. Slice the börek while it is still hot. Let it cool down for about 20 minutes before serving.
Börek stores very well. You can keep it for a week in the refrigerator. Or you can freeze it and keep it for up to three months. To freeze the börek, put the individually cut pieces of börek on a cookie sheet that has a non-stick surface and put it into the freezer for about an hour. Take the frozen börek off of the cookie sheet and put them into a plastic bag -- try to get all of the air out of the bag to prevent freezer burn. When you want to eat it, put the desired number of pieces onto a baking dish and pop them into a hot oven (170 degrees Celsius / 360 degrees Fahrenheit). It will take them about 30 minutes to thaw and heat up thoroughly, but when they come out of the oven, they will taste as fresh and delicious as the day that you made them.
Satisfied with my savory experiment, I decided to try to make a börek dessert. I went back to the yufka seller and asked him if he had a recipe for such a dessert. “No way.” He stated seriously, “You can only make savory börek with yufka.”
However, not being one to take no for an answer, I decided to experiment with a dessert idea. I decided to make apple pie börek by making the traditional filling of an apple pie, adding vanilla and sugar to the milk mixture and using melted butter instead of olive oil. It came out OK in a bread-pudding kind of way, but if you want more of an apple pie texture, go with the traditional crust or use a puff pastry. Yufka guy -- 1, Brooks -- 0.
Now, with the savory börek, the sky is the limit. You can use any combination of any desired vegetable and any kind of cheese -- just keep the proportions the same, don’t wet down the first level and slice your veggies fairly thin lest they bulk up too much and make your three-tiered creation difficult to cook.
Personally, I loved my lasagna börek the most. It’s easier to make than an actual lasagna and it tastes almost the same to me. For the other börek, I’ll just wait for my neighbor to ring my bell; I know that our exchanges will continue for quite some time.